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Innovation in agriculture-Does vertical farming work?

Innovation in agriculture
Written by Dr. Shaun Murphy

vertical farming

Vertical farming has been called the future of Agriculture claimed to solve many of the problems. It’s been a controversial topic with mixed opinions from experts.

Are these claims hype or can they deliver? but first, we need a better understanding of what a vertical farm is There are many different versions and they all have vastly different capabilities.

Part of the problem is the many types of farms and confusing array of definitions So let’s deal with those first. It will make innovation in agriculture.

Vertical farming and urban farming are both umbrella terms that are sometimes used interchangeably, although they are not the same.

Urban agriculture includes a broad array of concepts, it essentially focuses on bringing food production into the city.

In order to move the production as close to consumption as possible.

This may include the usage of vertical farms or may involve more traditional growing practices, in an urban environment.

Some methods of vertical farming & so many intresting facts about vertical farming

While vertical farms can be urban they don’t have to be, therefore all vertical farming references in this video won’t be restricted to urban environments.

While vertical farms can use soil most utilize hydro, aero, or aquaponics. These methods use much less water than typically used in soil.

Hydroponics replaces soil by using a circulating water and nutrient mix for plant growth.

Aeroponics uses an open membrane and a water mist spray with a nutrient mix. Aquaponics uses hydroponics and an aquatic ecosystem to balance nutrients in both systems.

Strictly speaking, the term vertical farm could be used in reference to structures that grow food on multiple levels.

This could range from small-scale hobby spaces to large automated buildings. So let’s quickly take a look at which versions of this technology, have the most promise to positively impact our global issues.

For many, the image of the vertical farm is a city skyscraper filled with fruit vegetable trees, and perhaps even animals.

Whilst some look amazing, it can be hard to argue that these images lend credibility to the vertical farming concept.

Skyscrapers represent the very expensive real estate and are usually reserved for high-value activities.

Growing fruit on trees or rearing animals humanely has a low-value density.

Vertical farming

This isn’t a problem if you have acres of cheap land to produce on, but it is if you’re using premium real estate.

Even if you’re growing a dense premium crop, the cost of growing also increases exponentially with height. The requirements to pump water and move biomass vertically take considerable energy.

This may be insignificant for a ten-level farm, but would likely be prohibitive for a farm with hundreds or thousands of levels.

While there are a number of architectural concepts for skyscraper farms, as yet, only one is being built.

The world food building is currently under construction in linköping, Sweden. While the information for this building is limited,

even if it achieves its target costs of 40 million dollars, It is highly unlikely to recoup that money with its production capacity of 550 tons of vegetables per year.

Wall farms and rooftop farms often share a similar visual appeal to skyscraper farms. Unlike skyscraper farms, these don’t displace existing real estate.

Instead, they aim to utilize unused spaces to grow food. As such, the cost of adding these types of farms is often minimal.

People also read:10 things to know before start vegetable gardening and also its benefits

Many of these farms are created by hobbyists and double as Gardens. As such, the addition of green space to the urban environment is considered a welcome one.

While this may seem like good news, the amount of usable surfaces for growing food is extremely limited.

In fact, Dickenson Despommier, the man who is credited with inventing the term vertical farm came up with the concept, after his students calculated that rooftop farming could supply just 2% of the 2015 New York’s population, by fully utilizing all of its rooftops for growing.

This is when he turned to the idea of skyscraper farms. Even if we utilize all usable rooftops in the world, we would only be able to save a fraction of a percent of the global land.

so while rooftop and wall farms aren’t a bad use of otherwise wasted space, their ability to affect the global challenges is negligible.

Vertical greenhouses are largely transparent structures, that utilize multiple growing levels.

One of the challenges that are introduced by stacking greenhouse levels on top of each other is providing enough light as the glass or polymer structure already absorbs some of the sunlight,

and stacking vertically increases the risk of shadows. Vertical greenhouses can get around this problem by rotating the levels, to get a relatively even distribution of sunlight.

By adding supplementary artificial light, vertical greenhouses can grow to higher plant density than a typical greenhouse.

Although capital costs and electricity costs are higher.

This makes them better suited to urban environments, where land is at a premium.

Vertical greenhouses essentially allow you to move production closer to consumption.

Both horizontal or vertical hydroponic greenhouses are promising technologies, that will help come back to the global challenges, as they require 10 to 15 times less land and water than traditional agriculture.

Artificial light in vertical farming

Given that commercial hydroponic greenhouses are a relatively mature industry, their viability and scalability are not in question.

These greenhouses can grow a broad range of fruits and vegetables but are not used to grow staple crops such as wheat, which accounts for the majority of land and water demand.

They’re also partially exposed to the climate and local light levels, which makes them expensive to run in some areas.

If we use greenhouses to produce our global vegetables and some fruits, we would save less than 2% of our global land, barely enough to offset a projected 2050 land loss and less than half of the 55% increase in water demand.

While greenhouses may alleviate some of the global challenges, it’s not enough to be able to prevent the worst of the problems.

If we really want to stop and reverse the global challenges, we will need a more radical approach.

Plant factories are the most technologically advanced version of the vertical farm.

They are airtight, highly climate-controlled buildings, with a co2 enriched atmosphere. They’re essentially clean rooms, like those used in drug or satellite production.

Production rooms contain plants on multiple levels, they are sealed and thermally insulated with no windows. Relying on 100% artificial lighting.

they’re aero, or hydroponic, where transpired water vapor from the plant is captured and condensed recycling back into the hydroponic nutrient mix.


They are typically warehouse-size buildings, no more than a few stories in height.

Plant factories offer the greatest level of land and water savings of all vertical farms.

They also have the highest level of control and growing conditions, meaning that they can grow any type of plant, in any region of the world.

They’re not exposed to bad weather or failed harvests, this gives them the potential to have the greatest impact on the global challenges.

When I refer to vertical farms, I’m talking about plant factories, as they are the most viable version of this technology, although as we will discover, plant factories introduce their own challenges.

While they have a greater level of real-world practicality, they still face criticisms around cost, real estate, and energy consumption. So how valid are these criticisms?

In order for vertical farming to positively change the world, it needs to be technologically feasible, environmentally sustainable (or at least better than current practices), and economically viable.

While this industry is still in an early phase, from a technological standpoint vertical farming works.

While it is true that the current farms focus almost exclusively on leafy greens and herbs, pretty much any crop can already be produced this way, with existing technology.

Vertical farms use less water than traditional agriculture, a lot less. In the best vertical farms, one kilogram of lettuce requires 1.2 liters of water.

This is especially impressive given that lettuce is 95% water. 1.2 liters is 17 times better than a normal hydroponic greenhouse and in stark contrast, field-grown lettuce requires a staggering 237 liters per kilogram of lettuce.

That’s 200 times more water! The water saved has the potential for a huge positive impact on water security and reversing wetland destruction.

Vertical farms don’t need pesticides, they require little fertilizer and don’t have an uncontrolled agricultural runoff. These factors combined are great news for freshwater wildlife.

Since they can be built near population centers, proponents of this technology often argue that urban farms allow for a reduction in carbon emissions, due to a reduction in food transport.

While this is largely true, the extent of the benefit is often exaggerated from a climate perspective.

Vertical farming

Food transport makes up a relatively small portion of agricultural emissions, the real environmental opportunity for vertical farming, is the potential to return farmland to forest and shrubland.

This will be a massive benefit for wildlife conservation efforts and also has promise for significant global carbon sequestration.

But how much land can it save? This technology has a vastly greater yield for a given area, with the cutting edge farms having a growing density over 100 times greater than field grown.

This has enormous potential for reversing deforestation and habitat destruction.

There is an elephant in the room however, vertical farms trade energy for density control, it’s how they achieve massive yields for a small area of land.

Artificial lighting accounts for 80 percent of the farm’s energy costs, based on the current global energy mix, most of that energy requires carbon emissions to produce.

Vertical farms can be expensive to set up, especially if you want a big operation. Running costs can be high from a labor and electricity perspective.

While labor costs decrease with the scale of the operation, it is difficult to shrink the electricity costs.

Plants need light energy to grow, in a field the sun provides it for free, in a vertical farm, it must be supplied.

Since leafy greens and herbs have a low light requirement and reasonable profit margins, they are much more economically viable.

There are hundreds of them in operation around the world, some of them are massive in scale. Capable of producing 30,000 heads of lettuce per day from a single farm.

some facts about vertical farming

A 2014 study of 165 Japanese vertical farms found that 25 percent were profitable, 50 percent were breaking even and 25 percent were making a loss.

These are promising numbers for such a new industry. Rapid technological improvements and a greatly expanding knowledge base, have greatly improved the profitability in just the four short years since the study.

In fact, the question is no longer can a vertical farm work but how big can this industry get? and, will this industry ever grow more than leafy greens?

Despite being in its infancy, this technology already accounted for one percent of Japan’s lettuce production in 2014, from 165 vertical farms. While the number of farms has increased significantly since then, so has the size of the farms.

This year, a single farm opened which will supply 0.6% of the whole Japanese lettuce market. In 2015 the vertical farming industry was worth 1.15 billion dollars,

in 2020 it’s projected to be an industry worth over 13 billion dollars. Just last year the US firm plenty, raised 226 million dollars, with their plan to roll out their farms near every major US city.

With investment from the world’s richest man Jeff Bezos, it’s a significant statement for the industry. But it’s not just the big companies. For eighty-five thousand dollars,

you can buy a shipping container with a fully installed farm inside and it’s delivered directly to you. this container requires 1% of an acre but can produce 20% of an acre’s worth of produce.

This low cost of entry makes vertical farming very accessible to entrepreneurs and many are getting involved. A lack of investment certainly isn’t this industry’s barrier to growth.

but what about the market size? any of these operations focus on the premium end of the market because they are capable of delivering the highest quality products but they also focus on it out of necessity.

Since the bigger profit margins afforded by premium products, offset the labor and energy costs of the operation.

While this is good news for current businesses, plant factories will have to compete on price with traditional growing methods, or its ability to impact at a global level will be severely limited.

Only a small percentage of the market is willing to pay a big premium for high-quality environmentally-friendly products.

They were able to sustainably sell at a price just 12 percent above the country’s wholesale price. Looking into their costs, we get a sense of the opportunity at hand.

In fact, the cutting-edge plant factories are likely to have a cost breakdown that looks more like this. Year on year, yields continue to increase for given inputs and the cost of the inputs continues to fall.

The electricity, depreciation, and labor costs are falling every year as technologies continue to improve.

Something we will look at in more detail in the next video. This means for leafy greens at least, vertical farms are in a position to corner the market.

If vertical farms take over the leafy green market, what impact will this have on our global challenges?

Lettuce growing uses over nine trillion liters of fresh water every year but that accounts for just 0.02 percent of global fresh water and lettuce account for just 0.1 percent of our agricultural land usage.

While the leafy green market is more than just lettuce, the reality is it’s just a small fraction of global agriculture.

To make a big global impact, vertical farming needs to be able to economically grow a broader range of products, but what will it take to be able to grow more types of food?

Almost all crops can be grown hydroponically, so in principle, vertical farms could grow almost all of our global crops. So why aren’t we doing that?


About the author

Dr. Shaun Murphy