Vertical farming: has sustainable farming reached new heights?

As the global population continues to grow at a rapid pace, the demand for natural resources, including food, rapidly increases. In order to meet this demand, as well as protect the environment from an abundance of human induced problems, the cultivation of crops must be sustainable.

Currently, 50% of inhabitable land is used in agricultural production, taking away living space of millions of people, exhausting soils, evicting native species and driving biodiversity loss [1,2]. With this huge pressure, scientists are hard at work innovating new ways to farm sustainability in order to meet long and short-term environmental goals without the continued exploitation of the environment.

Vertical farming (VF), a concept first coined by American geologist Gilbert Ellis Bailey in 1915, is a cutting-edge farming technique which uses high-rise infrastructure to layer space to grow crops vertically, as opposed to horizontally across land. VF allows for highly controlled conditions such as temperature, light, nutrients and water, making it highly efficient whilst limiting waste.

The largest vertical farm in operation

Currently, the largest VF is Artesian Farm in Michigan, USA; a family run business which grows a mammoth 17 million plants over a tiny 3.25 hectares! [3,4]. If you visit the Artesian Farm website, you will see how they present the benefits of their farming technique for their customers, the wider region of the Midwest and the global environment.

Artesian Farm explains that because the conditions of crop growth is controlled to such a high degree, there is no need for any bug control or pesticides, which adds to the freshness of the food as well as nutritional value. They continue by explaining how they support local businesses in a range of cities such as Detroit and Indiana, having created a ‘green-job collar’ for the city’s inhabitants by offering a wide range of jobs in the sustainable job sector.

It is clear to see that not only does VF have large environmental benefits, there are also large social and economic benefits. The Journal of Landscape Ecology (2018) supports Artesian Farm’s claims which cover the environmental, social and economic successes of VF, such as a reduction in water demands, energy saving, improved job opportunity and security, and community economic growth [5].

Are there limitations to vertical farming?

Although the benefits seem convincing, not everyone is convinced, including Dr. Jonathan Foley, a climate and environmental scientist who claims that VF is definitely not the answer the world is looking for (in terms of managing food resources and sustainable agriculture) [6]. Foley explains that VF is extremely expensive to run, which means that produce is only available to those with financial capital and freedoms. Moreover, Foley explains that although the high energy consumption needed for VF can be resolved with renewable energy technologies such as solar panels, the idea of an artificial sun replacing the sun dose not sit well: “Any system that seeks to replace the sun to grow food is probably a bad idea”.

This criticism of VF may seem far-fetched, but it actually makes a lot of sense, because if for some reason a VF loses power, or the technology it relies on breaks, millions of stomachs go empty. This would not be the case during the traditional farming of crop fields.

Foley believes that instead of VF, investments should be pushed towards other farming techniques such as new grazing methods or drip-irrigation.