Is Vertical Farming Truly Sustainable?

Is vertical farming truly sustainable?

Imagine if Earth was inside an impenetrable bubble, where the conditions are ideal and nothing from the outside can disturb the state of constant harmony. No need to worry about severe weather, overheating or overcooling, the balance inside is kept perfect, all over the globe. In such an imagined scenario there would be no need to worry about the gloomy future Earth is facing today, especially when it comes to food production.

It is estimated that by 2050 our planet will be home for 9.8 billion people, therefore 70% more food will have to reach our plates. Considering how scarce arable land is becoming and how quickly weather conditions are changing, increasing food production seems to be mission impossible.

We can’t place Earth inside a bubble, but the idea of growing food inside one is not a new concept. Traditional agriculture has been using greenhouses for decades, which have enabled farmers to diminish the effects of weather and increase yields. Although successful at these, greenhouses haven’t answered the burning questions of where to plant or how to distribute produce more efficiently.

The Vertical Farm book by Dickson Despommier
The Vertical Farm book by Dickson Despommier
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Luckily, scientists have found a possible solution. In 1999 Dickson Despommier, professor of Public and Environmental Health at Columbia University, proposed a concept of a giant food growing skyscraper which could feed 50,000 people. Although his idea has not yet been seen trough, it is the original concept upon which all vertical farms today have been built. Currently, all the operational vertical farms match the equivalent of about 30 ha (74 acres) of farmland and this area is expanding. The coronavirus pandemic has resulted in disruption of the supply chains and reignited the food security concerns. Just like that, vertical farming is trending again.

A typical vertical farm
A typical vertical farm
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What vertical farming boils down to is growing plants indoors in vertically stacked layers. The options are countless when it comes to possible spaces – old buildings, recycled shipping containers, underground tunnels and abandoned mine shafts. Theoretically, farms can be in the very centers of cities, next to local restaurants and supermarkets. The main benefits of vertical farms are that they can meet elevated food needs without requiring more arable land and the crops are already in urban areas, making transportation costs minimal.

Vertical farming is agriculture in a completely controlled environment – lighting, watering, temperature, humidity – everything is optimized and monitored. It offers the possibility of year-round yields in a pest-free environment which eliminates the need for pesticides. Water usage is reduced, as vertical farms use soilless farming techniques, such as hydroponics, aquaponics and aeroponics, in which substantially less watering is required compared to traditional farming techniques. The water used is recycled in a closed loop system. Another environmentally friendly feature of vertical farming is reduced soil depletion and preservation of animal and plant species on surface areas intended for traditional farming. In a nutshell, we get more yields per acre, pesticide-free, environmentally friendly and as fresh as they can be.

Sounds almost too good to be true. You wake up on a gloomy February morning, go to your local store and pick up some fresh strawberries, just harvested from a local vertical farm. But, how much will such juicy strawberries cost? Although the concept of vertical farming offers numerous advantages and is a promising idea, several concerns have been raised regarding its cost and efficiency.

The Cost of Running a Vertical Farm

The startup costs of vertical farms are overwhelming compared to traditional farming options. It is estimated that the initial costs for a 60 hectare vertical farm could exceed $100 million. The running costs are substantial as well. Electricity bills for lighting and ventilation, skilled workers, high-tech AI systems and robotics all amount to 10 times higher costs than those involved in regular farms. According to Louis Albright, a professor in biological and environmental engineering at Cornell, a loaf of bread that was made from wheat grown in a vertical farm would cost a staggering $27.

The question arises whether vertical farming can offer produce at competitive prices while remaining profitable. Bankruptcies are the sector’s sore spot. As of 2020, some Japanese producers were able to make a profit, while others are still struggling, such as Nordic Harvest, which has built Europe’s biggest vertical farm in Copenhagen. They are optimistically predicting to become profitable this year, but that is yet to happen.

Environmental Impact of Vertical Farming

When it comes to the environment, vertical farms have a dark side. Water and soil benefits aside, extensive research has been conducted in recent years regarding the carbon footprint of vertical farming. Even if you combine the greenhouse gasses emitted by traditional production and by shipping, they are still significantly lower than the emissions of a vertical farming system. If we take a container farm system as an example, it has been calculated that for a pound of leafy greens grown it produces a whooping 8.19 pounds of CO2. For products grown outdoors and shipped to buyers the carbon footprint is a mere 0.31 pounds of CO2 per pound of product.

The through-the-roof CO2 emissions are largely the result of indoor farms needing huge amounts of electricity for lighting and air-conditioning systems. To put things into perspective, a container farm unit requires 150–165 kWh per day to power the lights, heating, and ventilation, which annually amounts to the energy consumption of five US households. Some proponents of vertical farming argue that the use of renewable energy could make things better. But the idea of using solar panels to provide light for plants is a bit ludicrous.

How does that juicy February strawberry sound now? Nice idea, but the concept still needs a lot of work to give adequate solutions. Weighing the pros and cons, there doesn’t seem to be a clear answer to the question of vertical farming sustainability. Vertical farms are at their infancy and should not be disregarded easily, as such systems offer options for areas where traditional food production is impossible or severely hindered by weather conditions. Future technological advancements might lead to cost reduction and increase profitability and sustainability leading to cities swarming with local vertical farms. If we exhaust arable land options, this might be our only choice regardless of any issues.

Until such a time, maybe just a fraction of resources and technology invested in vertical farms could be used for solving other pressing problems of traditional agriculture and food production and distribution. Before solving the problems of tomorrow, we should deal with those of today, so the food we have on this planet can reach all of its inhabitants.


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