“The earth will have 9.7 billion people in 2050,” said the United Nations. All these people will need food in order to survive. In America 10.5 percent of individuals in households experienced food insecurity in 2019. Although currently, food insecurity is in a downward trend for the past decade food insecurity will continue to be an issue in the decades ahead.
Soil depletion and land degradation is an issue facing agriculture on a global scale. Every year 24 billion tons of soil is eroded globally. Desertification is a major problem in sub-Saharan Africa affecting half a billion people.
Different developers have been trying to answer the questions these issues bring. One proposed answer is vertical farming. This is a system of plants grown in a solution of water nutrients or misted with the solution. These structures can be stacked in a vertical fashion, saving space. Vertical farming could be done in a greenhouse or in any building with LED grow lights.
Vertical farming is growing in popularity. Over $900 million has been raised for investments in vertical farming. In 2020 the global market size of vertical farming is $2.9 billion, whereas the entire agricultural market size is $9.98 trillion. When separated from the rest of the industry vertical farming sounds large and important but when put in perspective of the rest of the industry it is a drop in the bucket.
Vertical farming has been promoted as a sustainable system of agriculture. Proponents often boast how it only uses 95 percent of water, uses far less land than traditional farming techniques, eliminates the need for long distance distribution and produces a far higher harvest rate. These are rhetorical points; however energy consumption is hardly discussed. For the vertical farms grown indoors with LED lights, a lot of energy is used to power the lights and HVAC systems. “A single square foot of a vertical farm requires $27 to operate annually,” said Agritecture.
Land cost and wages are other high costs involved in vertical farming. When placed within an urban environment securing a place to grow would be very expensive, whereas a rural field is far cheaper. Despite automating most of the agricultural process vertical farms still require people to constantly monitor the systems. That could be spun to show that farms could be a great place to employ people however, the need for so many people will make these farms hard to scale and increase the required cost of end-use products.
The cost of operations alone can dictate the target audience for produce grown in urban vertical farms. The only people who could afford the price hike would be the upper middle class living in gentrified downtown areas, completely negating the desire to use the technology to feed people experiencing food insecurity.
Hydroponically and aeroponically grown produce is often sold around $10 more per pound than conventionally or organically grown produce. The dream of feeding food deserts and providing food security to urban areas fades away when the required selling price point is so high.
The argument of sustainability in vertical farming is centered around water consumption, but hardly anything else. There is no natural pollination occurring in mature plants, so it either has to be done manually or replanted from clones or seeds.
Soil depletion is caused by vertical farming that has not been addressed by eliminating the need for soil, farmers must extract specific nutrients from the earth, with no ability to replenish the nutrients back to the soil. As a result phosphorus is becoming harder to find as this resource is being systematically depleted from one soil.
Organic farmers, however, can accomplish soil renewal. Planting cover-crops—such as legumes and clovers in between seasons greatly reduces soil erosion. Using natural plant helps the soil with water retention and renews the nutrients and microbial biome in the soil. Diversification of produce grown and crop rotation will produce larger yields, as biodiversity benefits the soil.
Operators of vertical farms have a difficult time growing grains or larger vegetables. Farmers end up focusing on leafy greens, herbs and strawberries. Due to this difficulty, replace conventional farming.
A mentality of stewardship should be implemented in the industry, looking at soil depletion, water usage, fertilizers and pesticides.
Because of its limitations of output and questionability of how well it can scale, vertical farming may probably always take a backseat in the grand scheme of agriculture. It may be useful in desert areas without access to much water, but otherwise would not be as beneficial as organic farming.