Vertical farms – is this the future of farming?

  • Vertical farming involves growing plants indoors in layers using LED lighting and controlled growth and nutrition systems.
  • Europe’s largest vertical farm produces 1,000 tonnes of food per year.
  • The benefits of this type of farming include producing more food in less space and avoiding pesticides.
  • But the cost of real estate and technology, as well as farms running on fossil fuels, are some of the issues holding back greater adoption.

Shipping containers, underground tunnels, and abandoned mine shafts are not obvious places to grow food. Yet many such spaces are transformed into vertical farms.

So what exactly are they and how could vertical farms change traditional farming?

What is Vertical Farming?

Vertical farming involves growing plants indoors, which is why it is sometimes also called indoor farming. Instead of sunlight and rain, vertical farms use LED lighting and controlled growth and nutrition systems. Plants are stacked vertically in layers, so many farms look like warehouses filled with tall shelves.

For example, Europe’s largest vertical farm is being developed outside of Copenhagen in Denmark by Danish start-up Nordic Harvest. It is a 75,000 square foot warehouse where plants are grown in 14 stacked layers, according to Free Think. When fully completed, Nordic Harvest says its vertical farm will provide 1,000 tonnes of food per year.

Two billion people in the world are currently malnourished and according to some estimates we need 60% more food to feed the world’s population by 2050. Yet the agricultural sector is ill-equipped to meet this demand: 700 million of its workers currently live in poverty, and it is already responsible for 70% of global water consumption and 30% of global greenhouse gas emissions.

New technologies could help our food systems become more sustainable and efficient, but unfortunately the agricultural sector has lagged behind other sectors in terms of technology adoption.

Launched in 2018, the Forum’s Innovation with a Purpose platform is a large-scale partnership that facilitates the adoption of new technologies and other innovations to transform the way we produce, distribute and consume our food.

With research, increased investment in new agricultural technologies, and integration of local and regional initiatives to strengthen food security, the platform works with more than 50 partner institutions and 1,000 leaders around the world to leverage emerging technologies to make our food systems more sustainable, inclusive and efficient.

Learn more about the impact of Innovation with a Purpose and contact us to see how you can get involved.

What are the advantages of vertical trusses?

Vertical farming is considered a very efficient and sustainable way of producing food. For example, Nordic Harvest claims that it uses 250 times less water than a traditional farm would need.

Automation is the key to this efficiency. Software, robotics, and data science are some of the technologies used in vertical farms to monitor crops and create optimal growing conditions. This includes temperature, humidity, CO2 and light control.

Such agriculture in a controlled environment contributes to reducing the environmental impact of the vertical farm, for example by eliminating the use of pesticides.

Vertical farms are also not dependent on the weather, so fresh produce can be grown year-round.

Nordic Harvest’s vertical farms in Denmark can harvest plants 15 times a year.

Image: Norse Harvest

How will vertical farming change agriculture?

Instead of growing fruits and vegetables on large farms and then transporting them long distances in trucks and planes, vertical farming can supply local produce from neighborhood buildings. This means less fuel is used and the food is fresher.

Vertical farms also tend to produce more than conventional farms. According to Nordic Harvest, plants can be harvested 15 times a year. In a conventional field, harvesting is done twice a year.

By precisely controlling the growing environment, the products can last 13 to 14 days, compared to three to four days for equivalent products from conventional agriculture, according to The Choice.

Why isn’t vertical farming already a global solution?

Cost is a big hurdle for vertical farms. Sun and rain are free. Powering fancy LED lights, software and growing systems is not.

While some facilities run on electricity from wind turbines, vertical farms running on fossil fuels can make the climate change problem worse rather than better, according to Free Think.

Buying urban real estate to build a vertical farm can also be expensive. In Australia, for example, an average square meter of land in downtown Melbourne costs nearly $3,500, according to Duke University in the United States.

That said, the global vertical farming market is growing steadily, according to Statista, and is expected to grow from $5.5 billion in 2020 to around $20 billion by 2025.


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