Is Vertical Farming the future hope of world food production ?

Dr.(Mrs) Menaka Fernando, Phd.

PUBLISHED ON Aug 08, 2021

For thousands of years man has been farming to meet his food needs. But the rapid increase in world population over the last few centuries due to the impact of the Industrial Revolution on the improvement of human living standards and the increase in life expectancy has put a great deal of pressure on traditional agriculture. More than 11% of the world's land area is currently being used for crop production, with modern technologies accelerating production and creating a number of environmental challenges ranging from the destruction of animal habitats to soil degradation. The impact of this on the earth's natural resources is enormous.

It is also possible to introduce as many as a hundred species of crops into such a system. In an environment where the whole world is currently facing the Covid-19 epidemic, there are signs of a future food crisis. Even in the face of such a catastrophe, it is possible to inherit a healthy diet by independently producing the food needed for one's family's consumption and to ensure food security.

Against this backdrop, the world population is projected to exceed 10 billion by 2050, and the challenge is to provide adequate, efficient, sustainable and sustainable food for the growing population. It is estimated that food production will need to be increased by as much as 70% to meet the needs of the growing population. "Vertical farming" can be called the future hope of food production, as it can significantly increase yields by overcoming obstacles caused by weather patterns and overcoming transportation challenges. According to market surveys, vertical farming is projected to reach $ 6.4 billion by 2023.

Furthermore, as populous cities expand, the distance between cultivable farmland and the people who consume its produce increases, affecting transportation. In addition, the ever-changing climatic conditions interfere with seasonal changes and the lack of suitable land for cultivation near rapidly developing areas can also be cited as challenges.

The concept of vertical farming has a wide potential to provide a sustainable solution to the above problems. The concept seeks to replace a traditional old farm spread over a large area with a very small space limited farm, which has the potential to lead to higher productivity by providing the optimal conditions for cultivation.

In such a farm, the crop is grown in a closed system and the light, temperature, humidity, water content and nutrient content are all computerized and monitored regularly. Compared to a traditional farm, the use of space is very high and a large number of sophisticatedly designed vertical shelves can be seen in this method (Figure 1).

Production obtained from a 400 acre land in a traditional farm can be obtained from one acre in such a farm. These are confined to a very small space and can be installed even near a densely populated urban area. Therefore, when transporting food to the consumers, the distance they have to carry it is less and the amount of fuel required for transportation is less. Therefore, burning fossil fuels can also reduce the amount of carbon dioxide released into the environment.

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Figure 1: Internal view of a vertical farm, clearly showing the systematically layered crop

Unlike traditional farms, which use a controlled environment do not cause harm to birds and insects, so there is no need to use agrochemicals that are harmful to human health. The use of energy-efficient LED light sources reduces energy consumption and the use of blue and red colours can further increase productivity (Figure 2).

Optimal crop production has the potential to reduce the amount of water used in vertical farming. Most vertical farms are watered by rainwater harvesting methods. Sometimes condensed water is collected and recycled within the controlled environment. This closed cyclical approach prevents damage to the land through the release of nutrients and fertilizers and their erosion into rivers and streams.

Some vertical farms are powered by renewable technologies and recycle many of their resources. Although it can be challenging to find land for vertical farms in urban areas and the cost involved, many locations such as restored carriages, cargo containers, old factories and unused warehouses can be used.

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Figure 2: Vertical farm using LED light sources

For example, Emirates, a state-owned airline in Dubai, and a private company are building a $ 40 million vertical farm to grow food and beverages for passengers at Dubai's Al-Maktoum Airport. This makes it possible to produce agrochemical-free products such as pesticides and herbicides, which consume very little water compared to the amount of water used in conventional agriculture. Also, this large agro-factory is located close to the airport, which can significantly reduce the cost of packing, loading and transportation.

The state of Abu Dhabi is currently laying the groundwork for food production using discarded shipping containers in an environment as hot as 40 degrees Celsius with the help of irrigated cultivation technology (Figure 3). These containers have been used by humans for a long time because they can be used for a long time and can be packed one on top of the other in a small area and can be easily upgraded.
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Figure 3: A vertical farm maintained as an irrigated crop (Source: Adobe Stock)

Growing UNDERGROUND, a private company, runs such a successful vertical farm underground on a crowded road in London, England. Similar farms are also found in countries such as South Korea, Singapore and Sweden.

The first vertical farm in Switzerland has been identified as one of the few farms in Europe to use artificial intelligence and robotics, and the six-story farm produces year-round green vegetables and fruits.

However, in vertical farming, the need to use large amounts of electricity for all activities has been identified as a disadvantage. Having a very reliable source of energy 24 hours a day, every day of the year is an essential factor in this process. Also, vertical farming methods are not yet used to grow staple food crops such as paddy and wheat, and only fruit crops such as lettuce, tomatoes and strawberries are grown. However, research is currently underway to study the quality requirements for major economic crops. According to ecologists, the emergence of such farms could affect the survival of natural ecosystems and threaten the extinction of pollinating insects by neglecting their habitat and neglecting them.

Eng. Lanka Ramanayaka - CEO
Design Knigdom Lk
BSc(Eng), PG Dip.(BSE), CEng., MIE(SL), MEC(SL)
Chartered Engineer