If you work in a small office you know nothing goes unheard. Yesterday, I had the pleasure of listening to two of my coworkers argue over vertical farming and what it means for the future of agriculture. After about 20 minutes they gave up the fight and agreed to disagree. Although they were done with this topic for now, their discussion sparked my curiosity and lead me to write this blog! So, what exactly does vertical farming mean for the future of agriculture?
First, let me provide a little background on what vertical farming is. Vertical farming is the practice of producing food in vertically stacked layers, such as in a used warehouse, or a shipping container. The idea behind vertical farming is to be able to control all environmental factors that affect farming, like humidity, temperature, and amount of sunlight. There are two major techniques used for vertical farming. The first technique is called hydroponics which means the plants are grown in a nutrient-rich base of water. And the second technique is aeroponics, in which the roots of crops are periodically sprayed with a mist containing water and nutrients.
Now that we all know a little bit about vertical farming, let’s look at the pros and cons of this recent farming method. The first major pro is that vertical farming yields more crops per square meter than any traditional farms or greenhouses do, and since our population is rapidly growing being able to yield more crops is huge. Another pro is that vertical farming uses a lot less water, and grows plants faster. Also, these vertical farming facilities can in theory be built anywhere, which means we will be able to grow crops in the world’s worst climates. Finally, vertical farming can be great for the average consumer, for example grocery stores or supermarkets can build miniature vertical farms of their own, allowing customers to buy fresh crops right in store.
Even with all of those positives, vertical farming still has some red flags. The biggest problem with vertical farming is how much energy it uses. Vertical farms depends on a constant supply of electricity, much of which will come from fossil fuels, so even though vertical farms use less water and grow crops faster, they are eating up a ton of energy. As Michael Hamm, a professor of sustainable agriculture of Michigan State University questions, “why would we waste that energy to produce a whole lettuce, when we can get light from the sun?” Michael also points out that it doesn’t make economic sense to grow some crops this way: “at 10 cents a kilowatt hour, the amount of energy it would take to produce wheat would translate to something like $11 dollars for a loaf of bread.” Finally, even though the average consumer might not mind the idea of growing plants indoors, from a culinary standpoint, chefs and restaurateurs want the freshest ingredients, and will probably not stand for produce grown under a light.
After my research, I fully understand why my coworkers came to such a standstill in their argument. Vertical farming has its pros and is a technique that will continue to develop over the years, but I do not think this method of farming will take over the world of agriculture any time soon. Fresh fruits and vegetables grown from natural sunlight are too valuable, and we can’t forget that there is an entire farming industry that has been around for ages, and doesn’t plan on going away anytime soon.