The increasing uncertainty of our contemporary world may be attributed to a multitude of factors, including conflicts, natural catastrophes, escalating costs, population growth, and climate change. These challenges have significant implications for agricultural practices throughout many regions of the globe. The COVID-19 outbreak and subsequent pandemic is an additional reason that warrants consideration. This global health crisis has prompted authorities and corporations across the globe to critically assess the existing gaps in the production and distribution of food supplies. Based on the 2021 assessment of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), it is evident that the decade spanning from 2010 to 2020 was characterized by a significant level of turbulence.

As the global population approaches 9 billion by 2050, 70% of the populace is projected to reside in urban areas. This alteration, in conjunction with a shifting climate, unforeseeable conflicts will place pressure on the planet’s resources, particularly the food supply chain. The issue of food security and supply is becoming increasingly prominent, and it is pertinent to assess the feasibility of supplying urban areas with produce in an energy-efficient and environmentally sustainable manner. Abandoned warehouses in our cities, newly constructed structures on environmentally degraded land, or even used shipping containers from ocean transports could provide a solution to our need for additional space in the form of vertical farming.

Vertical farming is a method of agriculture in which artificial illumination and support apparatus are installed in plant factories. Crop cultivation takes place in a controlled environment through the use of aeroponic, hydroponic, aquaponic, and climatic regulation systems. The utilization of an artificial environment ensures the effective production of fruits and vegetables, leading to the development of superior products with reduced environmental damage. The technology enables the cultivation of plants vertically, in contrast to the conventional horizontal farming approach that encompasses expansive land areas.

Vertical farms predominantly employ hydroponics, a method of cultivation that entails the use of nutrient solutions devoid of soil. In order to ensure that the correct chemical composition is maintained, the nutrient solution in which the plant roots are submerged is frequently monitored and circulated. Typically, the Nutrient Film Technique (NFT) is employed to cultivate short-lived plants, including verdant vegetables, as it is a true hydroponics system. NFT systems ensure that roots remain saturated without becoming drenched by subjecting them to a continuous, shallow discharge of nutrient solution. A centralized reservoir pumps the nutrient solution into the slightly inclined growing channels, where it passes over the plant’s roots before draining back into the reservoir. Nutrient concentrations, pH, and aeration can be effortlessly managed by contemporary automated dispensing systems.

Combining fish and plants within the same ecosystem, aquaponic systems surpass hydroponic systems. Vertical farms utilize nutrient-rich detritus generated from the cultivation of fish in indoor reservoirs as plant food. In turn, the vegetation filters and purifies the effluent before returning it to the fish reservoirs for recycling. While aquaponics is employed in vertical farming systems on a lesser scale, the vast majority of commercial vertical farm systems utilize aquaponics to cultivate a limited selection of fast-growing vegetable crops. Optimization of efficiency is achieved by simplifying economic and production concerns. New standardized aquaponic systems, on the other hand, may contribute to the increased popularity of this closed-cycle system. Another method of vertical farming is the aeroponic system. NASA, interested in developing efficient methods to cultivate plants in space, coined the term “aeroponics” in the 1990s to describe the process of “growing plants in an air/mist environment with minimal water and no soil.” Despite being an anomaly in the world of vertical cultivation, aeroponics systems are generating considerable interest. Vertical farms utilize aeroponic systems for plant growth because they consume up to 90 percent less water than even the most efficient hydroponic systems. Furthermore, research has demonstrated that plants cultivated using this aeroponic system acquire greater quantities of minerals and vitamins, potentially enhancing their overall health and nutritional value. AeroFarms, the preeminent provider of aeroponics vertical farming in the United States, is presently constructing the country’s largest vertical farm in New Jersey.

Vertical farming provides numerous environmental advantages, including the prevention of urban heat islands and the improvement of climate conditions; protection of crops from pesticides, climate change, and weather-related catastrophes; water purification; promotion of sustainability; conservation of natural resources; air quality optimization; and the establishment of an environment that is conducive to biodiversity. Social benefits include the provision of employment opportunities, the enhancement of food production capabilities, and the guarantee of access to organic and nutritious commodities.

To increase the efficiency of vertical farming and reduce its environmental impact, AI and IoT  have been integrated into the agricultural system. Sensors are utilized by the system to gather data on plant physiology and growth within a controlled agricultural environment. Subsequently, artificial intelligence algorithms are applied to this data in order to monitor plant development through resource optimization. Vertical agricultural systems have already adopted and implemented IoT, and in recent years, AI has been integrated with IoT to monitor plant growth. The utilization of AI techniques offers several advantages, including the eradication of the unpredictability linked to human judgment regarding plant health and the more precise allocation of resources, thereby mitigating pollution and waste associated with production.

Although the benefits seem rewarding there are also downsides. Due to the limited availability of natural light within structures, vertical farms rely on artificial illumination, frequently supplied by LEDs. This situation is analogous to that of greenhouse farming. However, it is imperative to contemplate this additional expense. For instance, the implementation of a vertical approach in the agriculture sector of the United States would necessitate eight times the amount of electricity produced annually by all power facilities in the country for illumination purposes. An issue that is intricately connected to illumination is the temperature it generates. Lighting devices generate heat in excess of their lumen output, which could disrupt or interfere with the air conditioning system, particularly during the summer. Humidity regulation and air conditioning, both of which are energy-intensive and necessitate careful oversight, are additional critical factors for promoting healthy plant development indoors. 

Notwithstanding the substantial energy expenditure associated with operating the vertical farm system, the recent advancements in renewable energy technologies, such as photovoltaics, wind, and pumped-storage hydroelectricity, present remarkable prospects. Not only because on a larger scale they might open doors for cheaper electricity but also because of their location. Since they are mostly located in areas unfit for agriculture, even a small fraction of their generating capacity might be used for the purpose of a VF. Therefore, more research and development are imperative to achieve a break-even point and then success in feeding the urban jungle.

Written by Binnu Jacob Eapen, Edited by Navina Hasper

Photo Credit: Dossier