Despite everything agriculture has done for humans, there is little doubt that it’s incredibly demanding on our planet, from its needs for water to land, and that changes need to be made to keep it suitable for the years to come.
That’s why when Dubai recently opened what they dubbed the “world’s largest vertical farm“, there was once again renewed vigor that vertical farms are the future of agriculture, thanks to their ability to grow more food crops with less land and water.
However, between the cost of real estate, technology, and reliance on fossil fuels to recreate an expensive and demanding environment that’s already available outside for free, questions still linger about whether vertical farming can truly replace growing our crops outside.
What Is Vertical Farming?
Vertical farming is the method of growing plants indoors by vertically stacking them in layers, reducing the amount of land and water needed to grow plants. Generally relying on compact and highly efficient LEDs and hydroponic systems to recreate a controlled environment, vertical gardens are seen by some as a step up from greenhouses, while others believe vertical gardens are the best representation of sustainable indoor gardening.
Regardless, vertical farms are exciting for many reasons, with two big ones standing out in particular. First, when utilized right, they can help us fight climate change. Second, they breathe new life in sustainable farming, which we will need for future populations even if climate change wasn’t a threat.
The Pros And Cons Of Vertical Farming
Advantages of Vertical Farming
The pros of vertical farming are largely the cons of traditional farming. Vertical farms can largely be propped up anywhere, greatly reducing the distance fruits and veggies have to travel on trucks and planes. This can help bring fresh and affordable foods to food deserts that are quite destructive to communities around the world.
Access and usage of water have been a concern for a while, and climate change has only heightened that. But with some vertical farms successfully using 250 times less water than a traditional farm, right here alone can earn vertical farming a place in the agricultural world. Then as a bonus, food production and quality often increase with vertical farming.
Vertical farms can also operate year-round, with the potential for some plants to be harvested 15 times in a single year vs. twice a year that’s often seen on your conventional farm. Though, as the cannabis industry is witnessing, trying to grow resource-demanding crops during the winter months can have devastating consequences.
Summary of Vertical Farming’s Advantages:
- Uses significantly less water
- Can heavily reduce space/land needed to grow crops
- Less reliance on pesticides
- Year-round grows/more harvests
- Quicker seed to harvest periods/turnovers
- Stable crop and higher quality crop yields
- Reduces farm-to-table distances
- Less habitat destruction
- Keeps crops safe from pests/outside conditions
Disadvantages of Vertical Gardening
It’s not just year-round gardening, however, where the perks of vertical farming can also have negative repercussions.
Pests that can be quite devastating on yields are largely eliminated with indoor gardening, but so are insects like bees that are incredibly helpful in pollinating many of the foods we eat. While hand pollinating is easy enough when you have just a handful of plants, pollinating rows and rows of plants stacked on one after another several times is simply not.
However, the biggest issue with vertical farming is reliance on artificially created environmental resources. Where the sun and rain are free, grow lamps, ventilation systems, grow media, housing units, and on are not! Sure, vertical gardening can deliver higher-quality crops, but only because that’s the nature of its demanding design, which requires a lot of money, time, equipment, and knowledge to operate.
Summary of Vertical Farming’s Disadvantages:
- Requires hand pollination
- Reliance on artificial environment/resources
- High initial and operating costs
- Real estate
- Currently, only a limited number of crops can be grown economically
- Crops that are easy to grow have a low caloric density
- Reliance on equipment and technology working correcting
- Requires a greater level of skills and knowledge
- Impact on rural areas that rely on traditional farming
- Immature technology stifles true potential
What Will Be Vertical Farming’s Impact On Agriculture?
Despite some negatives, vertical farming isn’t going the way of the dodo, but don’t expect it to replace the traditional farm anytime soon. The success of vertical farming is tied to advancements in technology and our ability to harness renewable resources. LEDs have been critical to vertical farming’s success, but until they are solely powered by solar energy, they alone may be enough to keep vertical farms from erasing the traditional farm.
But with predictions that the vertical farming market will expand from being a $5.5 billion industry in 2020 to around $20bn by 2025, the future is incredibly bright for vertical farms.