The United Nations Organization (UNO) 2019 anticipated that the world’s population will reach 9.7 billion people by 2050. Feeding such a considerable population may be a frightful issue to settle. In addition to this, we are losing arable land every year due to industrial development and urbanization. 

A recent study, “A sustainable Model for Intensive Agriculture, 2015“, estimated that the Earth had lost one-third of its arable land over the previous 40 years. We have no idea how much more we will lose in the next 40 years. 

One of the most severe difficulties we face is the increasing food demand caused by a growing population and dwindling arable land. In this scenario, many people believe vertical farming is a hope for people worldwide. 

In addition to food security, vertical farming may help us settle the issues of climate change, urban density, ecosystem balance, and healthy living.

Let’s explore how! 

Table of Contents

Vertical Farming: A Hope

Vertical Farming
Vertical Farming | Image Credit – Flickr

Vertical farming may be a solution to many problems that the world has been facing. Some notable factors include food security, climate change, urban density management, ecosystem balance, and health hazards. 

Food security for billions

Food security for billions
Food security for billions | Image Credit – UNICEF

Food security is becoming a more pressing concern. Demographers predict that the urban population will skyrocket in the following decades and project that 68% of the world population will live in the urban areas by 2050 (United Nations). Simultaneously, land professionals (e.g., agronomists, ecologists, and geologists) warn of increasing farmland scarcity. For these reasons, food demand may outstrip supply, resulting in global famine. 

The world’s population will expand by 40% by 2050, surpassing 9 billion people. It will reach 9.8 billion by 2050 and 11.2 billion by 2100 (United Nations). The World Bank predicts that cities will generate 80 percent of the global GDP. Furthermore, it projects that by 2050, we would require 70% more food to meet the wants of 3 billion more people on the planet. 

In recent decades, food prices have surged, and farmers estimate that they will continue to rise as oil prices rise and water, energy, and agricultural resources dwindle. The spreading outskirts of suburban development continue to devour agriculture. Urban agriculture, on the other hand, has been plagued by land shortages and high expenses. 

To address this massive global dilemma, we urgently require innovative solutions. Vertical farming’s principle is straightforward: produce more food on less land. 

The same logic that we use to build homes and offices on restricted and expensive land, such as in Hong Kong or Manhattan, may be applied to farming. 

Proponents of vertical farming argue that it would build compact and self-sufficient ecosystems that will cover a wide range of services, including food production. Vertical farming might enable efficient and sustainable food production, conserve water and energy, boost the economy, reduce pollution, provide new job opportunities, restore ecosystems, and increase access to healthful food. 

Crops will be less susceptible to the vagaries of climate, infestation, the nutrient cycle, crop rotation, contaminated water runoff, pesticides, and dust in a controlled environment. As a result, indoor farming may provide a healthier environment to raise food. 

Furthermore, indoor farming provides a low-impact system that can significantly reduce travel costs and GHG emissions by reducing travel lengths between remote farms and local markets. Additionally, vertical farming has the potential to energize local economies by delivering much-needed “green-collar” jobs to urban regions. Significantly, vertical farms may aid in solving the issue of farmland scarcity.

The existing agriculture supplies will soon become largely insufficient. On average, each human being requires 1500 calories each day, and to meet this demand; we will need to add an area the size of Brazil to existing agricultural land by 2050 (Dr. Dickson Despommier,2009).

Fight for Climate Change

Traditinal farming adds to carbon footprint
Traditinal farming adds to carbon footprint | Image Credit – Wikimedia Commons

Climate change has aided in the reduction of arable land. Flooding, hurricanes, storms, and drought have dramatically reduced crucial agricultural land, harming the global economy. Due to an extended drought in 2011, America lost a $7.62 billion grain crop( AgrilifeToday). 

Scientists expect that climate change and harsh weather conditions will continue to worsen. These occurrences will result in the despoliation of vast swaths of fertile land, rendering them unfit for farming. Governments frequently extensively support traditional farming through procedures such as crop insurance for natural causes. 

Furthermore, traditional farming necessitates large amounts of fossil fuels to carry out agricultural activities (e.g., plowing, fertilizer application, seeding, weeding, and harvesting), which adds to a significant carbon footprint.

Traditional farming necessitates significant quantities of fossil fuels to carry out agricultural activities (e.g., plowing, applying fertilizers, sowing, weeding, and harvesting), accounting for more than 20% of total gasoline and diesel fuel use in the United States. 

We must understand that “food miles” refers to the distance crops travel to reach centralized metropolitan populations. Food travels nearly 1500 miles from the farm field to the dinner table (CUESA). 

In extreme cases, such as freezing weather, food miles can skyrocket as supermarkets, restaurants, and hospitals fly products in from overseas to fulfill demand. Over 90% of the food in large US cities is imported from elsewhere daily. 

According to a 2008 research at Carnegie Mellon, meal delivery accounts for 0.4 tons of carbon dioxide emissions per household (Eco Towers). This is especially relevant in light of the growing distance between farms and cities due to global urbanization. Unfortunately, the greenhouse gas emissions caused by food transit and agricultural activities have contributed to climate change.

Fulfilling food for dense Urban

Urban Farm
Urban Farm | Image Credit – Flickr

Vertical farming has advantages over “horizontal” urban farming in that it frees up land for more urban activities (i.e., housing more people, services, and amenities). According to research, dedicating urban land for farming results in lower population density, which leads to lengthier commutes. 

If America replaced only 7.9% of its massive one billion acres of crop and pastureland with urban farms, metropolitan densities would be slashed in half (Kheir Al-Kodmany). Lower density living requires more energy and contributes to more air and water pollution. 

According to the National Household Travel Survey (NHTS) statement, “if we reduce urban density by 50%, households will purchase an additional 100 gallons of gas each year” (Smart Village Technology). The increased gas consumption caused by relocating a relatively small percentage of farms to cities would increase emissions.

The increased gas consumption caused by relocating a relatively modest percentage of farms to cities would result in 1.77 tons of CO2 per home per year. Despommier discusses the space efficiency of vertical farms. He proposed that a 30-story skyscraper (approximately 100 m tall) with a basal area of 2.02 ha (5 acres) could provide a crop yield similar to 971.2 ha (2400 acres) of standard horizontal farming. This means that the output of a single high-rise farm is similar to the output of 480 traditional horizontal farms.

Health and hygiene

Umanaged traditional farming
Unmanaged traditional farming | Image Credit – Flickr

Conventional farming techniques frequently emphasize profit and commercial gain while paying little attention to the harm inflicted on human and natural environment health. These methods continually create erosion, pollute soil, and waste a lot of water. 

In terms of human health, the World Health Organization has concluded that over half of the world’s farms continue to utilize raw animal excrement as fertilizer, which may attract flies and carry weed seeds or illnesses transmitted to plants. As a result, people’s health suffers when they ingest such food. Growing crops in a regulated indoor environment would also have the advantage of decreasing the excessive use of pesticides and herbicides, which cause damaging agricultural runoff.

In a controlled environment, pests, diseases, and weeds have a much stricter time infiltrating and damaging crops. When extra fertilizer is washed into bodies of water (such as rivers, streams, and oceans), a high concentration of nutrients is formed (a process known as eutrophication), which can disrupt the natural balance. 

Eutrophication, for example, may hasten the growth of algae. However, when it dies, microorganisms devour algae and deplete all of the oxygen in the water, resulting in a dead aquatic zone. Indoor vertical farming uses high-tech growth methods that require less water (approximately one-tenth of what is used in traditional farming) by providing precision irrigation and efficient scheduling. This can have a significant positive impact because water demands will rise as the urban population expands.

Agricultural activities consume more than two-thirds of the world’s freshwater, and farmers are losing the battle for agricultural water as cities grow and need more water. The water problem is expected to worsen as climate change produces higher temperatures and droughts.

Reviving natural Ecosystem 

Reviving Ecosystem
Reviving Ecosystem | Image Credit – Yale University

For millennia, traditional agriculture has been intruding on natural ecosystems. According to Dickson Despommier, “farming has disrupted more natural processes than anything else; it is the most destructive operation on Earth.”

The Brazilian rainforest has been badly harmed by agricultural encroachment during the last half-century, with around 1,812,992 square kilometers (700,000 square miles) of hardwood forest removed for farming. Despommier hypothesized that encroachment on these ancient habitats is exacerbating climate change. 

In this approach, indoor vertical farming can lessen the agricultural impact on the world’s ecosystems by restoring biodiversity and mitigating the harmful effects of climate change. Suppose cities used vertical farms to produce just 10% of the ground area they consume. In that case, CO2 emissions might be reduced enough to develop superior technological breakthroughs to improve the biosphere’s long-term state. 

By reducing fertilizer runoff, coastline and river water might replenish, and wild fish stocks could increase. The best argument to consider converting most food production to vertical farming is the promise of restoring the services and functions of ecosystems.

Economy upliftment 

Economy upliftment 
Economy upliftment | Image Credit – Pixabay

Proponents of vertical farming say that it will provide competitive food pricing. The rising cost of traditional farming is closing the cost gap. Suppose vertical farms are strategically positioned in urban areas. It will be feasible to sell fruit directly to consumers, lowering transportation expenses by eliminating the intermediary, accounting for 60% of expenditures. 

Vertical farms also use new technologies and intensive agricultural methods to improve output tenfold. Researchers have optimized indoor farming by calibrating, tweaking, and modifying variables such as light intensity, light color, space temperature, crop and root, CO2 contents, soil, water, and air humidity. Furthermore, vertical farming provides an opportunity to help the local economy.

Abandoned urban structures are turned into vertical farms to supply healthful food in areas where fresh produce is rare. Furthermore, the high-tech setting of indoor farming can make farming enjoyable. 

As a result, the technique has lured a technologically savvy younger population, cultivating new farmers’ breeds. Furthermore, vertical farming stimulates the development of novel agricultural technology. Finally, it has the potential to link city inhabitants with nature through farming.

Wrapping up

People worldwide are intrigued about the potential for vertical agriculture to help with food security, climate change, urban density management, ecosystem balance, and a lot more. More effective farming practices are required as the global population will exceed 9 billion people by 2050. Agricultural and food-related developments could be the answer to feeding people in 2050. And vertical farming is a genuine hope!

(Last Updated on April 28, 2022 by Sadrish Dabadi)

Suraksha Pal is an Industrial Engineer currently pursuing my master’s degree in Renewable Energy Engineering at the Institute of Engineering, Pulchowk Campus. She has a keen interest in Renewable Energy and is passionate about sustainable development. She loves to express her views on these subjects through articles and blogs.