With global population set to exceed 10 billion people by 2050, the challenge of providing enough food for everyone in a sustainable, efficient and economical way is rising in significance. Shedding the restrictions of seasonal weather patterns, overcoming transportation challenges and significantly enhancing yields, the growing trend of vertical farming could herald the future of food production.
While modern techniques have enabled traditional farming to achieve enhanced production rates, more than 11 percent of the world’s total land area is now used for crop production, creating environmental challenges that range from habitat clearing to soil degradation. Adding to these challenges are a changing climate that is disrupting seasonal weather patterns.
One potential solution is the growing trend of vertical farming; a concept that sees the sprawling crop farms of old condensed into much smaller factory-like sites where conditions can be optimized and yields significantly increased. Facilities like AeroFarms in New Jersey produce crops in an enclosed environment where everything from the lighting and ambient temperature to soil nutrients are carefully controlled.
The facilities use extensive vertical racking to optimize space and produce food much closer to urban areas. Geography aside, the creation of controlled conditions delivers many benefits. For starters, crop production is insulated from seasonal weather patterns that are highly susceptible to disruption as a result of our changing climate. On a vertical farm, lighting, water and temperature can be optimized to remove climatic risks and enhance production rates. As a result, sites such as MIRAI’s facilities near Tokyo, the world’s largest city, are able togenerate yields 50 times to 100 times greater than traditional farms. The use of a controlled environment also eliminates losses from birds and insects, cutting the need for harmful pesticides.
Vertical farms also optimize the level of nutrients crops receive, solving the challenge of finding suitable farmland. In many instances, soil is not required, as crops are grown on membranes and sprayed with nutrient-rich solutions.
Of course, vertical farms do have their limitations. Critics have pointed to the level of energy required to maintain such refined environments. While these concerns are valid, several vertical farms are powered by renewable technologies and recycle many of their resources. The use of energy-efficient LED lighting reduces power consumption, while the blue and red shades of light are even more economical to run. Vertical farms also use less water, as many use rainwater capture systems. Some even collect and recycle water that condenses within the controlled environment itself.
Though the cost and availability of land for vertical farms in urban areas can prove challenging, many facilities are finding homes in repurposed shipping containers, former factories and abandoned warehouses.
While the vertical concept still represents a small part of the global food production industry, the benefits it offers to our ever-expanding population could come to tilt the farming landscape.
Igor Perepelychnyi is CEO of innovation assets management at Setcoin Group in London.