TRADITIONAL AGRICULTURE IS REACHING ITS LIMIT
Vertical Farming might not just be a better solution than traditional agriculture, but the only feasible path for feeding humanity in the future.
Every year humanity needs more food, but the planet is left with less space. In 2012 the WWF (World Wildlife Foundation) announced in its report “Living Planet 2012” that we will have of 9.6 billion inhabitants by 2050, with equates to resources equivalent to 3 earth planets to feed all of humanity.
Today, the picture has worsened drastically.
As we approach 8 billion people by 2022 and with an updated forecast of more than 11 billion ihabitants by 2050, global agricultural production capacity must increase by 60% to feed us all.
But there’s a problem; there’s not much room left on the planet to keep the agricultural expanding industry enough to meet this demand. Not to mention the heavy environmental impact of plowing up, or even deforesting which agriculture demands.
So, if we can’t keep expanding the agricultural industry, how can we deal with this situation? Fortunately, there is already a solution that promises to make farming space as efficient as possible: farming upwards.
The term vertical farming was developed in 1999 at Columbia University in the United States. This methodology consists of growing vegetables and spices whose plant of origin is compact, since it is necessary to arrange the crops on shelves stacked vertically on racks.
This model makes it possible to increase efficiency between 10 to 12 times the number of crops per m2. That is, if in a space of 1 x 1 meter you can grow 10 heads of lettuce using traditional agriculture, a vertical farm allows you to grow between 100 and 120 heads of lettuce in the same space, using a height of only 3 meters.
Reducing square footage considerably to grow large quantities of plants is impressive enough. But over the past 20 years, entrepreneurs, engineers, and scientists around the world have developed new technologies and tools that anyone can implement to a vertical farm today, regardless of its size. For example:
- Environmental control: Most large production vertical farms are built in enclosed spaces; this, along with ventilation and humidity control systems, allow precise control of the environment where plants germinate, grow, and are harvested.
- Intelligent LED lights: Indoor farms block the contact with sunlight, so an automated LED light system allows plants to receive the light and warmth needed for their development every moment of the day.
- Hydroponics: This cultivation system allows the roots of the plants to be in permanent contact with water imbued with nutrients, which allows them to grow without being “watered”.
- Moisture and ph sensors: These sensors allow growers to know the exact state of each plant and facilitate changing the light or nutrients as it is more convenient.
Other benefits of indoor vertical farming over traditional processes include:
- Up to 15 harvest cycles per year
- Eliminates the risk of damage due to unfavorable weather
- No sunburn risk
- No pests risk
- 95% less water
- No fertilizer required
- No pesticides required
- Reduction of the amount of land required to its minimum
This also guarantees optimum quality in each of the crops, practically eliminating the possibility of bad harvests, in addition to generating 100% organic products. Vertical farming even benefits those who do not consume their crops directly, as it minimizes environmental impact.
So far, everything about vertical farming sounds wonderful, but why then don’t we see it every day and everywhere?
Well, although this model has evolved a lot in the last 20 years and every year new technologies and improvements are developed, vertical farming has its limitations:
- Limited crop variety: First, not all agricultural products can be grown in this way. Vegetables, green leaves, and many fruits, among others, grow on plants that are too large and bulky. So, it would be very complicated to grow them on shelves.
- Initial investment: The construction of a vertical farming plant or the purchase of a modular farm requires a heavy investment in infrastructure and automation systems required for its operation.
- Energy consumption: The constantly operating LED lights, ventilation systems and the computer that controls them must be running 24/7, which makes the cost of energy consumed very high.
These 3 factors can be intimidating to anyone considering purchasing or building one of these automated farms. Fortunately, there are many testimonials from different types of users who have purchased one of these products promoting its benefits. Plus, thanks to the high production rate of vertical farms, they pay for themselves in a matter of months.
VERTICAL FARMING FOR EVERYONE
There are currently multiple vertical farming solutions for the multiple potential users and the amount of demand they wish to satisfy.
First, we have industrial production: Companies dedicated to the production and commercialization of vegetables in large volumes, such as the Chilean startup AgroUrbana that currently produces 10,000 heads of lettuce per month in a plant of just 300 m2. This organization will inaugurate a new plant 20 times larger by the end of 2022. There is a vertical wind farm being built in Denmark as well. Which plans to produce more than 1,000 tons of vegetables per year (approx. 85,000 kg per month) far surpassing the current largest vertical farm in the world, located in Dubai.
Then there is what is probably the most popular model in vertical farm sales, modular farms. These farms are built in enclosed outdoor spaces, usually sea freight containers. Companies such as the Mexican startup Verde Compacto build, equip and enable everything necessary for the vertical farm to operate inside a standard sea container (12 x 2.5 x 2 mts). One of these farms results in an approximate production of 700 heads of lettuce or up to 75 kg of vegetables per month. This has proven to be a wonderful solution for restaurants and entrepreneurs who have chosen to produce vegetables for their own business consumption or for distribution to local customers.
Finally, there are users who are looking for home production to satisfy their individual consumption. There are several options for these users, such as the Chilean startup UrbanaGrow which offers vertical farms in 4 x 2 x 0.5 m cabinets that can be installed inside the home. Or Granjas Verticales MX, which offers prefabricated hydroponics towers that allow the cultivation of up to 28 plants simultaneously.
Every year, more and more users are joining this initiative and extending vertical farming around the world. In addition, the various companies developing these solutions are constantly working to make them more efficient, economical and reduce energy consumption. Not to mention projects that combine a vertical farm and an alternative energy source (such as implementing solar panels on the roof of plants and containers), which reduces or even eliminates energy costs.
Vertical farming arose out of necessity; and although this idea has been evolving for more than 20 years, it is a recent movement and the technologies that accompany it are still in constant development. There is still a long way to go before vertical farming can supplant traditional methods, but that doesn’t stop us from testing its benefits as of today.