The Future of Farming is Vertical
Posted On May 03, 2021
As the world’s population balloons and environmental concerns threaten our farmland, we’re all left with the question: How will we feed our collective need? Get acquainted with vertical farming— a growth industry if we’ve ever heard of one.
As we load our baskets at Whole Foods or sit in packed restaurants, it’s hard to imagine the earth’s bounty as anything less than limitless. The truth: Our farmland is shrinking. The human population is projected to grow by 3 billion in the next 35 years, and the farmland needed to sustain this increase is about twenty-percent greater than the size of Brazil. This reality—combined with an increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which produces erratic weather and destroys existing farmland—makes the situation appear downright ominous.
The good news is that we are starting to address the problem in a revolutionary way. Some say the solution is vertical farming—the construction of tall buildings in which crops grow, one level on top of another, and are fed hydroponically. In some cases, one building might take care of an entire community, and 150 such buildings could potentially nourish an entire city.
Dickson Despommier, an Environmental Health Sciences professor at Columbia University, is a pioneer of the vertical farming method. Five years ago, when the concept started gaining momentum, he predicted that these farms would be operational within fifteen years. Now, ten years earlier than he imagined, vertical farms are operating in areas as disparate as Singapore, Korea, and Vancouver. Last year, the Swedish firm Plantagon broke ground on what will be the largest vertical greenhouse to date, in picturesque Linköping, Sweden. At home in the US, similar projects are underway in Tennessee, Michigan, Indiana, Wisconsin, Wyoming, and Illinois.
Japan currently has fifty multiple-story “plant factories,” many of which have opened since the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear debacle which ruined many of the country’s traditionally grown crops. “The tsunami eliminated five-percent of the country’s growing power,” says Despommier. “At the same time, the Fukushima disaster ramped up plant technology.”
Despommier points out that people realized these projects didn’t necessarily have to involve new construction, hence the widespread shift to the concept of looking at existing buildings. “There were no examples of vertical farms that I knew of five years ago,” he says. “But once people started doing this, they got excited, and understood that it could be done in repurposed buildings.”
The “locavore” farm-to-table movement has stimulated interest in vertical farming, as well. Those blueberries we get in New York are often from Chile. With indoor farming, they can be grown locally.
Maddie McQueeney, a spokesperson for Vertical Harvest in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, says local farming was part of the inspiration for her company’s project, which expects to be up and running by the end of 2014. Vertical Harvest hopes to be a prototype, and is building an education center on the premises. “The growing season here is so short—only three months a year—so we have to outsource,” she says. “There is a huge movement to grow locally, and our greenhouse can produce food all year long. We want this to be a replicable project, and we want to teach visitors and students about sustainability.”
The upside of indoor farming is clear when it comes to places such as Saudi Arabia and Korea, where there is not enough arable land. The same goes for cities with limited space like New York and Tokyo. However, vertical farming has global benefits beyond just adding to the food supply. Produce cultivated in a controlled environment is free of problems inherent in outdoor-grown crops, such as destruction from severe weather, insects, or animals—so there are no pesticides used. It is also inherently organic, and dodges diseases such as salmonella. All of this translates to greater productivity. “Fifty percent of produce grown outdoors is not used because it’s eaten by insects or rodents, or spoiled or destroyed by disease. Efficiency of indoor farming is ninety percent or more.”
The elimination of genetically modified foods is yet one more bonus of vertical farming. “There’s a place in Florida that grows thirty acres of strawberries in a building on a single acre,” says Peak Prosperity CEO and co-founder Chris Martenson, whose company analyses resources, the economy, and environmental issues. “Are we out of space in Florida? No, but we keep GMOs [genetically modified organisms] out.”
There is an instinctive feeling shared by many, suggesting that food grown in an urban building can’t possibly be as nutritious as vegetables sprouting in mineral rich soil, ripened in the sun. However, proponents of the vertical plan say their food is actually more beneficial. “Soil can get depleted of natural minerals, but we control the nutrients being fed and give a mixture of nitrogen, phosphorous, potassium, and trace elements,” says Jen Holdsworth, a greenhouse technician at Pentair Aquatic Eco-Systems Inc. in Winter Park, Florida, which uses vertical growing towers. “Because we are in Florida, we also use natural sunlight.”
Mitch Manning, a spokesman for Pentair—which has started workshops to teach others their method— notes that because the crops aren’t outside, they don’t compete for nutrients. “We spray them with enriched water, and they aren’t fighting other forces for what they need, so they grow faster,” he notes. “I see this as the most promising way to feed our world.”
Among the many plusses of the vertical farming concept is the fact that growing hydroponically saves water. “Agriculture dumps water filled with pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizer into rivers and oceans, and is responsible for more damage to our ecosystem than pollution,” insists Jolanta Hardej, CEO of FarmedHere, a Chicago-based company that made an abandoned building into 90,000 square feet of vertical growing space. “We only use three percent of the water used in traditional farming.”
FarmedHere cultivates varieties of basil, arugula, and other leafy greens with aquaponics—a closed loop system where fish provide nutrients for the greens. Water from fish tanks goes through filters and then into grow beds, eventually pumping back into the tanks.
“Cities dump billions of gallons of waste into the ocean, which creates dead zones without oxygen that kill plants and algae,” notes Peak Prosperity’s Martenson. “The dream is that cities will become closedloop systems, where water is purified and then used to grow food. This is very important if we are going to meet our challenges.”
FarmedHere wants to roll out its model to the world. “Since we’ve proven it works—that we can build, grow, and sell—we are planning to repeat it in seven to twelve other cities, including New York, Houston, and Seattle over the next five years,” says Hardej, whose products are already in sixty stores. “We are in Whole Foods, and in discussion with Trader Joe’s. In Chicago, ninety-seven percent of our food has been coming from over two-thousand miles away. What we are providing is local.”
Urban land is, of course, more expensive than rural, but vertical space is significantly more efficient. “One indoor acre is equivalent to about four to six outdoor acres,” says Martenson, who notes that some products are currently more economically viable for indoor farming than others. “At first, you are not going to have corn, but growing high-end greens makes sense.”
Thirty-year-old Memphis artist Emma Self is doing just that. She leased 70 square feet of office space and has created 400 square feet of growing space for micro greens, which sprout quickly and have a high financial return. “I plan to quadruple the amount I am growing by building up, and I can do it all year round,” Self says. “I’m starting with these greens, but I will eventually expand into other produce. I can do this year round, and it’s sustainable.”
Self is heartened by her belief that the process is healthier. “There is so much processing and packaging involved in food that has to travel,” she says, “and contaminants that can come from hands of the growers, distributors, store workers, and so forth. When we grow this way, we eliminate a lot of those middle men.”
One of the main criticisms of vertical farming has been that growing indoors uses energy not required by sunlight. Advocates of the method counter that it cuts down emissions from tractors, plows, and fuel necessary to transport food from farms to far away cities. Now they have an even better argument. “Phillips has just announced a new generation of LEDs that are more efficient,” says Despommier. “In two years, these will replace all florescent lights.”
There are inevitably going to be unforeseen situations that come up with this new system. Such is science. “What happens if power goes out if you have a building with lights required to keep plants happy?” asks Martenson. “There are going to be some unexpected learning curves along the way.”
Regardless, the lengthy list of pros greatly outweighs the cons when it comes to vertical farming. It points the way to a kinder, gentler future. In fact, it may prove instrumental to there being a future, period.