Population growth and climate change mean that it’s more important than ever to secure food production to meet demand. Over the last decade, an increasing number of companies are stepping up to meet the challenge. One potential solution has been the rise of vertical farms. In essence, this is a way of growing food without the same kind of space demands that a traditional farm might have.
Crops are grown in beds, stacked on top of one another, and fed nutrients under electric lighting. The environment can be carefully controlled, allowing for small changes to be made based on circumstances and the crop being grown. All of the growing plants are given exactly the same proportion of light and feed, ensuring an even growth throughout. And there are other major benefits too, as explained by Urban Crops CEO Maarten Vandecruys:
“You don’t have the risk of contamination. Basically, inside the system, every day is a summer day without a cloud in the sky. We made an estimation with oak leaf lettuce and there we are actually at, say 5% [water consumption] compared to traditional growing in fields.”
The best part about vertical farms is that they can be installed inside disused urban buildings. Old factories and disused warehouses can be reinvented as vertical farms. As long as there is an adequate supply of water and power, any building could be home to a new farm.
The major problem facing vertical farms today is electricity supply. At current prices, the cost of powering the lights eats into any profit. Many find that high-yield, fast-growing crops are the most profitable, since the turnaround is so much faster. It’s possible in the future that vertical farms will switch over to renewable energy, especially if the cost of items like solar panels drops low enough.
There is also the issue of space—one of the main ‘green’ bonuses is that old buildings can be repurposed. However, inner city property is often very expensive, far more so than traditional farming land. It isn’t going to be an option for small companies or even individual farmers, it will only be an accessible business to those with access to serious funding.
It’s for this reason that vertical farming will likely take off in countries where food is more expensive to grow already. The United Arab Emirates, for example, is home to one of the largest vertical farms in the world. In 2015, the UAE imported an enormous 85% of its food, making the advent of vertical farming a welcome innovation. The farm is only 130,000 square feet, yet, will actually produce the same amount of food as 900 acres of farmland. It is also built near the airport in Dubai, to try and cut down on the amount of travel needed.
For the same reason, future vertical farms may actually be inside supermarkets. This way, there are no transport demands and a far lower carbon footprint. Consumers will be able to pick their own food, assured of its freshness and its higher nutritional content.