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Vertical Farming: a new future for food production?
Dr William Stiles & Dr Peter Wootton-Beard: IBERS, Aberystwyth University.
Take home messages:
Vertical farming is a system of food production in controlled, indoor environments
This allows factory style precision agriculture
This approach can reduce the environmental impact and the influence of environmental
variability associated with future climate change on food production.
Controlled environment agriculture (CEA),
more commonly known as Vertical Farming, is
the process of growing food or other
agricultural products within factory-style
situations, without the typical natural
resources associated with plant production,
such as soil and sunlight. These resources are
instead provided via the use of innovative
lighting and nutrient delivery technologies.
Vertical farming is most commonly associated
with urban farm production systems, as these
can easily be integrated into urban landscapes,
reducing the length of supply chains. However,
this style of production may also have the
potential to benefit general agricultural
production outside of urban situations. Using
controlled environments, crops can be
cultivated which may otherwise be unsuited to
UK climates, reducing reliance on overseas
supply chains.
Food production systems also face numerous
future challenges with regard to feeding
growing populations. Vertical Farming allows
for faster, more controlled production, irrespective of season. One acre of vertical farming can provide
the produce equivalent to between 10-20 acres of conventional production. This system offers a
model to enable greater future food security, as production through such controlled systems is not
vulnerable to variability of factors such as climate or pests and pathogens. Furthermore, a vertical
farm can take advantage of low value land otherwise unavailable for food production. Vertical Farming
is thus regarded as a realistic future farming system, which may offer the stable model needed for
future food production, to provide for the 3 billion increase in population predicted by 2050.
Current systems
There are three main systems utilised for CEA: hydroponics, aeroponics and aquaponics. All three are
systems for the growth of vegetation using no soil, but instead nutrient rich water solutions, which
plant roots access directly.
In hydroponic systems, the nutrient solution is pumped around reservoirs which the plant roots grow
directly into, whereas in aeroponic systems, the plant roots grow free and a water and nutrient
solution is sprayed directly onto them. This increases the degree of aeration of the roots, which can
have favourable effects in terms of plant health and growth potential. Aquaponics is a combination of
aquaculture and hydroponics. Linking these systems means that the plants can use the fish waste as
a fertiliser. Meanwhile, the hydroponic system filters the water before returning it to the fish. This can
be an effective production system when crop/fish pairings requiring similar environmental conditions
are chosen, as it reduces the cost burden for fertiliser and produces an additional crop in the form of
fish.
Environmental Impact
Reducing the environmental impact of modern farming is important to achieve sustainability. Vertical
Farming systems can offer a raft of potential opportunities to reduce environmental impact. This
approach offers a system with no loss of nutrients to the environment, vastly reduced land
requirement (10-20 times), better control of waste, less production loss to pests and diseases (~ 40%
less), year round crop production, increased daylight hours or growing time per day, no variation in
productivity due to weather variation, and no adverse effects of extreme weather events. Most
vertical farms also use 70-80% less water than conventional growing. Globally, around 70% of the
fresh water available for human use is used for agriculture, which is a major environmental and human
health issue. In the UK, this figure is much lower (~10%); but this is likely to increase as a consequence
of climate change.
A CE system can present a scenario where, in principal, all production factors can be regulated. The
precise nature of this approach means that the use of expensive materials such as fertiliser can be
targeted and limited to only what is necessary. This system therefore avoids costly and damaging
losses to the environment. As a simple consequence of regulating all the inputs to plants, the potential
for inadvertent contamination is also reduced. In typical field environments, heavy metals or
pathogens can contaminate soils, both inadvertently through the application of soil treatments and
fertiliser, or via natural processes. High levels of control therefore reduce the interaction between
crops and pests or pathogens, increasing food security and safety. In extreme instances, should bio-
security measures fail and disease outbreaks occur, then production can be resumed in the short term,
whereas in typical agriculture the same effect is likely to mean a lost year.
Using life cycle analysis (LCA) it has been possible to assess the carbon footprint of food grown through
CEA. This analysis shows that at the moment more carbon is emitted as a result of CEA production
than conventional techniques. This effect may be offset by the application of renewable energy
sources. The use of renewable energy could reduce the carbon footprint enough to equal or exceed
conventional production. In addition, intensifying production in controlled situations such as this,
which require a relatively small footprint in land terms, allows more land to be set aside for natural
processes and ecosystem service provision. It has even been suggested that the land freed from
agricultural production because of this approach, could be returned to hardwood forestry, which
could actively mitigate against the effects of climate change.
Energy efficiency
The principal limiting factor for a CE system is the amount of energy required to grow produce, and
thus the economic cost of production. This fact has drawn criticism from several areas with regard
viability, and to whether CEA has merit in terms of reducing environmental impact and delivering food
security solutions. However, modern renewable energy technologies may hold great potential in
terms of converting sunlight and wind power into usable energy for internal heating and lighting. In
addition, low energy lighting systems, such as those utilising LED bulbs, may limit the level to which
energy is required. A study that modelled energy requirements indicated that solar panels could
produce sufficient energy to meet lighting and water pumping requirements, suggesting a good
degree of feasibility in production terms with the application of renewable energy technologies. Of
course, this is likely to only be the case in areas with plentiful sunlight.
Furthermore, vertical farms have yet to be built taking advantage of developments in energy efficient
architectural design, (i.e Passivhaus). By growing selected crops, a vertical farmer knows exactly what
the internal environment is that they require, and therefore a building can be designed to maintain
that environment with the maximum use of energy efficient technologies such as heat recovery,
passive ventilation and advanced materials. Food production in controlled environments allows
systems to be developed which can capitalise on all opportunities to recapture and re-use resources.
This can come in both the recycling of building energy, or the recovery of energy from the non-used
plant products, such as roots.
Vertical Farms have basic requirements for heat, energy, CO2 and nutrients and as such, represent an
excellent opportunity for co-location with other systems. Any operation or process that generates a
surplus of these resources is an opportunity to improve the economic potential of both that business
and a vertical farm. Examples could be on-farm anaerobic digestion, renewable energy production,
CHP plants, server farms or industrial food processing plants. This mutually beneficial economic model
potentially allows value to be reclaimed from what would otherwise be wasted resources, and which
would require further energy to generate anew.
Which crops to grow?
In simple terms, choosing crops which have a rapid growth potential and a high market value is likely
to return maximum value. By virtue of not being limited by seasonal variation, crops can grow
continuously. Thus, those that can be matured ready for sale in the shortest period of time, offer the
greatest benefit in terms of financial return.
It is possible to argue that any crop has the potential for indoor cultivation, yet this is perhaps too
simplistic a position to take. By the nature of the activity, CEA allows crops to be grown which may
otherwise struggle in the UK climate, either at certain times or throughout the year. By focussing on
crops which would only be available through importation, CEA can increase UK food security, reduce
the environmental footprint of sizeable supply chain distances, and offer farmers the chance to grow
premium crops locally, which would previously have been unfeasible for cultivation in the UK.
Furthermore, no crop as yet has been bred specifically for growth in controlled environments,
representing an interesting new challenge for researchers and breeders. The use of artificial lighting
can mean individual wavelengths of light can be controlled, which could improve plant growth and
nutritional quality. New varieties specifically bred for these conditions (both environmental and
physical) will need to be developed, which can fully capitalise on these new opportunities.
Summary
Global food production systems need to address significant challenges in the coming decades. Finding
ways to feed a growing global population whilst reducing environmental impact of agricultural
activities is of critical importance.
Vertical Farming offers a realistic alternative to conventional production for some crops. It could help
to achieve the necessary level of food production, whilst overcoming some environmental challenges.
This approach may also allow for the production of goods which are highly desirable to UK consumers,
but which can only be cultivated in climates warmer than our own.
These systems are at an early stage and more research is necessary to understand its environmental
and economic impact. Yet, as we build more, and innovation continues to address the production
problems, vertical farming is likely to become more commonplace, in both urban and more rural
situations.
August 2017
Note to editors:
For further information contact Dr William Stiles on 01970 823039 or
email: wvs@aber.ac.uk. Alternatively visit www.gov.wales /farmingconnect
Background information:
This project has received funding through the Welsh Government Rural Communities - Rural
Development Programme 2014-2020, which is funded by the European Agricultural Fund for Rural
Development and the Welsh Government.
The Farming Connect Knowledge Transfer Programme and Advisory Service is delivered by Menter a
Busnes on behalf of Welsh Government. Lantra Wales leads on the delivery of the Farming Connect
Lifelong Learning and Development Programme.
Dr Peter Wootton-Beard is supported by funding provided by the Welsh Government and Higher
Education Funding Council for Wales through the Sêr Cymru National Research Network for Low
Carbon, Energy and Environment.
Keywords: Controlled environment agriculture, vertical farming
Sector - (Please indicate)
Climate Change
Arable sector
Grassland
Horticulture
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Biodiversity
Organic Sector
Forestry
Pigs
Red Meat
Poultry
Dairy sector
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