Global demand for food is expected to increase 58–98% by 2050. But can our current agricultural systems support this change?
Expansion of land for agricultural production is the leading cause of deforestation, and 70% of worldwide freshwater usage can be attributed to agricultural practices. 115 million tons of nitrogenous fertilizers are used for crops annually, and around 65% runs off into rivers, lakes, and the ocean, contaminating drinking water and causing eutrophication. And, with rising pesticide resistance in agriculture, more attention is being devoted to sustainable practices for agricultural production.
One practice gaining popularity? Vertical farming.
Vertical farming can use up to 99% less water to grow crops and is can produce up to 20 times more crops per acre compared to traditional farming. It condenses the space required for agriculture by stacking plots vertically, optimizing the units of horizontal land used. Plants are grown in hydroponic, aeroponic, and sometimes aquaponic systems; in other words, no soil is used. Because the vertical farms are in a controlled environment, virtually no pesticides or herbicides are necessary. Most plants are also certified organic.
These farms are grown in buildings within or adjacent to urban areas. Repurposing abandoned warehouses and brownfields for farming decreases the energy and time normally required for bringing produce to markets in cities. The close vicinity to urban areas is especially beneficial, considering rising urban migration trends.
Because vertical farms are indoors and rely on LED light for energy instead of sunlight, they can produce crops at any time of the year, regardless of the climatic patterns in the area. Finally, vertical farms create stable, green jobs for a wide-ranging group of people due to less seasonality than traditional farming and specialized educational backgrounds being inessential.
However, there are some issues surrounding vertical farms that should be addressed. One is the limit on the variety of crops that can be grown. Many vertical farms produce mainly herbs and microgreens as they thrive most under the indoor conditions, leaving other fruits and vegetables eaten more often left still to be grown in conventional agricultural systems. Additionally, the location for processing crops once they have grown, like cutting and packaging the crops, may be offsite or distant from where the crops are grown, still requiring produce to be transported long distances. And, most notably, because the farms are indoors and have no sunlight, an intense amount of energy is used to grow the plants with LEDs and to run the facilities. These concerns offer the question of if vertical farming is really sustainable and can be globalized to support food production on a mass scale.
Vertical farming is by no means an overnight solution, but continual research and investing in innovative and sustainable agricultural practices like vertical farming is necessary in order to combat extreme depletion of our environment worldwide.