Saturday, February 4, 2023

Indoor and Vertical Farming Are Exciting, But They’re Not a Blanket Solution to Sustainable Food Production—Here’s Why

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Last year, nearly 287,000 shipments of food landed in Dubai. The ultramodern city, which is the most populous in the United Arab Emirates, is one of the most visited destinations in the world, attracting millions of tourists every year. But, due to a lack of arable land, water shortages, and a warming climate, feeding all of these tourists and the region’s own rapidly expanding population without imports is a challenge. But it’s working on a solution. 

Last year, Dubai opened the “world’s largest vertical farm,” which has the capacity to provide the city with 900 tons of greens every year. The 30,000 square-meter facility was created by indoor farm company Crop One Holdings and Emirates Flight Catering and is currently helping to feed the airline’s passengers. 

Emirates airplane in the sky
Emirates is looking to make its airline food offerings more sustainable. Courtesy Fabian Joy | Unsplash

This method of growing food suits Dubai: it doesn’t require large amounts of water, and it really doesn’t need much land either. In fact, vertical farms can set up camp just about anywhere, from disused warehouses to skyscrapers, which, let’s face it, the city isn’t short of. But Dubai isn’t alone. The global vertical farming industry is growing, and by 2030, it could hit a market size of more than $33 billion.

On the face of it, vertical farming seems like the answer to Dubai’s food industry challenges, but the system is not perfect. It’s energy-intensive for one, but there is also a major cost barrier for most rural farmers. It turns out, vertical farming might not be a blanket, universal solution to growing food more sustainably. Here, we examine a few of the reasons behind that. But first, let’s take a closer look at why vertical farms have started booming in popularity around the globe.

Hot off the heels of Dubai’s opening, construction started on a new giant vertical farm in Gloustershire last summer. When it opens, the facility—which strives to eliminate the need for any soft fruit, herbs, or salad UK imports in the next 10 years—will reportedly take the title of the world’s largest vertical farm. Vertical farms are also present in New York, Detroit, London, and across India, to name a few locations.

iFarm's indoor garden operations
iFarm is growing produce indoors | Courtesy

They’re popular for a few reasons. Firstly, they don’t need much space, which in cities, is a blessing. They also don’t require much water. According to city farming technology company, iFarm, vertical farming uses 95 percent less water than traditional farming. Plus, because of the controlled way produce is grown, it’s a totally pesticide-free system.

Vertical farms are also incredibly efficient. Everything can be controlled by software and robotics, which means that plants get exactly the right temperature, humidity, light, and carbon dioxide. This removes any need for concern about the weather and results in fresh produce all year round. This can all be exported locally, which reduces transport emissions considerably—just providing the UK with food emits around 19 million tons of carbon dioxide every year.

Are vertical farms really sustainable?

Without a doubt, on the face of it, vertical farms have a lot going for them. But experts have concerns about their true sustainability. For example, earlier this year, one study from the University of Oxford examined “the hidden footprint of indoor farming.” 

The researchers noted that, in order to maintain an ideal environment for produce all year round, significant amounts of electricity are required. And the energy sector, needless to say, has a serious environmental impact. Electricity is responsible for 40 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions, due to its reliance on fossil fuels. Of course, other, cleaner ways of producing energy, like wind and solar, do exist. But here’s the kicker: they need space. And vertical farming prides itself on its lack of land use.

indoor garden
Can indoor gardens fix our food system? Courtesy RAEng | Unsplash

Lead author of the study, Dr. Till Weiner, explained: “To properly consider the sustainability and footprint of each farming method, the space needed to capture renewable energy must be added to the overall land footprint.”

The research paper examined nine areas with vertical farms around the world and found that in the Chilean capital city Santiago, the most land-efficient production method was not vertical farming, but open-field. This was the same for other warm climates. 

The only place with a lower overall combined land-use footprint from vertical farming was Reykjavik, Iceland. And that’s because it has a very short growing season when it comes to traditional farming and good access to renewable energy. The study also names the United Arab Emirates as an ideal spot for vertical farming, due to the lack of suitable conditions for traditional farming. 

For regular produce farmers, this may come as good news. Because shifting from traditional farming methods to vertical methods is not easy, and it is not cheap, particularly as energy prices around the world are rising. But it’s not just running costs that need to be taken into consideration.

According to Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment, in the city of Melbourne, Australia, the cost to buy land per square meter is nearly $3,500 USD. In rural areas, with traditional open-field farms, it is $0.40 per square meter.

Farming solutions are not one size fits all

Around the world, farming is notoriously underpaid work. It is not feasible for most farmers to up and leave their farms and buy new city real estate for indoor farms. But if we reach a point where vertical farming is taking all of the demand for produce, it raises the question: could it leave open-field farmers high and dry, or cause them to move into more harmful types of agriculture? 

After all, you can’t raise cows in a skyscraper. But if produce farmers turned to livestock, this could also seriously harm the planet. Animal agriculture is responsible for a multitude of environmental issues, including 14.5 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions and deforestation. Not to mention the ethical implications of slaughtering more animals.

sustainable food system
Courtesy mk. s | Unsplash

Changing the food system so we can feed more people in a more sustainable way is important, but the issue is nuanced. One new innovative solution that works for some of the world’s most populous cities may not necessarily be the answer to farming as a whole. Vertical farming is exciting and has the potential to eliminate a lot of the food industry’s problems, but it is one part of a much bigger picture. 

That said, an emphasis on locally grown produce can only be a good thing, for emissions and for economies. But vertical systems aren’t the only way to achieve this. There are other sustainable solutions to farming. Regenerative agriculture, for example, is still open-field but focuses on crop practices that nourish and heal the soil, increasing biodiversity at the same time. And more investment funds dedicated to this type of farming are being set up all the time.

As the Oxford University study notes, the solution, it seems, is that when it comes to improving the food system, no approach is ever going to be one size fits all. 

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