An industry insider explains agriculture’s latest fad – what is vertical farming? And how might it be useful?

In recent years, climate change alongside an over reliance on artificial fertilisers and herbicides has led to diminishing land productivity in once fertile regions around the globe. The result? A much greater importance has now been put on systems that can produce increased amounts of food in reduced areas of land.

One solution to the problem of space and efficiency is vertical farming, a relatively new player in the agricultural market that combines the stacking of hydroponic modules (i.e., instead of soil, plants are grown in mineral rich water) with environmentally controlled conditions.

The ability to tailor internal environments to plants needs and provide specific nutrient solutions when required has already been shown to improve plant area productivity on a 0.25 hectare plot by up to 516 times per year when compared to conventional techniques. Such impressive results have made nations and businesses worldwide begin to assess this practice as a means of combatting present issues within the sector and as a contingency for the future.

So, what are they looking at and why haven’t you heard of it yet if it sounds so great?

First, the good stuff. Conventional agriculture is a highly season dependent industry when it comes to crop growth and cash flow – if you know a farmer, they will always be able to moan about the weather. Vertical farming, on the other hand, allows for year-round production of goods, completely eliminating crop volatility caused by adverse weather conditions.

Not only that, but the soil within the process is eliminated too. Hydroponic set ups use sustainable growing mediums such as cocopeat, meanwhile aero- and aquaponics require no medium at all. These methods allow nutrients to become more readily available to the plant whilst promoting vertical growth as opposed to root growth which is needed conventionally for anchorage against the elements. Through this re-diversion of assimilates, growing cycles in these systems can be reduced by up to 50% – essentially, vertical farming allows for more harvests, more consistently, each year.

More impressive still is the fact that these increases in production are achieved using approximately 95% less water, thanks to closed looped irrigation, and 95% less land than conventional farms.

When it comes to buying food, we’d all like to support local businesses but sometimes it’s just not possible. Currently, the UK imports around 90% of its vegetables annually with average food miles of around 4,027. Not only is this contributing to carbon emissions globally, but the nutritional profile of produce is significantly reduced during the haulage stage of the supply chain as well. Once picked produce loses key bioactive compounds associated with nutrient retention and this is accompanied by a general decline in flavonoids too.

By localising supply and shortening the value chain, vertical farming allows for produce to be picked, sold and consumed within the same day – that means fresher, healthier food for the consumer. Some companies even have small farms in stores so you can pick your own!

“Today plants are selectively bred to have a high yielding reproductive structure where production without irrigation and agrochemicals could not go on indefinitely in the same location,”

– Dickson Despommier in The Vertical Farm.

Another big advantage of vertical farming is its ability to refrain from using the artificial herbicides and sprays that so much of agriculture has become dependent upon. This is due to the closed environment approach that the sector uses, as this prevents pests and weed varieties from coming into contact with the crops. But it should be stressed, VERTICAL FARMS ARE NOT ORGANIC! Hear me out…

For a system that steers clear of artificial sprays and additives, its soilless features are what’s dragging it down. For a plant product to be classed as organic it needs to be grown in soil – what a kick in the teeth for vertical farming marketing boards, right?

Now for the bad bits.

Currently, vertical farming requires a sizeable initial investment to obtain the machinery and technology required to grow produce. Hopefully, these costs will go down as the technology becomes more widely adopted, but right now vertical farming remains in its infancy and so investment comes at a premium.

As well as initial capital costs, you’ll also need to add considerable amounts of expenditure on energy; with developments in recent months this has made the practice of vertical farming even more pricey. It’s all well and good being able to control the ‘weather’ but as the cynics will be quick to point out, weather is free in the fields.

In order for these companies to be profitable, costs are inevitably passed onto the consumer. Until standardisation of production and economies of scale can be put in place to bring the price down it’s unlikely vertical farms will be feeding a substantial portion of the world’s population, certainly not in the developing world anyway.

In short, vertical farming is a young sector and has a long way to go before it’s affordable for the masses, even so, it has a lot of potential behind it. Is it going to feed the world in the future? I doubt it. But will it provide a much-needed additional supply of food with a much less detrimental effect to the environment, all whilst localising supply? 100%.