Can vertical farming revolutionise global agriculture?
Vertical farming is the practice of growing plants indoors under fully controlled environmental conditions in many stacked layers, using artificial lighting instead of relying on the sun. By tuning the growing environment to the exact needs of the plant and using soil-free growing techniques, this method of farming can achieve yields hundreds of times higher than conventional agriculture, 365 days a year and without requiring pesticides.
Supporters of vertical farming claim it could revolutionise global food production, practically eliminating food miles by enabling crop growth right next to urban population centres, paving the way for the future of smart cities. At the moment, fruit and vegetables often travel thousands of miles to reach consumers, losing freshness and quality along the way and increasing the risk of contamination.
Investors are responding enthusiastically, with the sector raising over $1bn in funding since 2015. High profile investments include New Jersey-based startup AeroFarms raising $100m in 2019 to expand its aeroponic growing facilities, and Californian startup Plenty raising $200m in 2017 in a funding round led by SoftBank Vision Fund, along with backers including Jeff Bezos and Alphabet chairman Eric Schmidt. Across the Pacific, the industry is already well-established - in Japan there are over 200 vertical farms currently operating, with industry leader Spread producing 30,000 heads of lettuce every day in its highly automated Techno Farm Keihanna plant.
However, despite this optimistic picture, the industry is facing challenges. The sector is littered with bankruptcies as companies struggle with the power costs of maintaining a controlled environment 24/7 and the difficulties of coordinating the labour intensive process of running a vertical farm.
Nevertheless, enthusiasm remains high and technology is helping to decrease the costs of vertical farming and make large scale urban food production a reality. A new report from market intelligence firm IDTechEx, ‘Vertical Farming: 2020-2030’ discusses the state of the vertical farming industry, the key technological enablers and the economics of the process compared with conventional agriculture, identifying the keys to success in this fledgling industry, such as:
- Growing methods
- LEDs and lighting
- Environmental controls
- Container farming