Vertical farming: Advantages and disadvantages

Vertical farming: Advantages and disadvantages

The capacity to produce food is essential to the survival of communities and societies across the world. There is also a need to increase the production capacity or agricultural outputs to coincide with the growing human population. However, limitations in natural resources, including arable land area, remain a particular hurdle to farming and food security.

Vertical farming provides a solution for cultivating agricultural produces minus the use of extensive tracks of lands. It primarily involves the practice of producing food in vertically stacked layers and inclined surfaces, or in structures such as warehouses and buildings or skyscrapers. Hence, the primary benefit or advantage of this practice centers on promoting food security in a sustainable manner. Of course, vertical farming has limitations or disadvantages as well.

Pros: The Opportunities, Benefits, and Advantages of Vertical Farming

1. Improves Production Output and Maximizes Land Use

A remarkable opportunity from or advantage of vertical farming over traditional field agriculture is that it can help increase agricultural outputs by maximizing the use of lands. The study of Chirantan Banerjee and Lucie Adenaeur revealed that a 37-storey building standing on a 0.25 hectare of land was able to produce 3500 tons of different fruits and vegetables. Take note that field farming within a similar land area would not be able to produce as much.

The review study Kurt Benke and Bruce Tomkins also mentioned that vertical farming could address the issue concerning the declining farmlands across the world due to the reduction of fresh water supply and the effects of climate change.

2. Protects the Environment through Resource Conservation

Vertical farming also aims to address environmental issues associated with the use of limited natural resources and land areas. Because this practice involves maximizing the use of a limited land area, it can eliminate deforestation and desertification due to agricultural encroachment. It also eliminates farming practices that lead to soil erosion and nutrient runoff.

Furthermore, vertical farming involves a closed-cycle design that maximizes the use of resources such as energy and fertilizers while minimizing losses due to runoff and leeching that are associated with field farming.

3. Merges Food Production and Consumption in One Place

Another benefit of vertical farming is that it shortens the entire farm-to-market process by enabling urban farming. A review study by Kheir Al-Kodmany noted that cities need to produce food internally to respond to demand from growing population, avoid price shocks, and address environmental issues concerning field farming.

Vertical farming tackles the issues mentioned above. This benefit translates further to more specific opportunities and benefits such as the promotion of sustainable or self-sufficient cities, encouragement of urban growth, and the delivery of fresh and inexpensive food products.

4. Supports Diverse Crops through an Adaptable System

Vertical farming depends on the effective and efficient use of different technologies and practices such as hydroponic systems, aeroponics, aquaponics, greenhouse design, environmental control, and energy sustainability to collectively implement a controlled-environment agriculture or CEA technology. This technology can maintain the optimal growing conditions of agricultural produces and even animal-based food products.

In addition, because a vertical farm can control different environmental variables such as temperature, humidity, light, and nutrient distribution through CES technology, it can essentially support the cultivation of different types of crops that are sensitive and dependent to weather or other environmental preconditions.

5. Promotes the Efficient and Sustainable Use of Energy

Another advantage of vertical farming is that it can be aligned with renewable and alternative energy technologies. A facility can take advantage of photovoltaic solar panels to store and generate needed electricity for running its CES technology. It can also exploit methane digesters to produce energy, particularly by building an on-site capability for transforming organic waste into biogas. The biogas can fire up fuel-based electricity generators.

Note that there are ongoing studies and tests centered on generating electricity or producing fuels using natural and engineered plants, and cultured bacteria. In other words, given the right use of current technologies or the future availability of more advanced technologies, a vertical farm can work off-the-grid and be self-sufficient.

6. Generates Multidisciplinary High-Skilled Jobs

There is also an opportunity or benefit centered on the creation of different types of jobs from different fields or disciplines. Promoting vertical farming means promoting high-tech green industry. It would lead to the generation of new careers for professionals in the fields of civil engineering and agriculture, information technology, project management, business and management, and marketing and retail, among others.

A new breed of farmers with relevant skills or knowledge would also be needed to manage planting, cultivation, monitoring, and harvesting. Demand for experts in the different subfields of science such as agricultural science, biotechnology, bioengineering and genetics, plant pathology, and horticulture, among others could also increase.

Cons: The Challenges, Limitations, and Disadvantages of Vertical Farming

1. Issues Regarding Economic Viability Due to Costs

Different concerns regarding economic feasibility collectively comprise one of the notable limitations or disadvantages of vertical farming. For example, Banerjee and Adenaeur noted that the 37-stored vertical farm on a quarter-hectare of land they investigated had an investment cost of more than USD 220 million. Note that this modern type of farm depends heavily on modern engineering and architecture, as well as the application of different technologies.

There is also a challenge over costs and competition for commercial spaces in cities. Building vertical farms in expensive cities can add to the total investment and operational costs. Furthermore, endorsing the building of vertical farms could also increase occupancy cost and real estate value due to additional demand.

2. Possible Environmental and Energy Implications

There are also concerns over pollution and sustainable use. Crops grown indoors depend on artificial light. Note that sunlight can be exploited for natural lighting or self-sufficient generation of electricity through photovoltaic solar panels. The use of light-emitting diode or LED lamps also drives down the cost of electricity consumption. Of course, other than artificial lighting, a vertical farm includes complex machinery and automated systems. Hence, when compared to field farming, vertical farming has an additional energy input.

While renewable and alternative sources of energy can promote the ecological soundness of vertical farming, the practice can still have a considerable carbon footprint if it still depends on the use of fossil fuels. There is a need to improve first renewable and alternative energy technologies to guarantee environmental sustainability and energy efficiency of vertical farming.

3. Likely Disruption to the Rural Sector and its Communities

Another foreseen challenge and disadvantage of vertical farming involves the potential for disrupting the rural sector, especially those communities with economies that are dependent on agriculture. Vertical farms can render traditional farming jobs obsolete. Farmers who do not have competencies in vertical farming would be left jobless. Communities dependent on agriculture would certainly suffer.

Essentially, urban farming would compete with rural farming. The review study of Benke and Tomkins noted that to transition to vertical farming effectively, there is a need to devise and implement strategies or plans intended to educate government officials, create relevant laws or policies, and familiarize farmers to new trends in agriculture.

4. Requires Advance Technologies and Complex Processes

Aligned to the high startup cost of building and operating a vertical farm, another possible disadvantage is the need to apply various technologies and design complex processes. Vertical farming is more complicated to initiate and maintain than traditional field agriculture.

For example, automation through information technology and information systems in vertical farming are essential for maintaining and adjusting appropriate climate conditions without the need for regular human intervention. IT-related technology will also be helpful for monitoring crops, crop maintenance, recording outputs, and determining demands. Nevertheless, it would be challenging to build and operate a vertical farm for someone who does not have relevant familiarity, connection, and capital.

FURTHER READINGS AND REFERENCES

  • Al-Kodmany, K. 2018. “The Vertical Farm: A Review of Developments and Implications for the Vertical City.” Buildings. 8(24): 1-36. DOI: 10.3390/buildings8020024
  • Banerjee, C. and Adenaeur, L. 2014. “Up, Up and Away! The Economics of Vertical Farming.” Journal of Agricultural Studies. 2(1): 40-60. DOI: 10.5296/jas.v2i1.4526
  • Benke, K. and Tomkins, B. (2017). “Future Food-Production Systems: Vertical Farming and Controlled-Environment Agriculture.” Sustainability: Science, Practice, and Policy. 13(1): 13-27. DOI: 10.1080/15487733.2017.1394054

Photo credit: Claudio Palavecino Llanos