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The Promise and Perils of Vertical Farming

Nov 14, 2021 9:10 AM 6 min read

When you watch this documentary on San Francisco-based agritech startup Plenty, one remarkable statement stands out:

“We can condense 700 acres of farmland into the size of a big box retail store.”

700 acres. That's the equivalent of 532 football fields. Or 2,100 Boeing 737 airplanes parked next to each other. And all this packed into a typical warehouse-like building that takes less than two acres of space.

That’s the promise of vertical farming.

Up, Up and Above: A Brief History of Vertical Farming

Vertical farming, as the phrase suggests, is the practice of growing crops vertically, in stacked layers, and in a rigidly-controlled environment.

This agritech "revolution" is slowly but surely accelerating across the US, Germany, South Korea, Singapore, UAE, China - and India.

The technology behind vertical farming can be traced back to the 1990s when NASA was studying ways to grow plants in space. (BTW, remember those scenes in space movies like The Martian involving plants being grown on Mars or other plants? That’s artificially controlled agriculture aka vertical farming!)

In 1999, Dickson Despommier, a professor of Public and Environmental Health at Columbia University, designed a 30-storey indoor farm that could theoretically feed 50,000 people. In the coming years, the idea generated increasing interest among local governments worldwide. Naturally, startups began to emerge, trying to convert hypotheses into action.

A decade after Despommier floated the skyscraper farm idea, the UK's Paignton Zoo Environmental Park unveiled the world's first pilot production system. The produce from this project is still used to feed the zoo's animals (here’s a video).

In 2012, Singapore launched the first commercial vertical farm - a three-storeys-high endeavour (here’s a news report from eight years ago).

Interest in vertical farming has accelerated over the past few years. In part due to investor excitement - particularly in the US, where VCs poured $929m into these ventures last year, more than double YoY. Much of this money is being bankrolled by bigshots like SoftBank and Jeff Bezos, stars like Justin Timberlake and Natalie Portman, and culinary celebrities like José Andrés, Martha Stewart and Tom Colicchio.

The main force driving vertical farming, however, is environmental necessity. But first - how do these farms even work?


How is Vertical Farming Done?

Vertical farming doesn’t require soil or sunlight - and it needs less than 5% of the water required by traditional agricultural processes.

How do the plants grow, then? Through something known as controlled-environment agriculture. Specifically, with techniques like hydroponics, aquaponics and aeroponics.

Hydroponics is when plants are grown in liquid solutions instead of soil. These solutions have the exact amount of macronutrients, trace elements and inert materials required to ensure a healthy yield. When hydroponic systems are integrated with the growing of aquatic organisms (think aquaculture aka fish farming) to enable a closed-loop setting that mimics natural aquatic ecosystems, that’s aquaponics. Aeroponics, meanwhile, involves providing plants with their required nutrients via a “mist” in air chambers; hardly any water is used in this process.

Okay…so soil is replaced by water or air. What about sunlight, then? That’s replaced by strips of LED lights, optimally lit and positioned in a way to boost yield.


The Advantages of Vertical Farming

The biggest benefit of vertical farming technology is control. By controlling how much light and what kinds of nutrients a plant can get, it’s possible to produce more crops with the desired physical attributes while using substantially less land and water. Studies have shown vertical yields are 240x more while using 99% less land, 95% less water and no chemicals.

The Promise and Perils of Vertical FarmingThen there’s where such crops can be grown. Because you can control the indoor environment, you can set up a vertical farm practically anywhere, be it the Antarctic, out-of-use mines (aka “deep farms”), disused air-raid shelters under London, old shipping containers in New York, or a sprawling mall complex in Dubai.

Moreover, because these practices require very little land, they are feasible in urban centres where land is either limited or expensive. And this way, farms would be in your neighbourhood, removing the need for transporting produce across large distances in trucks, trains, ships or planes, saving a lot in logistical costs, cutting carbon emissions, and ensuring the availability of truly “fresh” produce.

Another advantage is that vertical farming is not limited by seasons, sunlight or the weather. This means any crop can be grown all year-round, day or night. Even “exotic” kinds that can’t grow in the local soil, since hydroponic or aeroponic systems can be engineered to imitate the required conditions. The fact that this smart agriculture takes place indoors makes it non-susceptible to erratic or extreme weather events like unseasonal monsoons, cyclones, wildfires or floods (things that are more frequent now due to the climate crisis).

And if you’re looking for ways to conserve water, eliminate agricultural greenhouse gases (which are a serious issue), and consume truly “organic” crops sans pesticides and fertilisers, vertical farming is the way to go.

However, the grass isn’t entirely green on the vertical side...


The Disadvantages of Vertical Farming

Vertical farming has four main disadvantages. The first one is economical. These farms are an expensive endeavour. Setting up a 10-storey vertical farm would cost over 850x more per square meter of arable land than a traditional farm. Operations foot a bill 20-30% higher than soil-based farming. And the final product comes with a hefty price tag - in New York, for instance, indoor-produced kale mix is 3x more costly per pound than traditional or organic alternatives.

The second demerit concerns energy. Vertical farming consumes a lot of energy (i.e. Via lighting). Sometimes you need to keep the lights on for 12-16 hours a day. If you’re growing crops perennially, there may be heating requirements during winter. And if this electricity is supplied by fossil fuel sources, the entire practice becomes carbon-intensive.

That said, new technologies are naturally more expensive. Think of personal computers, EV batteries or internet data plans. As a technology is widely adopted, costs tend to fall, making the tech more affordable. Entrepreneurs, investors and enthusiasts hope the same will be the case with vertical farming.

And it’s already happening. Renewable energy costs are rapidly falling. Vertical farms are aso tuning their operations to grow crops at night or when demand is low. Significantly, the cost of LED lights is plummeting (nothing short of a digital revolution) and their efficiency is soaring (see Haitz’s law).

However, even if we reach a point where indoor farming is cheap and truly sustainable, the third disadvantage remains. Vertical farming has staggeringly disruptive potential. A shift from traditional agriculture to smart variants - if and when it happens - would invariably be a slow and gradual process. It would still be a massive upheaval, simply because agriculture is central to so many countries’ economies. In India, for instance, over half the workforce is employed in agriculture. A shift to vertical modes would require the reskilling and rehabilitation of hundreds of millions - a gargantuan task that is likely to be operationally laborious, politically unfeasible and popularly hard to sell.

There’s also the question of adoption. Will the general public embrace indoor-grown fruits and vegetables? There are still widespread reservations about pesticides and GM crops. Expect air-grown produce to also elicit vitriolic protests from “soil loyalists”.


Skyscraper Fields Forever

The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) estimates there needs to be a 50% jump in global agricultural production to meet the growing food demand. To be sure, fixing existing food infrastructures and rethinking food supply chains are also critical considering the fact that roughly a third of all food produced is either lost or wasted. However, boosting agricultural productivity is also important, particularly so considering the realities of the climate crisis.

Because agriculture has been around since the dawn of civilisation, we may be prone to ignore its penchant for adaptability. Not too long ago, most farmers tilled their lands exclusively using cattle and manual labour. Today, tractors and other farm machinery have overtaken large sections of the cultivation process. Similarly, not too long ago, farmers were at the mercy of seasonal rains and sufficient sunlight to beget good yields. Today, they also have the option of greenhouses, fertilisers and pesticides to boost produce.

Increasing agricultural production the traditional way involves augmenting the problems of traditional farming - water wastage, logistical pains, reliance on weather patterns and soil fertility, post-harvest losses etc. Technological alternatives like vertical farming, if they become cheaper and less energy-intensive, hold considerable promise.

The same way the farmhands of the 19th century were replaced by tractors in the 20th, the fields of the 21st century may very well be controlled by AI and robots, with the sun replaced by LEDs and tractors by computers.


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