• Environmental Law and Regulation Society

Vertical Farming and AgroTech: upending the way we grow our greens

Written by: Elisa Hendel

Monday, October 24, 2022



Introduction and background

Imagine revolutionizing how we grow much of our food. Imagine farming indoors, returning the outdoors to wildlife, rather than exploiting them as massive, intensive, energy-inefficient monoculture fields. Imagine using 99% less land [1] and 95% less fresh water [2] to grow the same greens we currently grow on fields, all while eliminating the need for noxious chemicals, and pesticides and protecting our crops from extreme weather events. Stop imagining, because this is the reality that Vertical Farms (VFs) offer.

Since around 2016, the technology of Vertical Farming (VFing) has grown rapidly, with dozens of start-ups working on this revolutionary innovation raising hundreds of millions in funds. This is because these VFing companies have exposed a major problem lwithin the agriculture industry from which multiple negative externalities remain unsolved (or are perhaps, inherently unsolvable). Food production is responsible for approximately 26% of global GHG emissions [3]. Traditional farming, which is disease-ridden with frequent cases of agricultural mismanagement, destroys, erodes, and pollutes the very soil and freshwater it needs to maintain itself.

I believe it’s time we upend the way we grow our food, literally, by farming vertically. In this piece, I will unpack what VFs are and how they work, discuss why they could be crucial in the world's attempts to reduce our environmental impact and go over the technology’s next steps.


What are Vertical Farms

VFs are vertically-stacked indoor farms which use indoor farming techniques such as special LED lighting, targeted watering systems, and vitamin and other nutrient supplements to create a perfectly stable and healthy environment to grow dozens of species of crops without the need for soil or natural sunlight. It is difficult to describe with words, since the idea is so innovative it seems absurd, but here is a picture to demonstrate and another to juxtapose it VFs with traditional farms:

Figure 1: Agricultural scientist walking down

one of the many halls in a VF warehouse [4]


Figure 2: A ruined harvest from an eroded, dried,

and degraded traditional farm [5]



Why are they interesting; what problems do Vertical Farms solve?

VFs have tremendous advantages over traditional farms, from infinitely better land usage to their ability to strengthen food supply chains;


Land: The first and most important advantage VFs present is their superior efficiency and productivity when it comes to land usage. Farmed vertically allows for higher yield of crops while using much less land than traditional farm fields. VFs can have up to 10x the yield of crops while using 99% less land, meaning they are 390x more productive than traditional outdoor farms! [6] The less outdoor space crops require to grow, the less deforestation is necessary to accommodate them and the more local biodiversity can be contained, which is crucial in maintaining the balance of life. The visual representation of land efficiency and productivity is illustrated by the two figures above.


Water: Land is not the only resource VFs use efficiently; they also require much lower amounts of inputs of fresh water. One vertical farming company, AeroFarms, claims that its methods use 95% less fresh water than crops on a conventional field would need. [7] Traditional outdoor farms face many weaknesses connected to fresh water use, most notably with evaporation and salinization which damages the soil and the crops themselves. In a protected, indoor environment, fresh water use is much more easily controlled and monitored. Thus, the increasingly scare fresh water we have left can be better used.


Energy: Another resource VFs uses efficiently is electricity. A Canadian VF claims it requires only 60W of electricity (equivalent to one light bulb) to power one 9m tall produce tower. [8]


Chemicals: What’s more is VFing eliminates the need to spray damaging chemical-based pesticides and fertilizers. These chemicals are damaging pollutants which not only threaten to kill off the already-threatened pollinating bees and other insects which are vital for global food webs, but also add to the vast sums of noxious GHGs found in the atmosphere, which can also run off from the field into nearby ecosystems due to rainfall and potentially kill entire ecosystems due to eutrophication. [9]


Supply chain volatility and food insecurity: One of the most damaging effects of climate change is an increase in extreme weather events. These have ravaged crops from Spain to India, resulting in increased hunger, decreased wages and heightened food insecurity. However, given that VFs operate indoor within a closed-loop system, the crops would be protected in the advent of radical weather events. [10]


Therefore, the practice of vertical farming mitigates major problems: land mismanagement leading to deforestation and biodiversity loss, the growing freshwater crisis, food instability, soil erosion, etc. This makes the technology a very appealing solution to the agricultural crisis we face.



Time for a change

Humans have farmed using roughly the same methods for thousands of years. However, the way and amount of food we consume and the lifestyles we lead have radically changed. It no longer makes sense to use a 10,000 year old practice in today’s, modern era. Conventional farms are no longer suitable to our way of live.

The planet’s population density has increase to 7.6+ billion mouths to feed, and may grow to 10+ billion by 2050. [11] The strain on the Earth’s resources will be too high if we continue our use of conventional farming; soil erosion is projected to increase to the extent that much of our farm lands will be ‘severely eroded’ by 2050, causing soil productivity to plummet - making land too hostile to grow food. [12] The few harvests farmers might achieve may indeed be ravaged by the increasingly frequent extreme weather events mentioned above, or disrupted or ruined in light of geopolitical crises.

Conventional farming currently demands too much of our Earth’s natural resources, and it will only get worse if we don’t change course. VFing uses the rare resources we have much more efficiently, meaning we put less strain on the planet’s resources. Furthermore, because VFing can be auto-regulated such that its interior conditions are satisfactory for whatever is being planted inside, tropical fruits, for instance, can be grown a few kilometers away from megacities (and all-year round) rather than flown in from the other ends of the Earth, curbing massive amounts of transportation-related GHG emissions.

I believe VFing is begining to disrupt the agricultural sector. It bridges the gap between how agriculture is now and what it ought to be.



What’s next for Vertical Farms

Though there are some caveats that must be noted regarding vertical farms, primarily the tradeoff that has to be made between more efficient farming and higher emissions to power the VFing warehouses, as well as the need for great amounts of financing to develop and maintain these indoor structures, I am convinced that VFs are the future of farming.

The technology is not yet widespread, but so far, greens including kale, broccoli, and spinach, are sold in convenience stores like Walmart and AmazonFresh [13]. The attraction towards this farming technique has gained traction, being featured recently in an FT ‘Big Read’ [14], and articles in the New York Times [15] and The Guardian [16]. Major players like IKEA, Softbank, BlackRock, and the United States Government have invested hundreds of millions into VFs, [17] supporting many existing VFing start-ups such as AeroFarms from the UAE, Little Leaf Farms and Plenty® from the USA, and Sky Greens from Canada. The industry is expected to grow to be worth $9.7 billion by 2026. [18] Some of these VFing companies have gone public, boasting of successful IPOs. [19] In the past ten years, there has been an unprecedented rush of venture capital into agrotech. Between 2013 and 2019, funding to agrotech startups have increased by 900% from $2.2 billion to $19.8 billion [20]. In 2019 alone, indoor farming investments rose 38% over 2018.


Figure 3: The upwards trend of investment in

VFs until 2020, latest year available with FT data [21]



It is hard to predict what’s next in what is a highly volatile and quickly-changing commercial climate. But I truly believe that VFs are here to stay. As more investment in R&D comes in, VFing companies may develop the technology to be suitable for a greater variety of greens which would potentially lead to VFs fully replacing convention mega-farms. But for now, I suggest you keep an eye out for VFs and the moves the aforementioned big players are making when it comes to these innovative startups. What do you think - is it time to upend the way we grow our greens? Are vertical farms the solution?





Bibliography

[1] https://www.aerofarms.com/impact/

[2] Ibid [1]

[3] https://ourworldindata.org/food-ghg-emissions

[4] https://miro.medium.com/max/1400/0*N-g9zx-TKw56n0we.jpg

[5] https://www.google.com/url?sa=i&url=https%3A%2F%2Fnewseu.cgtn.com%2Fnews%2F2022-08-24%2FUK-farmers-count-the-cost-of-prolonged-drought-1cJVqoCnZni%2Findex.html&psig=AOvVaw0MSw0oRQQWl40GrRGl3QjV&ust=1666606359242000&source=images&cd=vfe&ved=0CAwQjRxqFwoTCPDo2uKO9voCFQAAAAAdAAAAABAD

[6] Ibid [1]

[7] Ibid [1]

[8] https://skygreenscanada.com/vertical-farming-system

[9] See the case of eutrophication in the Gulf of Mexico which has killed the majority of its endemic aquatic life due to kilos of pesticide and fertilizer runoff from farms around the Mississippi River which flooded into the waterways from rainfall and agricultural mismanagement.

[10] In Spain, hail has completely destroyed harvests leaving farmers without revenue and people without affordable food, and in France, intense droughts have done the same. Harvests have been ruined all over the world.

[11] https://www.eea.europa.eu/data-and-maps/figures/world-population-projections-iiasa-probabilistic

[12] https://www.nytimes.com/2022/04/06/business/vertical-farms-food.html

[13] https://www.aerofarms.com/our-greens/

[14] https://www.ft.com/content/4263fbe2-db0e-4a8e-8cb4-32405ee2c9b6

[15] Ibid [11]

[16] https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2022/aug/21/the-rise-of-vertical-farms-could-indoor-plant-factories-be-the-norm-in-10-years

[17] https://igrownews.com/pitchbook-data-show-vc-backs-vertical-farming/

[18] Ibid

[19] See AppHarvest (Nasdaq: APPH) worth $1 billion, and Scotts Miracle-Gro (NYSE: SMG), among others.

[20] https://agfundernews.com/blackrock-leads-fbns-250m-series-f

[21] https://www.ft.com/content/0e3aafca-2170-4552-9ade-68177784446e



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