Agricultural systems around the world need to adapt to the rapidly changing environmental, demographic, and socioeconomic landscapes, and new alternative practices, such as vertical agriculture, may offer new opportunities to accelerate such adaptation.
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What is vertical farming and why is it important
Modern agricultural systems encompass an estimated 1.5 billion hectares of the world’s surface area. With a growing population and resource needs, the availability of arable land is shrinking rapidly.
Since the agricultural revolution, conventional agriculture has focused on practices requiring considerable quantities of space, water, fertilizer, and pesticides. The past 50 years have seen an accelerating rate of increase in these requirements as modern food production aims to increase productivity in the hopes of addressing growing food insecurity.
Looking into the future, yield production is forecasted to decrease due to widespread environmental and socioeconomic changes that will generate unpredictable consequences on food systems.
In response, many strategies have been developed as alternatives to conventional agricultural practices. These strategies have focused on key principles and their combination to be effective: require less space, less water, and increase yield per unit of area. Moreover, due to the negative effects of agrichemicals, modern practices have also aimed to use significantly less to avoid potentially adverse effects for humans and animals.
One such alternative is the development of vertical agriculture, also referred to as vertical farming. As the name implies, vertical agriculture relies on expanding production vertically and not horizontally. Vertical agriculture is a multilayer indoor plant production system that allows for precise control of growth factors, such as light, temperature, humidity, carbon dioxide concentration, water, and nutrients.
This allows for the growing and production of crops year-round, completely independent of solar light and other external conditions. Indeed, vertical agriculture makes use of key concepts within ecology and physiology to optimize growing and fertilization within controlled conditions. For instance, elements of photobiology, thermomorphogenesis, hydroponics, and genetic breeding, are all used commonly across systems of vertical agriculture.
Benefits, challenges, and disadvantages moving from horizontal to vertical farming
As a result of tight control over crop breeding, growing, and harvesting, vertical farming provides several benefits relative to conventional methods of ‘horizontal’ food production. This was the topic of a literature review by Kalantari et al. published in 2016 in the Journal of Landscape Ecology.
From a systems perspective, the enclosed design prevents pests and diseases from entering by the adoption of a high level of hygiene, continuous monitoring, and non-chemical disinfection, providing security from crops. Moreover, recent technology has also allowed for automated control over environmental conditions by using sensors and imaging techniques in combination with crop simulation models and artificial intelligence, limiting the need for physical labor.
Vertical farming also allows for flexible organization, with designs ranging from large vertical walls covered with crops to large hangars or re-used shipping containers that can be transported. Consequently, vertical agricultural systems, can comprise many varying sizes and be located within many different areas from the middle of highly urbanized cities to more suburban or rural areas.
Moreover, the verticality element of this system also provides nutrient and water flow, helping to reuse costly resources. The reduction in space also means there is a significant increase in yield per area, holding extensive potential for a future world of urbanization.
From an economic perspective, vertical farming also provides for more jobs in localized areas and is community-focused by addressing the needs of immediate areas, which in turn can provide food at a lower price. Finally, the optionality of location for vertical systems also allows producers to reduce transport costs, as consumers may access them within urban areas, or transport can be minimized to nearby areas.
However, despite the design, environmental, and economic advantages, vertical farming also incorporates several issues that remain a challenge to its broader implementation as a system.
Vertical farming has a high energy requirement and needs extensive investment costs to implement and develop successfully. Moreover, indoor issues relating to excessive UV, heat, and ozone-induced plant damage may have unpredictable repercussions for plant growth.
Additionally, vertical systems are difficult to adapt to a larger scale. They are costly to build and maintain and have yet to demonstrate the ability to provide food for larger areas than community-scale populations. This would make it difficult to implement in areas at higher risk of food insecurity, such as developing agricultural nations.
The lack of empirical research on a broader scale has meant that vertical farming has yet to develop past the concept stage on community levels, as persistent issues make it difficult to break through to a larger scale.
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Growing skywards - the implications of vertical farming in a rapidly populating and changing world
Among the development of alternative agricultural practices, vertical agriculture provides a promising solution for many of the challenges facing current agricultural policies. However, for vertical systems to be integrated on a larger scale requires further technological progress and economic investment.
Nevertheless, gradually implementing more verticality, or combining it with other practices aiming for more sustainable practices may be promising. For instance, the combination of verticality with other practices such as intercropping may be particularly beneficial for developing more sustainable food systems.
Incorporating technological progress into vertical systems also holds promise, with automated sensors and machinery able to operate near-independently. Progress in gene editing and plant genome modifications will also allow for faster, bigger, and healthier crops, allowing vertical agriculture to produce more over time.
Throughout agricultural history, farming systems have typically spread over large spans of land, yet the reduction in arable land, as well as the increase in demand to house growing populations, means that such strategies need to be reconsidered, and vertical agriculture may play a role looking into the future.
Continue Reading: Benefits of Vertical Agriculture and Hydroponics
- Beacham, A. M., Vickers, L. H., & Monaghan, J. M. (2019). Vertical farming: a summary of approaches to growing skywards. The Journal of Horticultural Science and Biotechnology, 94(3), 277–283. doi: 10.1080/14620316.2019.1574214
- Chaudhry A. R. and Mishra V. P.,(2019) A Comparative Analysis of Vertical Agriculture Systems in Residential Apartments, Advances in Science and Engineering Technology International Conferences (ASET), 2019, pp. 1-5, doi: 10.1109/ICASET.2019.8714358
- Sarkar, A., & Majumder, M. (2015). Opportunities and Challenges in Sustainability of Vertical Eco-Farming: A Review. Journal of Advanced Agricultural Technologies, 2(2). doi: 10.12720/joaat.2.2.98-105
- SharathKumar, M., Heuvelink, E., & Marcelis, L. F. (2020). Vertical Farming: Moving from Genetic to Environmental Modification. Trends in Plant Science, 25(8), 724–727. doi: 10.1016/j.tplants.2020.05.012