Looking Up: The Future of Farming is Vertical
Global food security is on the rise due to worldwide catastrophes including the COVID-19 pandemic, war on Ukraine, increasing climate-induced extreme events, and on top of it all, a global water crisis. We live in a time where the carrying capacity of our planet has been exceeded- there are too many people with too few resources. We must develop new technologies in order to meet the needs of the expected 10 billion people that will call this planet home in 2050. Some scientists believe that the future of farming no longer requires soil or extensive water or even acres of land to grow food. This new method is vertical farming, in which crops are grown in shallow trays stacked on top of each other in a climate-controlled building. Instead of sunlight, each level utilizes LED lights to control the growth of the crops. Some vertical farms are even using hydroponic and aeroponic systems that don’t require soil for growth. Instead, water or water vapor, infused with nutrients, is dispersed around the plant roots.¹ Still, one of the most impressive benefits of these vertical farming systems is the potential impacts on water supplies.
Image from Wix
Currently, half of the water withdrawn from our planet (through rivers, lakes, and aquifers) goes towards agriculture. This number will only increase with global climate change impacts, increasing populations, and changing diets (toward more meat and dairy). Water stress is felt by more than 2 billion people around the world with numbers rising every day. So, how does vertical farming fit in? Estimates show that to grow 1 kg of tomatoes in a vertical farm, 99% less water is required than typical field farming and 88% less than growing them in a greenhouse.² This is possible because when there is no soil or organic matter to divert the water, the plant is able to absorb it all, making it a very efficient system.¹ Additionally, water that is evaporated within the building can be collected and reused in the system, meaning none of it is going to waste.²
Further benefits include needing less land, shorter supply chains, and avoiding the uncertainty of climate and war. Vertical farming means that food can also be grown in cities and food deserts.² By 2050, 2/3 of the world population are expected to live in urban settings, requiring transportation of food from rural farming communities to cities. Vertical farming can eliminate some of this milage.³ The installation of vertical farms above supermarkets is even being tested.² Researchers hope that if people know how much energy and effort goes into producing their food, they will be more mindful about food waste and think twice before throwing food out.¹
Vertical farming, however, does not come without limitations. These systems are very energy intensive. Without free sunlight or rainfall, these elements must be created using energy that is not regularly coming from renewable sources, meaning their emissions can be high. The system's reliance on energy also makes it vulnerable to changing energy prices. The crops that are currently grown in these farms are also currently limited to leafy greens and small fruits and vegetables with short root systems. Growing crops that require pollination is a whole other issue since scientists have found that the LED lights disorient bees, making pollination more complicated. The widespread use of vertical farming would also greatly impact small farms from developing nations who depend on the supply chain of traditional farming.¹
All these issues on top of the high costs associated with developing vertical farms probably means that they will not replace conventional farms anytime soon. However, current research and resources are going toward improving vertical farming systems in hopes that they can work within our current agricultural system to aid in ending hunger and the water crisis.
1Park, W. (2023). How far can vertical farming go? [Web log post]. Future Planet (BBC). Retrieved from https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20230106-what-if-all-our-food-was-grown-in-indoor-vertical-farms
2World Water Day: Can vertical farms help solve a water crisis? [Web log post]. (2020). Barilla Center for Food and Nutrition (The Economist). Retrieved from https://foodsustainability-cms.eiu.com/world-water-day-can-vertical-farms-help-solve-a-water-crisis/?back=%2Fresources%2F
3Federman, S. (2021). Vertical Farming for the Future. USDA. https://www.usda.gov/media/blog/2018/08/14/vertical-farming-future
Disclaimer: All information, content and materials on this blog are for general information purposes only. Any opinion expressed by the author is not necessarily the opinion of Penn Club H2O or University of Pennsylvania.