Farming has been around since the dawn of man and has always managed to keep pace with our needs. Technology has changed many aspects of farming, making it quicker, easier, and more efficient. However, when considering limitations on land and growth in population, there is only so much that technology in the fields can be do to make marginal improvements to the quality and quantity of yields. That is where a new innovation – vertical farming – comes into play.
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) estimates that the world’s population will far exceed 9 billion people by 2050. That is only a few short decades from now. We have seen how much can change in only a few years, so it is hard to imagine how things will look in 2050. One thing is for sure though: there will be many mouths to feed.
Included in the challenge of feeding people is managing the space required to feed them. With land being used for housing and agriculture, the need to farm with spatial efficiency will only heighten.
Vertical farming may prove highly effective for the rising population. Vertical farming is the practice of farmers growing indoors, year-round in controlled environments while utilizing shelves or stacked rows of produce. In this laboratory, greenhouse, or other climate-controlled space, farmers can adjust the temperature, light, water, and even carbon dioxide levels as well, while layering crops upward to multiply the yield per square foot. This may be done in soil-based or hydroponic settings. Since the outdoors are unpredictable, vertical farming offers a calibrated alternative. Weather, insects, or blight would no longer factor into losing crops when grown indoors.
This technique may be particularly helpful when a projected two-thirds of the population will be living in urban areas by 2050. Instead of having the transportation effects and costs to get the food from the rural to the urban areas, the crops could be grown hyper-locally in a sort of urban ecosystem.
The plus side of vertical farming is that it requires up to 99 percent less land use and 98 percent less water consumption. The Vertical Farming Institute cites that vertical farms are able to use 95 percent less water, because the water is recycled. Most of the water is used for plant nutrition in vertical farming. According to iGrow, a lettuce leaf can evaporate an amount of water that exceeds its own weight many times. In this case, a little bit of water goes a long way. Plants really only use a little less than 20 percent of the water for weight gain. The rest of the water evaporates and can be used in air conditioners, dehumidifiers, and then reused in production.
That is the root of all things in vertical farming; everything can be recycled. The water, the light, even the oxygen is all recycled. Since it is a controlled environment, once everything is accounted for inside, nothing needs to change.
One of the most famous examples of vertical farming is Freight Farms, a company where agriculture is grown inside shipping containers around the world. Their mission is building the infrastructure and technology that can allow local food to thrive. And who would have thought to use shipping containers for farming? But it has worked out well, and now Freight Farms is a global organization, hoping to help people worldwide.
The scaleability of vertical farming is not without its challenges, as it can be expensive on the front end. Freight Farms, for example, costs between $82,000 and $85,000 per container. One container costs as much as 10 acres of American farmland. The artificial lighting can add up the costs as well to keep everything running. CambridgeHOK estimates that vertical farming costs are currently three to five times more expensive compared to traditional farming. The long term effects, however, are expected to outweigh the upfront costs. With the spatial and resource efficiency advantages over traditional farming, greater interest and investment will only improve the concept further. Despite the high costs, vertical farming is no longer just on the horizon – it is here.
Written by Emma Smith, Communications Intern
The Alliance for Innovation and Infrastructure (Aii) is an independent, national research and educational organization. An innovative think tank, Aii explores the intersection of economics, law, and public policy in the areas of climate, damage prevention, energy, infrastructure, innovation, technology, and transportation.