Vertical Farming: A Synopsis of the Techniques, Developments, & the Future

Jan 31, 2022
7 min read

Ever wondered what would happen if urban infrastructure keeps increasing at the current pace? What would happen if the world’s food production came to an end one day and the human populace stood at the precipice of peril from starvation? Or the arable land across the globe gets extinct? Will that indicate the end of mankind or would there possibly be a way out of this labyrinth?

Farming has been a part of human civilization for centuries galore, ever since man realized the significance of growing crops for sustenance, and later, monetary survival. From the time the first seeds were sown and cultivated to now, the 21st century, farming techniques have undergone a spate of changes. In recent years, population explosion has emerged to be a major point of concern. With the increase in housing requirements, urban infrastructure, and overburden of water resources, the availability of arable land has considerably lessened, leading to a reduction in global food production.

As per The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, with the global population expected to cross 9 billion by 2050, raising food production by 70% or more would be the need of the hour.

An Introduction to Vertical Farming

While the lack of cultivable land is an issue that has cropped up since the last couple of decades, experts have been researching ways to reduce dependency on conventional land-based farming since the 20th century. This perpetually is what has led to vertical faring or indoor-based farming – coined in 1915 by Gilbert Ellis Bailey. A highly popular solution that has revolutionized the field of agriculture, given its non-requirement of soil and horizontal space, vertical farming is likely to become more prevalent in the forthcoming decades as it attempts to resolve the issue of food production.

The underlying approach here is that plants/crops are stacked vertically as opposed to the position they take up in fields. Having them stacked in a tower-like structure ensures that the area needed for the plants to grow is reduced. Furthermore, natural and artificial lights are deployed to create a viable environment for the plants to thrive. Depending on the requirement, a suitable medium is selected an efficient growth of the plants. Deploying a functional scientific method for growing plants also increases the efficiency of the entire process, thereby delivering efficient output.

Vertical farming has a ton of advantages, which are likely to lead to an increase in its adoption over the next few years.

· Vertical farming requires 95% less water as compared to conventional farming methods.

· These farms are modular, can be suitably adjusted to fit most buildings, and are also known to feed more people than conventional farming does – primarily since they are able to grow 75 times more food per square foot as opposed to a traditional farm.

· The produce obtained through vertical farming is safer and healthier as this type of farming uses no pesticides or fungicides; plant fertilizing nutrients are used instead.

· Vertical farming, when implemented on a large scale is likely to help preserve land and replenish topsoil, as it uses a relatively small space and lesser water.

The Principal Techniques of Vertical Farming

1.       Hydroponics

It is one of the oldest and most reliable techniques of indoor farming. Indeed, it was William Frederick Gerick, who pioneered hydroponics at the University of California at Berkley, in the early 1930s. This is a soilless method of growing food in water – using mineral-rich nutrient solutions, to be precise. One of the principal advantages of hydroponics is that it eliminates issues such as pests and soil-borne diseases since no soil is used at all, during cultivation.

The floating raft system can be considered an easy, simple hydroponic method that suspends plants on something like a polystyrene sheet-like structure, enabling the roots to hang and absorb the oxygen-aerated solution.

The nutrient film technique is also a commonly-used method, where the nutrient-dissolved solution is pumped into a plastic pipe (or just about any angled channel) that houses the plants. The solution is let through the plants’ root mat and is later re-circulated as required.

2.       Aeroponics

Aeroponics gained traction in the 1990s on account of NASA’s initiative to unearth an effective way to grow plants in space. NASA has spent considerable time researching on this technique and today it is being used in certain establishments for food production. Similar to hydroponics, there is no growing medium, and no water is used; mist or nutrients are used instead. Aeroponics comprises a system where plants are tied to a support structure with their roots dangling, while they are sprayed with a nutrient-rich solution.

This method requires no soil and very little water and space. The only drawback is that it is a little expensive, since the plants require a lot of nutrient solution. It would however, be prudent to state that aeroponics enables plants to grow quicker than in hydroponics.

3.       Aquaponics

The term aquaponics comes from two words: aquaculture, that is, fish farming, and hydroponics. Aquaponics establishes an inter-dependent relationship between the growth of the plants and fish simultaneously. It is a soil-less system and utilizes herbivorous fish for food production. The system contains a plant bed that is hung over a water body. In the water body however, resides a fish population, whose waste is utilized as a fertilizer for the plants growing in the hydroponic production beds.

Likewise, the hydroponic beds act as bio-filters and enable the removal of chemicals, such as nitrates, ammonia, and phosphate, from the water, as well as gases and acids. These gravel beds provide suitable habitats for nitrification that enables water to get filtered so that the fresh water can be re-circulated into the fish tanks. Aquaponics thus defines a symbiotic system where the plants purify the water body, helping the fish to thrive, and the fish waste is used as a fertilizer for plant growth.

Unlike the other two techniques, aquaponics requires a little more attention, despite the presence of filtration and aeration systems, given the importance of ensuring that both life forms are able to thrive in harmony.

A Concise List of the Pivotal Developments in Vertical Farming

Vertical farming has come a long way from what it used to be a decade back. As the masses are more and more aware of the issues posed due to population explosion and lack of arable land for food cultivation, vertical farming techniques such as hydroponics are becoming more popular than ever before. More and more companies are getting involved in indoor farming to help solve a perpetual food crisis the world over.

· Sprout AI for example, is a Canada-based company that designs and manufactures hermetic, scalable, AI-controlled aeroponic systems which can be installed in any indoor space. Apparently, these systems will be around 100 times more productive than conventional farming methods, with about 95% water savings and a massive reduction in the use of land and fossil fuels to sow, fertilize, and transport crops.

· In Saudi Arabia, the Estidamah (the National Research and Development Center for Sustainable Agriculture) has plans to establish global partnerships with vertical farm experts so as to set up indoor farming facilities and localize this technique.

· A San Francisco-based agricultural technology startup called Plenty, has made it to the headlines for having set up a state-of-the-art, climate-controlled vertical farm, including robots designed to control temperature, lighting, and irrigation. The company is able to produce 720 acres worth of vegetable and fruit yields in merely 2 acres of farmland. It also uses LED panels to generate optimal conditions for plant growth throughout the year.

· Switzerland-based startup, YASAI is a pioneer in circular agricultural economy – it has come up with a concept that integrates indoor farming technologies into a circular economy model. YASAI was established with the intention to convert an abandoned limestone quarry into a sustainable vertical farming facility, where the startup focuses on leveraging the limestone mines in the area as a natural coolant solution for the facility, recycling concrete for grey energy mitigation, and recycling nutrients from wastewater. In addition, it makes use of rooftop rainwater for irrigation, geothermal heat for internal cooling, and repurposed biowaste for generating electricity.

· Swedish food tech company Plantagon has come up with a creative solution based on vertical greenhouses – where a transport system is used to move planting boxes to a vertical greenhouse, from the floor to the ceiling, without the need for artificial light. This system can be easily deployed in new buildings or also suitably adjusted for old buildings, thereby helping the occupants of the buildings to grow food themselves.

· An interesting vertical farming innovation that has is taking everyone by storm is the Lokal. A pop-up farming system developed in collaboration with IKEA's SPace 10 innovation lab, Lokal depends on LEDs or other sources of artificial light to grow crops hydroponically. Apparently Lokal enables plants to grow three times faster than conventional farms

· A company called ModularFarms has come up with an interesting vertical farming solution that has the ability to produce fresh, healthy plants in any climate or location. The system is scalable uses purpose-built steel containers to supplement urban centers, existing farms, and remote isolated communities. These containers are all self-sufficient and include water supply, environmental control, and lighting – just about everything.

· An innovative indoor farming technique making waves is something called CubicFarms. This is an entirely automated, environmentally-controlled system that deploys specialized trays which can be moved to ensure that the plant in its entirety receives the right amount of light for optimum growth. Based entirely on hydroponics, cubic farming systems also boast of high-quality nutrient, water, light and environmental control systems in specially designed steel containers.

These are just a few significant examples depicting the extent to which vertical farming has advanced over the years. The growth rate of this industry has been spectacular, and it is expected to register significant traction through the next decade and further. Other technological advancements in indoor farming range from VertiCrop, AeroFarms, and Skyfarm, to ZipGrow, Sky Greens, and Bowery.

What Does the Future Look Like for Vertical Farming?

A vertical farm is one of the best innovations of mankind – one of the many brilliant solutions to the food crisis faced worldwide. Of course, it has certain disadvantages – for starters, it is expensive, at least, the initial capital costs are exorbitant. Not to mention, the automated systems such as LED lighting and climate control solutions also may cost a bomb.

Despite that, it is one of the best solutions to what we perceive as a peril for the globe with regards to food production. With more and more people choosing to live in cities, the demand for good quality, fresh food is getting higher. Presently, vertical farming is at a nascent stage in some parts of the world; with time though, it is likely to garner more momentum and majorly transform the agricultural landscape across the globe.