What is it?
Vertical farming is a concept that rose to prominence almost a decade ago. In short, it is the concept of building dense farms in skyscrapers, designed for urban areas. We say it is a great concept, and there are companies that are pursuing this. Good thing too, with the world’s population forecasted to reach 9.8 billion in 2050 according to the UN (in 2017), and with 70% of the population residing in urban areas, we should surely expect to see a number of vertical farms popping up in cities!
How is it done?
Here are three of the more popular methods used in vertical farming:
- Hydroponics – a method in which plants are grown in nutrient-rich water. The plants are fixed in a hydroponic reservoir with the roots submerged in the nutrient-rich water. Therefore, no soil is involved and there are mineral nutrient solutions in the water. The actual foliage protrudes above the reservoir into the light, providing an optimal environment for the plants to grow effectively.
- Aeroponics – very similar to hydroponics; however, instead of submerging the roots in water, the crops’ roots are periodically sprayed with a mist containing water and nutrients. The plant’s roots are kept in an environment saturated with fine drops of nutrient solution.
- Aquaponics – this is taking the above a step further, using the same method as hydroponics, however, it includes conventional aquaculture (fish and some shellfish) in a symbiotic environment. The logic here is that the animal’s waste is broken down in the water to nutrients, to feed the plants.
This is just three of a multitude of techniques to do vertical farming. From these three, we already get the picture that this is a method that can be done in an efficient manner, can yield produce (both vegetable, fruit and fish) and can be condensed into a small space. But there are many other reasons as to why this method of farming is favourable.
Firstly, pests (and pesticides) can be minimised. The produce won’t be subject to soil erosion either. This is because water and nutrients can be applied in a precise fashion, in an environment that isn’t as exposed to nuisances like traditional farmland. Secondly, unlike traditional farmland, vertical farms go up instead of out. Therefore, what would normally be covered over 50 acres can be consolidated into two. Thirdly, this allows plants to be grown year round, and not seasonally. Finally, by locating vertical farms in the centre of cities, this will reduce long supply chains by reducing the time and distance in the farm to fork process (and the carbon footprint for that matter), preventing the need to use preservatives that have historically been used.
Where is it going?
As mentioned, some companies are experimenting with these techniques on the West Coast of America. They have started to yield produce in an economical fashion. However, in experimenting thus far, they have found the only problem is with slightly more luxurious/specialist produce which leads certain vegetables or fruits to be expensive. As they experiment with machine learning, experimenting with different methods and of course the use of good ol’ big data, this process will only become more efficient.
Now producers will be more inclined to produce the crops that yield the biggest profit. This means that some root vegetables will continue to be grown outside for some time yet. However as the process develops and more vertical farms start appearing, it will become mainstream for all types of crops to meet consumer demand.