Vertical Farming: The Future of Agriculture?

It’s no secret that the world’s population is snowballing.

In fact, by 2050, the world’s population is expected to grow up to 9.7 billion people (Source: United Nations). A growing population means an increase in consumption. One of the most significant issues facing the globe today is inadequate food production, a problem that is getting worse. Over the last 40 years, our world lost a third of its cropland due to erosion or pollution (Source: The Guardian). At the same time, today’s climate crisis is causing unpredictable climate conditions, making the practice of traditional agriculture a challenge. 

But what if there was a way to carry out food production indoors, away from harsh climate conditions, while increasing food outputs?

One emerging trend may have an answer, and it’s called vertical farming.

What is Vertical Farming?

Vertical farming is an indoor farming practice that produces food on vertically inclined surfaces, opposed to traditional outdoor horizontal farming. Vertically stacked layers allow farmers to produce a much higher yield of food on the same amount of land (Source: Eden Green).

Think of it like skyscrapers in cities. Rather than building out residences horizontally across the land, we build up through apartments and condos. 

These crop layers are integrated into various unique spaces such as shipping containers, skyscrapers, warehouses, and greenhouses. Essentially, spaces that aren’t fit for traditional agriculture.

The most popular crops grown are leafy greens, such as lettuce, chard, kale, cabbage, and more. In fact, 57% of indoor farms produce leafy greens (Source: Light Science Tech). These leafy greens are in high demand, have a fast turnaround, and are easy to grow. Other popular crops grown in vertical farms include herbs, microgreens, and soft fruits such as strawberries. The beauty of vertical farming comes from taking ownership of conditions. Vertical farms use multiple types of technology to control and monitor elements of the indoor farm, such as temperature, humidity, and light. However, some of these aspects aren’t easy to manage. Vertical farms require precise control of these elements; otherwise, they lose their crop yield. The modern technologies of smart farming, such as artificial intelligence (AI) and the internet of things (IoT), are used to measure and control the farm’s environment accurately.

Smart Farming with AI and IoT

Smart farming uses modern information and communication technologies to increase the quantity and quality of crop production. Smart farming also optimizes the human labour needed to produce crops (Source: IoT For All). Technologies like IoT, AI, robotics, and drones are now used in the agriculture industry to make processes more effective and increase productivity. Technology is essentially the backbone of vertical farming.

In vertical farms, crops are grown in a simulated environment, created and maintained by technology. Many vertical farms use IoT solutions to ensure proper monitoring and control of nutrients, irrigation, light, and water (Source: Infosys). IoT is a considerable advantage, enabling process automation through sensors and robotics to minimize the need for human labour. IoT technologies also allow farmers to collect data about their crops and their growing processes. The collected data provides the information needed for testing and improving crop outputs.

Artificial intelligence is also used in vertical farming. AI is often set up to receive data collected by IoT devices to help control food production and monitor the growing environment’s water consumption, light, and ambient temperature (Source: Inceptive Mind). By integrating with sensors, AI-driven solutions can control operations in real-time, noting irregularities and making changes to improve conditions on the fly.

But AI goes beyond increasing production and into the realm of perfecting the quality of crops. Fifth Season, a vertical farm based in Pittsburgh, combines big data and AI to create optimal grow recipes that determine the best flavour for their plants (Source: Forbes). Leveraging AI, the company tweaks the target flavour of their crops by using different combinations of lighting and nutrients. Crop inputs are changed to alter sweetness, spiciness, bitterness, texture, and more.

Advantages of Vertical Farming

There are many advantages to indoor farming that aren’t seen with traditional agriculture.  

Grow Reliable Produce Year-Round

Arguably, the most significant advantage of vertical farming is that it’s not weather-dependent. Extreme and adverse weather conditions affect the quality and quantity of crops, which is a considerable disadvantage to traditional agriculture. This is especially true during the winter months in northern countries like Canada, Russia, and the northern United States. Vertical farms provide year-round crop production with a protected and monitored environment, providing repeatable and programmable output (Source: Horti Daily). Vertical farms also reduce harvest times and improve crop yields without compromising quality.

Reduced Water Consumption

Vertical farms use significantly fewer resources than traditional farms, making them environmentally friendly. On average, vertical farms use between 80% and 99% less water than conventional farms (Source: Planet Renewed). This is because indoor farms use technology to control the growing environment. Less water is lost through evaporation because crops are indoors, and the humidity is closely monitored. Vertical farms also recycle water the crops don’t use or evaporate into the air (Source: Planet Renewed). The excess water is put back into the production cycle and used for other crops on the farm.

Water conservation is vital in caring for the environment. Freshwater is not an unlimited resource, so the less we use it, the better it is for the planet.

Reduced Land and Transportation Requirements

Vertical farms also require less land to produce the same crop yields as traditional farms. This positively affects the environment. It’s estimated that almost 80% of global deforestation is caused by agricultural production (Source: Vertical Farming Planet). An increase in the number of vertical farms will allow lands once used for farming to restore their biodiversity and natural ecosystems. Another positive environmental impact of vertical farming is the reduced need for produce transportation. Since vertical farms are typically located near urban areas, produce goes from the farm to your grocery store shelves in a couple of hours (Source: Vertical Farming Planet). Shorter distances between the farm and the grocery store reduce the amount of GHG’s from long transportation processes and ensure fresh produce for consumers.

High Crop Yield with Small Footprint

Vertical farms produce an increased amount of crop yields per acre compared to traditional farms. A possibility is due to stacking the crops vertically while controlling the environment. Vertical farms stack crops high in trays or towers, allowing more food production in a smaller footprint of land (Source: Eden Green). This means dozens of plants are grown in the same amount of space as one plant in a traditional farm. Maximizing space used for growing crops ensures a higher crop yield for the farm. Vertical farms also significantly reduce the risk of crop loss, a big issue for traditional farms. Extreme weather, pollution and pests are all avoidable with indoor farming. In fact, 20-40% of outdoor crops are lost to diseases, pests and weeds every year, and even more are lost to climate crises (Source: APS). With no pests, a controlled indoor farming environment is insurance against massive crop loss.

Setbacks of Vertical Farming

Amongst the many advantages of vertical farming, there are also some limitations.

High Energy Consumption and Costs

A significant limitation is the high energy it takes to run a vertical farm. Indoor crops must receive the right amount of light to grow correctly, just as they would outdoors. Traditional farming relies on the sun for light, whereas indoor farming typically relies on LED lights to create the perfect environment to grow plants. However, LED lighting is expensive and consumes a lot of energy. In fact, with lights operating from 12 to 18 hours a day, the power usage from LED lights accounts for 50 – 65% of a vertical farm’s energy spending (Source: Hortibiz)—a high price tag for farms looking to shift indoors. Also, the high energy consumption from vertical farms negatively impacts our planet.

However, there are alternatives to the energy consumption issue. Using greenhouses built from glass instead of dark warehouses is a better way to reduce LED expenses. Taking advantage of sunlight allows indoor farms to use 90% less energy than farms that strictly use LEDs (Source: Eden Green). Some vertical farms, like Eden Green Technology, use AI and IoT technology to control the amount of energy expended and reduce it to only the necessary amount for each plant. 

Too Dependent on Technology

Even though agriculture technology is advancing rapidly, vertical farming is highly dependent on specific technology and equipment. Most vertical farms rely on IoT and AI technologies to monitor and control the farm’s environment for optimal crop growth. This includes monitoring humidity levels, providing adequate lighting, and proper temperature levels (Source: Sensorex). If the farm were to lose power even for a couple of days, crop losses would be substantial. So any farm looking to move vertical needs to ensure they can independently power their technology in case of any prolonged outages.

Lack of Necessary Funding

The growth of Canada’s indoor farming sector is lacking, and we’re falling behind others in the world. The main reason for this is a lack of funding from governments and major investors to help the industry grow and advance essential vertical farming technology (Source: Vertical Farm Daily). The rise of indoor farming is still relatively new, and many are still uncertain of its benefits or the technology enabling it. Canada has great potential to become a global powerhouse in the smart agriculture sector, but strong support is necessary to make it happen.

The Future of Farming: Is It Vertical?

We’ve seen the advantages and limitations of vertical farming, but how does it measure up to traditional methods? What will the future of agriculture look like?

Is Vertical Farming Replacing Traditional Farming?

For traditional agriculture practices, little has changed. Farmers rely on knowledge systems, standard equipment, natural resources and organic fertilizer to grow and harvest their crops (Source: Learn Vertical Farming). However, as the demand for food increases and climate change impacts the world around us, traditional farming methods need to become more efficient and technology-augmented.

The agriculture industry has already adopted advanced machinery that helps expand the scale, speed, and productivity of farm equipment, leading to more efficient land cultivation. However, the technological transformation can’t stop here. The agriculture industry needs to continue to advance its technology by reaping the benefits of data and connectivity. This includes using AI, data analytics, and connected sensors (IoT) to increase productivity further and promote sustainability (Source: McKinsey).

Traditional outdoor farming won’t be entirely replaced by indoor farming in the future. It’s a practice that’s essential for the world’s food supply chains and will continue as the primary source of food production. However, traditional farming practices must continue to evolve with technology to ensure high crop yields for increased profits and use sustainable farming practices to combat climate change effects.

Vertical vs. Traditional Farming – The Main Differences

Vertical farms yield more produce per acre of soil, use significantly fewer resources, are environmentally friendly, and grow crops year-round despite weather conditions.

On the other hand, vertical farms can’t produce the same crop variety as traditional farms. Expanding the variety of crops grown indoors may be possible one day, but today’s conventional farms grow a much wider variety of food. Vertical farms also heavily depend on expensive technology, resulting in high upfront costs and reliance on equipment performance. Vertical farms struggle to receive funding and support from governments and investors today, whereas traditional agriculture is well recognized and already has established funding programs.

As you can see, there are many advantages to both vertical farming and traditional farming. The future of agriculture includes both methods and offers many benefits for food production.

Neither one is better than the other.

Both forms of agriculture are necessary to combat the climate crisis and feed the growing population. The popularity of indoor farming is multiplying as people learn about its benefits. The vertical farming market in Canada is set to reach $1.53 billion by 2025, a significant increase from $94.1 million in 2016 (Source: Stat Investor).

What is most important to remember is both traditional and vertical farms are rapidly embracing digital technology. Advanced technologies such as big data, AI, and IoT make agricultural processes more efficient and effective, no matter what type of farm. Technology is also making both types of farming more environmentally friendly, which is necessary for the future of our planet. It is crucial for traditional and vertical farming to continue adopting digital technologies in sustainable ways to ensure the agriculture industry is prepared for the future.  

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About the Author

Sasha Moonilal is a Content Writer Marketing student at CENGN (Fall 2021) and a Communications student at the University of Ottawa. Her passions lie in creating compelling content and collaborating with other highly driven and creative people. In her spare time, Sasha enjoys dancing, cooking and reading.

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