Farming Goes Vertical

Author:  Dana Lowry
Institution:  Queen's University
Date:  October 2017

No more clear blue skies: the pink glow emitted by thousands of LED lights is the new ideal – and only – weather forecast in modern farming. Leafy greens grow in layers, stacked up like a vegetable lasagna in a climate-controlled warehouse that climbs tens of meters high. There is no soil for the plants to dig their roots into, nor is there a window for sunlight to seep through.  The pink glow – the result of combining red and blue LED lights – provides the plants with optimum light while maintaining a low carbon footprint. The plants gather food from a nutrient-dense mist while photosynthesizing at peak capacity. The details of this futuristic picture illustrate the realities of vertical farming.

Over the past decade, vertical farming startup companies have popped up all over the world. From Belgium to Japan, these businesses redesign warehouses and old factories into vertical farms that can out-produce their traditional counterparts by a staggering 130 to 1. The efficiencies of indoor farming go beyond increased yield. Unlike a greenhouse, growing greens in a completely controlled environment eliminates the need for pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides. Aeroponic farms, which use mist to feed and water their crops, use 95% less water than traditional farms and produce zero toxic run-off. Lastly, growing and harvesting crops in close proximity to large cities decrease or even remove any transportation costs, emissions, and loss of nutritional content.

Most companies established in North America implement the LED-lit warehouse design, but blueprints for these farms vary across the globe. Singapore has assembled a vertical hydroponic system, which nourishes plants with solution rather than mist. Their system is housed in a glass building to harvest the city’s abundant natural lighting. Shanghai, boasting a similar sunny climate, will begin construction in late 2017 on the Sunqiao Urban Agricultural District, a new development that will include a glass-walled hydroponic vertical farm, a culinary institute, a seed library, and an education center for the community.

On the other hand, Anchorage, Alaska’s largest city, cannot harness sunlight to the same degree as cities with tropical climates. The city has a short growing season and little fertile land. For many Alaskan residents, geographic isolation is a major issue. This is especially true for the state’s rural communities: by the time produce reaches the supermarkets, a head of limp lettuce costs up to $8. A start-up company called Vertical Harvest Hydroponics is already battling this obstacle by creating portable vertical farms inside shipping containers. The company can send these smaller farms to remote towns to create jobs and produce sustainable, year-round agriculture. “If we can overcome a one-time challenge of shipping to allow a village to produce greens year round for their people, then we’ve created a sustainable option for sourcing produce,” says Linda Janes, co-founder of Vertical Harvest Hydroponics.

One of the additional benefits of this modern take on farming is its impact on the agricultural job market. In the declining field of agriculture, where many farmers are drowning in debt with few prospective successors, vertical farming presents hope for the future. As agriculture penetrates across geographic boundaries and settles amidst skyscrapers, it offers millennials a happy medium. Young farmers can produce quality produce while enjoying the lifestyle they desire.

Establishing a vertical farm, however, is not without its downsides. The initial set-up is extremely expensive – companies often wait six or seven years for a profit return – and crop choices are limited. Leafy greens are the only vegetables profitable enough to sustain a business. With root vegetables and fruit, only part of the plant can be sold. Furthermore, these crops are more energy-intensive and produce a smaller yield. Nevertheless, the market for vertically-farmed lettuce, kale, and micro-greens is still expanding. The vertical farming market is projected to increase to nearly five times its current value, reaching $6.4 billion by 2023.

The World Health Organization estimates that the global population will increase to 9 billion people by 2050, requiring a 50% increase in food production to sustain the human population. At least 50% of this population will be concentrated in urban areas. While vertical farming may not be the sole solution to this impending problem, it is certainly one of the most important innovations that push us in the right direction. Professor Dickson Despommier, who is considered the original founder of vertical farming, remains optimistic about the future: “Once the competition starts - and I believe it already has - the ultimate winner is the public.”