The Vertical Farming Conundrum; Will this solution ever ascend?

By N8 AgriFood’s Urban Agriculture Lead, Dr Jacob Nickles, pictured right.

 

The Vertical Farming Conundrum; Will this solution ever ascend?

Progress in vertical farming seems to have plateaued, the industry stuck on the systems’ biggest weakness, cost. For years, the answer to food production for an ever-increasing population has been height. The obvious solution being to incorporate a third dimension into the traditional two-dimensional world of farming.

However, the uptake has been slow and nowhere near as widespread as thought. The prevailing problem of cost includes installing and operating vertical farming systems, generally speaking vertical farms are built in controlled environments, using expensive technology and drawing greater energy demands than agronomists are used to. To offset these costs, increased yield per square meter is needed or to make use of an otherwise unusable space for production. When approaching traditional farmers about the prospect of vertical farming, a common response is scepticism. The technology needs to overcome start-up costs, be developed in a manner that makes it more environmentally sustainable than it currently is and be simplified so that an entry-level of expertise is enough to operate it.

While progress is being made in the above challenges, deployment is bound by the research. Governmental policy will need to be adjusted to incorporate support for vertical farming, and active measures will need to be taken, for example subsidising costs for new equipment, to encourage uptake by traditional farmers. Additionally, social aspects of vertical farming need to be politically considered. If you can produce food within a city, you reduce carbon footprint in the form of transport and storage. You will also increase resilience within the city by creating more jobs and increasing nutritional access to residents.

In the interim, several new large scale projects have been launched internationally, which connect cities to food networks directly. In the UAE, Dubai will see the launch of a 50,000 square foot vertical facility producing 3,500kg of fruit and vegetables every day in the second quarter of 2020, and in South Korea a 600 metre section of tunnel has been repurposed as vertical growing space. The early adopters of these types of project are very large business as the capital expenditure required is enormous. In the state of Virginia, USA, a new vertical facility by AeroFarms has been commissioned. The initial investment put in by AeroFarms for the construction of the 150,000 square foot facility is US$42 million. However, even at this scale, local government funding has been leveraged to secure $600,000 in grants to assist with the overall project finances.

Within the UK, we are starting to see funding made accessible to disruptive agricultural technologies, albeit limited and highly specific to either industry or academia alone. The authors propose is that funding be made available at a small scale, to farms already in operation to help diversify crop portfolios, accessibility and resilience. And build research collaboration opportunities by in effect providing larger numbers of field sites to work with and further, subsiding collaborative efforts.