Vertical farming, loosely defined as, “…the practise of producing food in vertically stacked layers, such as in skyscrapers, used warehouses, or shipping containers…” has substantially revolutionized farming; ousting conventional, primitive practices which had over the years become obsolete and tremendously risky in a world inundated with climate change, increasing input costs, and diminishing resources such as arable land and water. The control of environmental conditions and light with augmented artificial lighting and metal reflectors has completely curbed the most crucial threat to agriculture, climate uncertainty, while simultaneously doubling yields and quality of output. These and many more other fantastic features of vertical farming have marshalled in a new dawn of era in agriculture, one which seeks to harvest the matrimony of farming with sustainable science and technology.
Primarily, there are two types of vertical farming, namely: skyscrapers and old shipping containers. The skyscrapers version of vertical farming was first propounded by academics, most notably Professor Dickson Despommier. Despommier, an ecologist by profession, argued that the cultivation of plant life within skyscrapers in urban areas will require less embodied energy and produce less pollution than some methods of producing plant life on landscapes. He further solidified his claim by asserting, “natural landscapes are too toxic for agricultural production…” and the opportunity cost too severe. Despommier believed these skyscrapers could be built anywhere since plants life is mass produced within hermetically sealed artificial environments that have no contact with the outside elements, with the aid of wind turbines, water capture systems, solar panels, and other forms of clean renewable energy. Stackable shipping containers, on the other hand, are fairly new (though quite old in physical condition) urban farming facilities fitted with vertical hydroponics, LED lighting as well as intuitive climate controls. Everything is grown within these typically 320-square foot containers, each producing about 50 000 mini heads of lettuce per year, as in Kimbal Musk’s (brother to Elon Musk) Square Roots shipping containers in New York City.
The level of production efficiency inherent to vertical farming is none like anything we’ve seen since the discovery of high yield varieties. On average, vertical farms produce up to 80% more per harvest than most conventional farming techniques. The sovereignty to produce whatever you want, whenever you see fit, is an added bonus that allows farmers to not only tune production to optimal levels, but also enjoy equally prime returns on yields as well. Environmental control has relieved nature of the duties of determining (often with devastating results) the quality of cash crops; a pivotal factor in the commercialization of these agricultural goods. Environmental control completely eliminates the probability of pest and disease outbreaks which may compromise the quality of the crop, thus diminishing its value both in physical and monetary terms.
While it is true that the costs of running vertical farms outweigh the benefits, it can be argued however that with clean renewable energy sources gaining ground across the globe, this is posed to be the thing of the past. Every industry experiences decreasing returns to scales at its infancy, and vertical farming is no exception in this regard. Through extensive research and development, as well as new sustainable energy sources, vertical farming will soon be an industry characterized by unparalleled increasing returns to scale.
The world population is growing at alarmingly exponential rates. According to the UN’s global population index report, global population grows by a staggering 83 million new individuals annually, while the aggregate population doubles every 25 years. Rapid urbanisation, a function of the population boom, is placing tremendous pressure on global food systems, setting off a potential food crisis the likes of which threatens the food security status of many, primarily the poor in both developed and less developed countries. This, for the modern farmer, especially in South Africa – an emerging global agricultural powerhouse – is both a cause for concern and wonderful opportunity to innovate and hoist our otherwise stagnant industry to the forefront of food security by embracing smart, eco-friendly food production techniques. And vertical farming, I’m sure you’ll agree, is a great place to start.