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The Only Way is Up!: The Growth of Vertical Farming, and What That Means for the Future of Food

  • green
  • Sustainable

Increasing food prices and shortages for the world’s poorest; a rapidly growing global population, with cities unable to cope with housing demands; and a pandemic restricting the exportation of goods to those most in need. According to a report by the World Bank, global food prices rose 13% in the last year as a direct result of the impact of Covid-19 on food production. Now, more than ever, innovations in how we feed ourselves and the world are crucial. 

Vertical farming looks like the stuff of science fiction. Huge indoor growing labs bathed in fluorescent pink lighting. Teams of lab coat professionals replace the work done by overall-clad farmers; the chance of a successful crop isn’t left to the elements, but rigorously controlled in efforts to produce high-value crops. Despite its bizarre looks, vertical farming is becoming more of a reality. Spearheaded by startups like V-Farm – developers of Citifarm, an app-controlled vertical farm that enables the growth of crops on site – and Vertical Future, vertical farming is gaining popularity. Recently Ocado – one of the UK’s largest online retailers – bought a majority stake in Jones Food Company, Europe’s largest operating vertical farm, signaling vertical farming’s entrance into the mainstream.

Vertical farms offer an interesting alternative to the current agricultural climate. Heralded as the water-reducing, land-saving, environmentally conscious farms of the future, vertical farming is gaining traction around the world. Plenty, perhaps the most recognisable brand in the vertical farming market, is currently planning construction in Compton, California of what will be the world’s largest output vertical farm. According to a statement from Plenty CEO Matt Barnard, vertical farms aren’t “vulnerable to nature’s threats, such as storms, flooding, heat, pests and pathogens the way outdoor farms are.” In this way vertical farms offer more reliable farming, and the ability to offer consumers the best product possible.

 A report by the Financial Times indicated the space-saving effect of vertical farming.  By growing upwards, the vertical structures allow for “the cultivation of produce in constrained spaces, including urban areas.” The ability to build and manage these farms in dense urban environments is a plus not only for suppliers, but for consumers also. Bringing the produce closer to consumers by building vertical farms nearer to supply chains promises fresher produce and a reduction in “food miles” – less ground for distributors to cover ultimately leads to a reduction in emissions, and costs. 

Vertical farm’s seem to have another trick up their sleeve, too. Infarm, a Berlin-based vertical farming company, is bringing the farm inside the grocery store. This method of distribution has, according to Infarm, led to a reduction in water usage, travel miles, and land usage. Infarm’s desire to bring the magic of vertical farming directly to the shop floor is a part of an ethos that puts the consumer closer to what they’re buying: “With 7 billion people expected to live in urban centers by 2050,” reads an Infarm blog, “we’re re-defining the entire food supply chain from start to finish and distributing the farms themselves as close to the point of consumption as possible.” 

As the pandemic continues to upend an established food chain, innovations in how we approach farming and food distribution are key in reducing the effect of climate change and global poverty. As the tech evolves, vertical farming can only continue to grow. 

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Author: Alex Stubbs

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