Over time, farming practices have evolved to use less energy, pesticides, water and other needed inputs to grow the foods we depend on.
A type of farming that recently has grown in popularity is vertical farming. Building off the base concept of how greenhouses operate, this agricultural system allows for large-scale farming to occur on vertically inclined surfaces. Fruits and vegetables can be grown without the use of soil or natural sunlight, and the produce is often able to grow faster than it does in a traditional farm setting. A key advantage of vertical farms is that they can operate in urban areas and don’t require wide-open land; their vertical surfaces can be easily incorporated into a city’s existing structures and buildings.
Vertical farming has now been used in locations where large-scale farming previously has not been possible, such as in urban spaces throughout Brooklyn, New York and Chicago, Illinois. Vertical farming’s small land usage and positive environmental benefits have the potential to increase sustainability, lower food costs, and increase accessibility and food security across the country.
We’ve touched on vertical farming in previous posts, but to take a closer look, we caught up with expert Ricky Stephens, who works with Agritecture, a vertical farming and controlled environment agriculture (CEA) strategist group.
Q: What is vertical farming?
Vertical farming is the growing of crops in an indoor/controlled environment setting, in vertical stacks. Typically, vertical farming is done without using soil as the main practice. Instead, vertical farming uses practices like: hydroponics (growing plants in sand, gravel or liquid, with added nutrients but without soil), aeroponics (growing plants with roots suspended in air and nutrients delivered in a fine mist), or aquaponics (using the waste produced by farmed fish as nutrients for hydroponically grown plants).
Q: Why do you think vertical farming is being used as an alternative to traditional farming?
The top reasons for using vertical farming that come to mind for me include:
- Vertical farming uses significantly less water than traditional farming. Currently, global agriculture accounts for 70 percent of freshwater withdrawals (use of fresh water). Instead of using up so much water directly, vertical farming often utilizes indoor hydroponics to grow crops. Using a recirculating system to recycle water, indoor hydroponics uses up to 70 to 95 percent less water than would be used in a traditional outdoor in-soil setting.
- Vertical farming also eliminates the need for pesticides while reducing hazards. By balancing the use of beneficial insects, having heightened biosecurity protocols, and being in a well-controlled indoor environment, vertical farms can operate pesticide-free.
- Vertical farming reduces pressures on our overall land use and addresses our concerns surrounding land scarcity. Due to population growth and land degradation, we’re running out of arable land. Furthermore, with the over-development of certain urban areas into industrial-style buildings (factories, warehouses), there is a plethora of vacant and utilizable spaces in cities that are very close to consumers. These areas are suitable for creating controlled, crop-friendly environments that can further “eating local” efforts.
Q: Where do you see vertical farming being able to help our food supply chain from a supply and sustainability standpoint?
Vertical farming moves production closer to the point of consumption—this means potentially less food miles and increased vegetable access. Let’s take one example of a very commonly consumed and desired food item: leafy greens. Currently, 98 percent of the current U.S. leafy greens production occurs traditionally (as outdoor crops) in California and Arizona. Not only are these water-dense produce items grown in severely water-scarce regions, they are then shipped thousands of miles across the country (and sometimes around the world).
As an alternative, vertical farming can be very useful for the leafy greens industry. In fact, because vertical farming is indoors and unaffected by weather conditions, you can grow greater quantities of different types of leafy greens all year round. In turn, this food can be immediately injected into the local food supply, thereby increasing availability and decreasing food loss and food waste during transportation.
In the long term, vertical farms will increase the diversity of crop choices and become more focused on producing different varieties of highly nutritious and frequently consumed products like mushrooms and strawberries. Vertical farms will also play an integral role in our larger movement toward sustainability and supporting local and regional food systems.
Q: What advances do you think will occur/are needed for vertical farming in the next 5–10 years?
We need technology advances that allow normal people—not just tech entrepreneurs or those with monetary funds—to access fair financing for vertical farms. As it currently stands, vertical farming can be cost prohibitive to launch and start. For vertical farming to become more widely implemented there is a need for innovations and advances that bring down the high initial investment costs. The good news is this has started happening in the greenhouse space already.
Q: What ag (agricultural) technology excites you the most and why?
Soon we will need to feed upwards of 9 billion people in this world. On one hand, ag technology must be better utilized by farmers. On a more global and sustainable level, any technology that will push us all towards a more circular economy is exciting.
Agricultural technology supported by circular economy principles will begin exploring new business models, processes, and bio-stimulants that will play a major role in transforming our food system to be less wasteful and more regenerative.
Q: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
My team travels the world educating the broader public on the importance and potential of urban agriculture every chance we get. We have organized several of our own conferences in New York and Atlanta. It’s energizing to be working in a field with so many people who are fueled by honest passion and the pursuit of positive change.
We thank Ricky for his urban ag insights and look forward to seeing how more farming advances like vertical farming can positively impact our food system. To learn more about Agritecture and vertical farming, check out the company’s website here at www.agritecture.com.
Article was written by Lily Yang, Ph.D. Postdoctoral Research Associate at Virginia Tech in the Department of Food Science and Technology