For the past century, most of our food has been produced on large-scale farms, mainly in rural areas. However, with the increasing world population, it may not be possible to keep up with demand using this traditional method of farming. Vertical farming could provide an alternative to this unsustainable and costly process by growing crops indoors in skyscrapers instead of under the sun. But what exactly is vertical farming? How do they grow food indoors? And are they successful in terms of yields and sustainability? Here’s what you should know about vertical farming before making any major investments in this new trend.
Vertical farming isn’t new
Until a couple decades ago, when we went vertical, it was called growing. But recently, vertical farming has taken off as a way to produce food in cities where land is at a premium and traditional farming isn’t possible. For example, take aeroponic farms. These futuristic indoor farming facilities don’t use soil at all; instead they use aeroponics—the roots are suspended in air and constantly sprayed with nutrient-rich water and oxygen. Aerofarms, on the other hand, are more like greenhouses than traditional skyscrapers: They grow crops in soil but stack them vertically for efficiency. Both approaches have their advantages and disadvantages—and both will be crucial if we want to feed our planet’s booming population while keeping our cities clean and green.
Urban vertical farms are already profitable
In urban areas, there are already several vertical farms that sell their produce at farmer’s markets. In 2008, a company called Aerofarms built an indoor farm in New Jersey that provides year-round crops with no pesticides or herbicides. Recently, Plenty, a new vertical farming startup out of Silicon Valley raised $200 million to grow produce for local grocery stores and restaurants on-site via hydroponics. Vertical farming is not just for startups either; public companies are getting involved too. AeroFarms recently received $30 million from Goldman Sachs. In addition, plenty has raised over $300 million from investors including SoftBank Vision Fund, Alibaba Group Holding Ltd., and Amazon Inc. founder Jeff Bezos. And if you don’t live near a city, don’t worry—you can still get your hands on fresh greens grown in controlled environments. Just visit your local Whole Foods Market!
Just how much food can vertical farms produce?
According to a 2011 study, a one-acre vertical farm could produce anywhere from 200,000 to 400,000 pounds of produce per year. That’s enough fresh veggies and herbs to feed as many as 1,400 people for an entire year! With aeroponic farming—where roots dangle in air instead of soil—vertical farms can thrive even in cold temperatures (for example at greenhouses located on a frigid mountainside). They just need more heat lamps…and lots and lots of water. A ton of it. In fact, according to some estimates, producing a single pound of lettuce requires about 1,799 gallons of water; with traditional methods that figure is closer to 50 gallons. That’s why a lot of vertical farmers are turning to hydroponics—watering plants directly via their roots. By eliminating soil altogether, these farms are able to save tons of water while producing high yields.
How many crops can grow vertically in an urban setting?
A number of crops can easily be grown in vertical farms. Plenty, a startup based in San Francisco, California is currently working on building a vertical farm that will house 6 million plants at any given time. Aeroponic farming can be used to grow tomatoes and salad greens while aquaponic farming works well for tilapia and strawberries. Both systems deliver more food per square foot than traditional open field agriculture. In addition, there are new developments in controlled environment agriculture (CEA) which includes hydroponics (growing plants without soil) and aeroponics (growing plants without soil or water). An advantage of CEA is it allows growing year-round no matter what climate you live in. Since CEA uses much less water than conventional farming it has great potential for use with drought-stricken areas like California’s Central Valley where water resources are stretched thin by over-pumping from wells.
While some crops can grow vertically, they aren’t all good candidates
crops that grow underground can’t be grown vertically, for example. Plants that don’t have long roots and reach down into soil aren’t good candidates either. Crops with very fragile stems, like snap peas or berries, won’t do well in vertical farming either. And plants that need a lot of space to spread out their leaves—like lettuce—won’t work either. However, there are plenty of crops that will thrive when grown vertically. These include tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, cucumbers, squash and strawberries. There are also plenty of herbs that do well in vertical farms as well. Some examples include basil, mints and cilantro.
Why vertical farming will be more than just lettuce
In many ways, vertical farming is like traditional agriculture—the difference being that everything happens inside. Instead of harvesting a variety of crops, vertical farmers grow one or two crops at a time and often use controlled-environment technology to mimic specific growing conditions. What makes vertical farming unique from traditional agriculture is its scalability and its ability to urbanize food production. Imagine green skyscrapers with vegetation sprouting from every window; that’s an example of what we might see in the future. And because these farms can be located near densely populated areas, they could provide fresh produce for people who don’t have access to it otherwise. This could also help alleviate problems related to transportation and spoilage. And while vertical farming has yet to take off on a large scale, there are plenty of startups around the world looking into it as well as companies such as Philips that are working on LED lights designed specifically for indoor farms.
Are there other reasons that vertical farming might not take off in urban areas?
Plenty Vertical Farm wants to bring fresh, locally grown produce to urban areas. A lot has been written about how vertical farming will take over in cities as traditional farming moves away from city centers. One argument that doesn’t get mentioned is that people don’t want all that organic food — it would be too expensive for most people who already spend a high percentage of their income on food. Organic foods cost more because they aren’t mass-produced using chemicals and fertilizers. This means they are often more expensive than conventionally grown foods. In fact, according to Consumer Reports , only 5% of Americans buy mostly organic foods, and even fewer eat exclusively organic foods (1%). It seems likely that there are plenty of reasons why vertical farming might not take off in urban areas: plenty vertical farming .
Successful indoor farms have adopted a management style pioneered by Japanese industries. Is it viable for others to use this model for urban growing operations?
Japanese companies developed a system called kaizen in the 1970s, which has been described as continuous improvement. It is a management technique that includes many steps, including asking employees for ideas on how to improve processes and products, implementing those ideas, gathering feedback on how well it worked, and then repeating that process. This results in steady improvements—sometimes small, sometimes large—that add up over time. In vertical farming, one way to implement kaizen would be by starting with a low-cost growing operation (such as one using LEDs) and slowly improving upon it through experimentation with different types of lighting or nutrients. After each change, you’d gather data on what works best and what doesn’t work at all before moving forward again. In essence, you’d be using trial-and-error methods to gradually perfect your vertical farm.