Our planet’s population is growing at a rate faster than we can feed it. And in the next 3 decades, this issue will be further complicated by environmental concerns. Converting forest land to farmland has turned out to be an ecological disaster and has been one of the largest causes of climate change. In such a scenario, is vertical farming a part of the solution?
A third of arable land has been lost over the last 4 decades. And with the population set to grow to 9.7 billion by the end of 2050, feeding the population will be as big a challenge as containing a changing environment.
The Practice Of Vertical Farming
Vertical farming is the unique practice of growing crops in layered stacks. It involves an environment that is controlled, with optimal growth through cutting-edge farming techniques such as aquaponic, hydroponic, and aeroponics.
This practice of using vertically inclined surfaces is usually integrated into artificial structures such as shipping containers, skyscrapers, and warehouses repurposed for farming.
Modern agricultural techniques such as Controlled Environment Agriculture are employed for this form of indoor technique. Under controlled light, temperature, gases, and humidity, foods and medicinal plants are grown indoors.
Vertical farming resembles greenhouses in several aspects, such as in the use of reflected natural lighting or artificial light as a substitute for or to augment normal sunlight.
The ultimate aim is for the maximum output of crops using the least amount of space.
The Techniques Used For Vertical Farming
Vertical farming relies on 4 critical aspects; the physical layout, the source of lighting which can be multiple, the growing medium, and the sustainability features.
The primary aim of vertical \farming is consistency in production. It is about producing the maximum quantity of quality products for each given area. To maximize efficiency and output, cultivation is done in stacked layers that are stacked like a tower.
Lighting is vital for vertical farming in the absence of consistent natural lighting. It is usually a combination of reflected natural lighting and artificial lighting to maintain a natural ambiance for maximum growth. Rotating beds are one of the technologies used for effective use of lighting.
The soil is naturally one of the most important features of any farming, especially vertical farming where everything must be prepared from scratch. Instead of conventional soil, a mixture of various mediums such as aquaponic, aeroponic, or hydroponic mediums are employed. Some of the common substances used are coconut husks, peat moss, and other similar non-soil media are used regularly in vertical farming.
Finally carefully calculated sustainability features are used to minimize the impact of high initial costs. For instance, vertical farming relies on 95% less water than conventional output for the same quantity of yield.
Historical Precedents Of Vertical Farming
The earlier known proponents were the ancient Babylonians. They were the pioneers in this advanced system of agriculture. More than 2,500 years ago, they built hanging gardens that were an inspiration to modern vertical farming.
The Mesoamerican Aztecs pioneered scientific agriculture by using any soil, one thousand years ago. . Instead, they relied on a solution that was rich in nutrients. They grew their produce on raft-like structures in marshy rivers and on shallow lakes. They were known as chinampas and their remnants are still visible in Mexico City to this day. The practice of chinampas survives to this day in parts of Mexico.
Coming back to more modern times, Mediterranean fruits were cultivated by the Dutch and the French even in their cold climate with the help of intricate ‘fruit walls’ made of stone. These stone walls trapped heat during the daytime and released it during the chilly nights. This protected the fruits from the extreme cold of northern Europe.
Agriculture In An Controlled Environment
The above examples are all part of Controlled ENvorinment Agriculture. To put it plainly, CEA is merely a farming technique that relies on spaces where the conditions can be manipulated and controlled according to the requirements of specific plants. It is the equivalent of placing a thermostat to control the whole farming process.
Temperatures, humidity, the number of nutrients, light are all controlled and manipulated inside the farms. This ensures that radically opposite types of plants can be planted in the same area and be under the same master controlling system.
Vertical Farming In The Modern Era
Vertical farming is an advanced technique of CEA and uses upward farming to maximum effect. Unlike conventional or ‘horizontal’ farming, crops are grown in stacks, one on top of the other. They are all controlled and monitored in an indoor environment with the help of modern technology.
The greatest advantage of vertical farming is the release of space. This technique is not reliant on the limitations of horizontal farming when it comes to space. Production can be ramped up dramatically within the confines of the same piece of land.
Vertical Farming And Its Infrastructural Inputs
Conventional farming is heavily reliant on the condition of the soil, on the availability of water, and the weather that is subject to seasonal vagaries. Any disturbance in the input of anyone’s condition can severely affect production.
On the other hand, vertical farming is not dependent on geographical conditions. Plants can be suspended in water that is nutrient-rich. This water is specially prepared and includes phosphorus, nitrogen, and other nutrients that are controlled throughout the complete growth process.
In the absence of sunlight, controlled light and warmth is supplied through LED lights that are energy efficient. They are all controlled through a central control system.
The Advantages Of Vertical Farming
This modern technique of farming has several advantages. Production is one of the important areas as farmers can produce more with fewer resources. Fewer resources are needed and transportation costs are reduced as farming operations can be carried out practically anywhere.
Other advantages include an incredible saving of water, and the conservation of arable land, 30% of which we have already lost. Other advantages include eliminating the use of pesticides.
Production is not dependent on outside factors including pandemics, droughts, and economic disruption.
With outdoor farming coming close to reaching its production limitation with the limitation of arable land, going vertical is the only option left. The future lies in employing the latest agricultural techniques for maximum production in a controlled environment.