Global population growth is directly linked to the continuous depletion of our resources. Food production and agriculture practices of today will not be affordable for humanity in the future and land-system change by deforestation for agricultural practices is one of the worst anthropogenic alterations of natural environments. The inefficient use of fertilizers contributes to pollution of water bodies, negative soil health, biodiversity loss, and overall climate change. Soils are finite, and protecting them while simultaneously significantly increasing yields is crucial. Next to our soils, our oceans with their ecosystems represent large carbon sinks that are suffering from agricultural runoff resulting in eutrophication. Freshwater availability and food production are closely linked, however, 2.3 billion people live in water-stressed countries, and 129 countries are not on track to sustainably manage water resources. The expected water stress levels when continuing business as usual represent a threat to about 50% of our global food production. More extreme weather conditions are expected as a result of melting glaciers and the projected increasing water demand results in the necessity to grow crops with a higher water use efficiency to achieve food security. Sustainable food supply on a global scale is linking the Sustainable Development Goals directly or indirectly to the Planetary Boundaries and agriculture as the first step in the supply chain plays a crucial role in achieving these goals. Innovation is the consequence of increasing pressures and with that Vertical Farming.
Vertical farming is often seen as the core business. BUT I see Vertical farming as a crop cultivation method.
A new food ecosystem needs to be created to change the way we produce food on a global scale. Vertical Farming can be part of this new food system, with high water use efficiencies, no runoff of fertilizers or other chemical inputs, a higher production output per production area than conventional production systems, and giving back land to nature-based, sustainable solutions like conservation agriculture or to returning lands to nature. Additionally, Vertical Farming provides opportunities to operate in already sealed land (urban) areas. To reduce the perils of hunger, actions of all agri-food stakeholders are necessary to increase agricultural productivity.
When we started VF we wanted to increase the yield and have total control of the parameters. Today it allows us to radically change the supply chain.
A Vertical Farm can continuously improve and optimize its inputs resulting in lowering its CO2 footprint. Reducing emissions from the food system, entailing production and post-farm processes, will be one of the central challenges of the upcoming decades. To achieve emissions reduction while meeting the increasing global food demand, Life Cycle Analyses are conducted; used as improvement guidelines for internal processes. Vertical Farming companies aim to have continuous efficiency improvements, introduce zero-waste policies, and use sustainably produced supplies and equipment. Additionally, Vertical Farming enables agriculture in deserts, shortens supply chains by default, and therefore delivers fresher produce. The increase of food production in areas where open field production is not environmentally feasible takes the pressure off of fresh produce supplying countries with already depleted resources.
Current agricultural practices and the current food system will not be able to ensure food security and are one of the drivers of destruction, degradation and alteration of the environmental circumstances and ecosystem services they depend on. VF is an answer to a growing population because it serves all pillars of food security. Moreover, access to innovations like VF is necessary to achieve food security. The indoor farming sector has evolved from the need to produce food more sustainably, especially in food deserts or regions where only one crop production cycle is possible. With a growing population, more energy-rich crops will be needed and one important factor identified to be decreased is the crop yield gap to ensure higher levels of food security. Critics of VF say you cannot feed the world on lettuce alone but Vertical Farming focuses on changing the supply chain; eliminating food losses along the supply chain, directly impacting the arable land use.
Globally governments, and more during COVID, have understood that food security is an essential issue, and that indoor farming is key in the process of producing in a sustainable and efficient way.
To improve food security on all levels the perception of food and food production will have to change. Vertical Farming can support educating the youth on food production systems and deliver a practical approach to nutrition and healthy eating by deploying small farms at schools. Food safety is a concern in fresh produce and is the responsibility of each stakeholder within the food supply chain. Still, huge volumes of vegetables are thrown away due to high residue levels or contamination creating risks to human health. Contamination through soils that are not safe for food production has major consequences for health and livelihoods and it is being linked to acute and chronic disease and preventable death. Vegetables grown under controlled conditions were found to have a significantly lower bioburden.
Transparency within the supply chain is one of the key points in food production and just as food safety is a concern all around the world for all stakeholders of the supply chain, it is, even more, the right of each consumer to know where his/her food is coming from. Vertical Farming has a unique value to add that is critical to nutrition, therefore, being part of the solution for SDG 3.
We are aiming for personalized nutrition in any direction, whether you need it for better physical performance or because of health issues.
The next steps for the industry are transparency and traceability in the production processes and crop batch control that will ensure product safety.
Plastics and microplastics pose an increasing impact on soil ecosystems and human food chains and are now found in fruits and vegetables. European countries are working on plastic-wrapping bans for fruits and vegetables and a number of sustainable solutions that are biodegradable are entering the market. The agricultural sector is using millions of tonnes of plastic per year, starting with seeds that have coatings containing microplastics for better growth. This is not necessary for Vertical Farming and a closed up system does not represent the same threat of plastic pollution to the environment. With a holistic approach VFarms aim to improve the impact on our planet with an overall interest in circular actions. Lastly, Vertical Farming provides diverse job profiles as a truly dynamic industry. The working conditions in conventional agriculture are often criticized and, while more food is needed in urban areas, there is also an increased need for job creation and improved working conditions. Vertical Farming can take off some of these pressures and provide better infrastructure. An increase in community-focused business models as well as creating job opportunities for largely unemployed minorities are reported.
The economy represents the last pillar of sustainability. Vertical Farming is offering just-in-time logistic opportunities and predictable food supply generating an increasing demand for large scale farms that are connected to distribution centres and other similar operations. The investments in indoor AG-Tech are continuously increasing. The largest potential of the industry lies in data, data evaluation, crop genetics, and the scalability of vertical farming technology. It is proven that Vertical Farming produce can compete with commodity price levels and has similar energy inputs as greenhouse production. Furthermore, this industry has the dynamic ability to adapt to suit how the energy market evolves. Regenerative energies are the go-to solution. The most visible improvements to the technology occurred with LEDs and climate control. However, entire applications need more optimization for each crop and variety.
Sustainability is our objective. We are working constantly on acting more sustainably as it has two effects:
- Environmental: All aspects related to society and community, and
- Profitability: The fewer resources you use the more profit you make.
That’s where technology makes the difference. Save money, save resources – in VF the usage of resources is key because one of the biggest challenges a vertical farm has is to be profitable.
Asia is a clear frontrunner of Vertical Farm deployment followed by Europe and America. Europe experienced their first boom in 2013 with the Netherlands as the frontrunner, and the Middle East, with high capital opportunities and the increasing desire to improve self-sufficient food production, is deploying more and more Vertical Farms. Given these past developments, VF is becoming more of a conscious subject for decision-makers and it has received increasing support in the past years. Sustainable cities and communities need business models that include circularity in food and energy production & consumption.
In the U.S., the Biden committee has stated the desire to create jobs in climate-smart agriculture as one of their strategic pillars which is very encouraging. It is still not very specific in terms of helping indoor farming. However, I think it is good that the top-level recognizes and supports the creation of new jobs in this industry. So you would think and we are hoping that it would get easier for us to build new farms, access more capital etc. We are the type of company that in the administration’s mind should exist.
If VF can continue to prove how efficient and conscious its operators are it will lead to more credibility and engagement, whether that is from investors, the retail community or consumers. Three upcoming business models for the future are Large scale (such as high tech/automated, and low tech/high labour intensive), Community focussed SMEs (focus on high-end products, job creation and education), and home appliances (personalized nutrition & at-home production as added value). Lastly, an integrated approach for conventional farmers to shorten the supply chain; a cultivation method that is chosen within an existing business model. The mindset of competition is a hindering factor for collaboration, making data gathering and generating reliable statistics difficult and slowing down the process to gain critical mass as a sector. Collaboration with Universities and research institutes between the private and educational sectors is needed as well as Associations of VF bringing companies together. More R&D joint ventures are needed for success.
Sustainability is a bit of a strange word in our industry, often misused or overused. We believe in the idea that growing food locally is ultimately better for everyone but that does not necessarily mean we have achieved real sustainability. Lowering resources is vital, lowering our reliance on food imports is just sound policy and more and more investors and governments are coming on board. We help translate that business model and work with groups such as government agencies and investors so they understand where the industry is at, and how we can all benefit.
Indoor crop varieties are increasing. Upcoming potentials are seen in berries, wheat & fodder, and food ingredients/additives. Seeing and closing supply gaps by using technology is part of the solution and with that getting ahead of the curve.
This white paper is available at https://vertical-farming.net for free download. Written by Thea Otto and her team, the report is an in-depth look at the vertical farming industry as it stands today, and the sustainable solutions the sector offers in the context of the planetary boundaries and the new food system.