Is Vertical Farming the Future of Sustainable Food Sourcing?

Picture huge, industrialized fields of waving wheat and corn and soy in the American midwest. 

That’s about the size of our collective understanding of where America’s food supply comes from. If we know a little bit more, we can use words like “monoculture” and “pesticides.” Maybe you’ve read a few of Rachel Carson’s books, so you understand that there’s a ripple effect throughout an ecosystem when toxic chemicals are used to help ensure crop survival.

Over time, we’ve really examined this system and determined it’s got a few fatal flaws. 

Monoculture is hugely detrimental to soil quality and encourages plant disease, pesticides ravage natural survival mechanisms, and the very act of food traveling from these enormous and distant fields raises the carbon footprint of our food supply chain enormously.

But what are we to do? The country is clearly the right place for growing. Urban farms seem out of the question – where could you find enough empty land? What about the air pollution? Do city folk even know how to farm?

Vertical farms are hardly a new idea – but they’re gaining more and more traction as green jobs (work related to maintaining a healthy environment) circulate into the job force.

From conservation to regulation to investing to decarbonization to renewable energy, green jobs contain multitudes and identify with many distinct purposes. Prior to the pandemic, the clean energy sector employed 3.4 million people. 

Nothing to sniff at, certainly.

And as the country desperately seeks alternative solutions, trying to unwind itself from the hamstrung clutches of Big Ag and the pesticide industry, vertical farms may just answer the call with a viable urban plan.

What Is a Vertical Farm?

Simplest explanation first: Stacks of crops growing long-ways inside of an artificially lit and climate controlled building. 

It’s like if vertical home design had a baby with the greenhouse movement. City dwellers living in cramped spaces have been organizing their homes upwards rather than sideways since they figured out it saved space – and so too does vertical farming.

Unfortunately, nothing in our world can be that simple.

Vertical farming sounds like the savior our agricultural system needs. 

It also appears to answer the growing problem of urban food insecurity – most of the world’s population lives in urban settings and are the most likely to spend most of their money on food while also living in danger of losing access to their food. 

A recent report predicted that the vertical farming industry in the U.S. would reach $3 billion in value by 2024. 

So far, vertical farming is primarily used to grow wheat, leafy greens, tomatoes, and other crops with quick turnover rates. 

And various soilless farming techniques have been employed and fine-tuned through the vertical farming process – hydroponics, aeroponics, and aquaponics.

It’s been touted by optimists as a way to remove seasonality from the equation of food production, use less water, prevent chemical runoff, reduce food travel, return of former farming land to its natural ecosystem, and other such powerful praise. 

But vertical farming has a few disastrous kinks it needs to comb through before we herald it as the clean, green future of food production, slated to replace the wasteful and chemically-laden system we have now.

It’s a Long Fall From the Top

Here’s the biggest hurdle for vertical farms to jump, and they’ve not improved on it much in the last decade: The carbon footprint left by running one is unbelievably high. 

And in areas of the country without a significant portion of energy used being drawn from renewable sources like wind or solar power, it’s just more fossil fuel usage.

Many have pointed out the irony in trying to reduce our carbon footprint by bringing farming indoors to use very expensive and constant artificial lighting, thereby removing the cheapest part about farming: use of the sun.

And if vertical farmers are going to compete with traditional farmers, their artificial lighting must be even stronger than direct sunlight – as the authors of one particular study show when they managed to outgrow traditional U.S. wheat output in a simulation using light 30-50% stronger than the sun.

The scale of crop output to energy used when compared with our current system doesn’t come close – it’s estimated that we would still use four to five times more energy than traditional farming simply to shine light on the crops, not even considering the cost of watering and indoor climate control.

Vertical farming may not be ready yet to overtake inground monoculture industrial field farming.

But its innovators haven’t stopped working, and will continue to develop adjustments as our economy invests more and more in green technology. 

Greenhouses or unheated hoophouses can be sited in urban areas on abandoned land or rooftops and in the surrounding peri-urban and near-rural areas. In higher latitudes, these types of growing environments allow land-use over the full year – a form of sustainable intensification for city regions.

They have real potential to help supply a healthy diet in city regions across the globe and to help insure sustainable livelihoods for a diversity of farmers in city regions. This is clearly not the case for 100% artificially lit systems.

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