The rise of vertical farming

Food flats and vertical farming as an alternative to our inefficient food system: in order to do vertical farming in a sustainable way, we must integrate the food production into the urban infrastructure for a significant part. At present, our food system is inefficiently organized: our food travels many kilometers, uses a lot of water, is wasted and pollutes the environment. Nevertheless, the 7 billion inhabitants, often living in large cities, need to be fed. Food flats and vertical farming in urban agriculture are important alternatives to our current inefficient food system.

Vertical farming is the practice of producing food and medicine in vertically stacked layers, vertically inclined surfaces and/or integrated in other structures (such as in a skyscraper, used warehouse, or shipping container). The modern ideas of vertical farming use indoor farming techniques and controlled-environment agriculture (CEA) technology, where all environmental factors can be controlled. These facilities utilize artificial control of light, environmental control (humidity, temperature, gases...) and fertigation. Some vertical farms use techniques similar to greenhouses, where natural sunlight can be augmented with artificial lighting and metal reflectors.

Cjacobs627 at English Wikipedia [CC BY-SA  (3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons


Mixed-use skyscrapers

Mixed-use skyscrapers were proposed and built by architect Ken Yeang. Yeang proposes that instead of hermetically sealed mass-produced agriculture, plant life should be cultivated within open air, mixed-use skyscrapers for climate control and consumption. This version of vertical farming is based upon personal or community use rather than the wholesale production and distribution plant life that aspires to feed an entire city. It thus requires less of an initial investment than Despommier's "vertical farm". However, neither Despommier nor Yeang are the conceptual originators, nor is Yeang the inventor of vertical farming in skyscrapers.

Despommier's skyscrapers

Ecologist Dickson Despommier argues that vertical farming is legitimate for environmental reasons. He claims that the cultivation of plant life within skyscrapers will require less embodied energy and produce less pollution than some methods of producing plant life on natural landscapes. He moreover claims that natural landscapes are too toxic for natural, agricultural production, despite the ecological and environmental costs of extracting materials to build skyscrapers for the simple purpose of agricultural production.

Vertical farming according to Despommier thus discounts the value of natural landscape in exchange for the idea of "skyscraper as spaceship." Plant life is mass-produced within hermetically sealed, artificial environments that have little to do with the outside world. In this sense, they could be built anywhere regardless of the context. Although climate control, lighting, and other costs of maintenance have been posited as potentially stifling to bringing this concept to fruition, advocates have countered that an important feature of future vertical farms will be the integration of renewable energy technology, be it solar panels, wind turbines, water capture systems, and probably some combination of the three. The vertical farm is designed to be sustainable, and to enable nearby inhabitants to work at the farm.

Despommier's concept of the vertical farm emerged in 1999 at Columbia University. It promotes the mass cultivation of plant life for commercial purposes in skyscrapers.

Stackable shipping containers

Several companies have brought forth the concept of stacking recycled shipping containers in urban settings. Brighterside consulting has created a complete off grid container system Freight Farms produces a "leafy green machine" that is a complete farm-to-table system outfitted with vertical hydroponics, LED lighting and intuitive climate controls built within a 12 m × 2.4 m shipping container. Podponics has built a large scale vertical farm in Atlanta consisting of over 100 stacked "growpods". A similar farm is currently under construction in Oman.


Several potential advantages of vertical farming have been discussed by Despommier. Many of these benefits are obtained from scaling up hydroponic or aeroponic growing methods.

Preparation for the future

It is estimated that by the year 2050, close to 80% of the world's population will live in urban areas and the total population of the world will increase by 3 billion people. A very large amount of land may be required depending on the change in yield per hectare. Scientists are concerned that this large amount of required farmland will not be available and that severe damage to the earth will be caused by the added farmland. According to Despommier, vertical farms, if designed properly, may eliminate the need to create additional farmland and help create a cleaner environment.

Increased crop production

Unlike traditional farming in non-tropical areas, indoor farming can produce crops year-round. All-season farming multiplies the productivity of the farmed surface by a factor of 4 to 6 depending on the crop. With some crops, such as strawberries, the factor may be as high as 30.
Furthermore, as the crops would be sold in the same infrastructures in which they are grown, they will not need to be transported between production and sale, resulting in less spoilage, infestation, and energy required than conventional farming encounters. Research has shown that 30% of harvested crops are wasted due to spoilage and infestation, though this number is much lower in developed nations.
Despommier suggests that, if dwarf versions of certain crops are used (e.g. dwarf wheat, which has been grown in space by NASA, is smaller in size but richer in nutrients), year-round crops, and "stacker" plant holders are accounted for, a 30-story building with a base of a building block (2 hectares (5 acres)) would yield a yearly crop analogous to that of 1,000 hectares (2,400 acres) of traditional farming.


Protection from weather-related problems

Crops grown in traditional outdoor farming suffer from the often suboptimal, and sometimes extreme, nature of geological and meteorological events such as undesirable temperatures or rainfall amounts, monsoons, hailstorms, tornadoes, flooding, wildfires, and severe droughts.] The protection of crops from weather is increasingly important as global climate change occurs. "Three recent floods (in 1993, 2007 and 2008) cost the United States billions of dollars in lost crops, with even more devastating losses in topsoil. Changes in rain patterns and temperature could diminish India's agricultural output by 30 percent by the end of the century."

Because vertical plant farming provides a controlled environment, the productivity of vertical farms would be mostly independent of weather and protected from extreme weather events. Although the controlled environment of vertical farming negates most of these factors, earthquakes and tornadoes still pose threats to the proposed infrastructure, although this again depends on the location of the vertical farms.

Conservation of resources

Each unit of area in a vertical farm could allow up to 20 units of area of outdoor farmland to return to its natural state, and recover farmlands due to development from original flat farmlands.

Vertical farming would reduce the need for new farmland due to overpopulation, thus saving many natural resources, currently threatened by deforestation or pollution. Deforestation and desertification caused by agricultural encroachment on natural biomes would be avoided. Because vertical farming lets crops be grown closer to consumers, it would substantially reduce the amount of fossil fuels currently used to transport and refrigerate farm produce. Producing food indoors reduces or eliminates conventional plowing, planting, and harvesting by farm machinery, also powered by fossil fuels.

Halting mass extinction

Withdrawing human activity from large areas of the Earth's land surface may be necessary to slow and eventually halt the current anthropogenic mass extinction of land animals.

Traditional agriculture is highly disruptive to wild animal populations that live in and around farmland and some argue it becomes unethical when there is a viable alternative. One study showed that wood mouse populations dropped from 25 per hectare to 5 per hectare after harvest, estimating 10 animals killed per hectare each year with conventional farming. In comparison, vertical farming would cause very little harm to wildlife, and would allow disused farmland to return to its pre-agricultural state.

Impact on human health

Traditional farming is a hazardous occupation with particular risks that often take their toll on the health of human laborers. Such risks include: exposure to infectious diseases such as malaria and schistosomes, exposure to toxic chemicals commonly used as pesticides and fungicides, confrontations with dangerous wildlife such as venomous snakes, and the severe injuries that can occur when using large industrial farming equipment. Whereas the traditional farming environment inevitably contains these risks (particularly in the farming practice known as "slash and burn"), vertical farming – because the environment is strictly controlled and predictable – reduces some of these dangers. Currently, the American food system makes fast, unhealthy food cheap while fresh produce is less available and more expensive, encouraging poor eating habits. These poor eating habits lead to health problems such as obesityheart disease, and diabetes. The increased availability and subsequent lower cost of fresh produce would encourage healthier eating.

Poverty/destitution and culture

Food security is one of the primary factors leading to absolute poverty. Being able to construct 'farm land' in secure areas as needed will help alleviate the pressures causing crises among neighbors fighting for resources (mainly water and space). It also allows continued growth of culturally significant food items without sacrificing sustainability or basic needs, which can be significant to the recovery of a society from poverty.

Urban growth

Vertical farming, used in conjunction with other technologies and socioeconomic practices, could allow cities to expand while remaining largely self-sufficient food wise. This would allow for large urban centers that could grow without destroying considerably larger areas of forest to provide food for their people. Moreover, the industry of vertical farming will provide employment to these expanding urban centers. This may help displace the unemployment created by the dismantling of traditional farms, as more farm laborers move to cities in search of work.

Energy sustainability

Vertical farms could exploit methane digesters to generate a small portion of its own electrical needs. Methane digesters could be built on site to transform the organic waste generated at the farm into biogas which is generally composed of 65% methane along with other gases. This biogas could then be burned to generate electricity for the greenhouse.

Goldlocki at the German language Wikipedia [GFDL (gnu or CC-BY-SA- (3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons

Technologies and devices

Vertical farming relies on the use of various physical methods to become effective. Combining these technologies and devices in an integrated whole is necessary to make Vertical Farming a reality. Various methods are proposed and under research. The most common technologies suggested are:

·         Greenhouse

·         The Folkewall and other vertical growing architectures

·         Flowerpot

·         Aeroponics / Hydroponics / Aquaponics

·         Composting

·         Grow light

·         Phytoremediation

·         Skyscraper

·         Precision agriculture

·         Agricultural robot


Despommier argues that the technology to construct vertical farms currently exists. He also states that the system can be profitable and effective, a claim evidenced by some preliminary research posted on the project's website. Developers and local governments in the following cities have expressed serious interest in establishing a vertical farm: Incheon (South Korea), Abu Dhabi (United Arab Emirates), and Dongtan (China), New York City, Portland, Ore., Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Seattle, Surrey, B.C., Toronto, Paris, Bangalore, Dubai, Shanghai and Beijing. The Illinois Institute of Technology is now crafting a detailed plan for Chicago. It is suggested that prototype versions of vertical farms should be created first, possibly at large universities interested in the research of vertical farms, in order to prevent failures such as the Biosphere 2 project in Oracle, Arizona.

In 2013 (July 18) the Association for Vertical Farming (AVF) was founded in Munich (Germany). By May 2015 the AVF already expanded with regional chapters all over Europe, Asia, USA, Canada and the United Kingdom This internationally active non-profit organization unites growers and inventors to improve food security and the sustainable development of Vertical Farming. The AVF also focuses on advancing vertical farming technologies, designs and businesses by hosting international info-days, workshops and summits. They developed a glossary to bring consistency to the industry and plan on helping to standardize the technologies.

Thanks to Wikipedia: Vertical Farming

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