Understanding the complexity of current agriculture requires breaking down each of the types of agriculture that exist. There are from the most common to the most novel proposals. Vertical agriculture definitely enters the classification of those systems or technologies that are more future than present. However, its basic idea of taking advantage of space upwards is becoming quite attractive.
Vertical Farming: The future of agriculture
We live on a planet with limited resources, including arable land. While the population is increasing, the amount of agricultural land is decreasing. Currently 33 percent of the world’s soils are degraded, mainly due to erosion, although other factors also influence it. In addition, to obtain arable land we are deforesting ecosystems in an excessive and alarming way. That is why vertical agriculture represents an interesting alternative to produce food in the future. Well, up we have a lot of space.
Vertical agriculture is the branch of agriculture that seeks to take advantage of vertical spaces to produce food. In addition, over our heads there is abundant space, kilometers and kilometers before reaching the edge of the atmosphere. Why not take advantage of this space to produce food? We do not currently have the necessary technologies to build structures of several kilometers in height. But the first step is already being taken with some projects to build the first skyscraper one kilometer high. However, first you have to take a first step.
Before having farms in high-rise buildings, we must take advantage of the nearby space. Well, with a few tens of meters that we can scratch the vertical space is more than enough to start. That yes, the main challenge of the vertical farm is to modify the paradigm of space. This because since humanity began to do agriculture was always in a horizontal way. It will not be easy to change so much inertia. As vertical sowing demonstrates its advantages, it will be adopted, especially in large cities, where space is not left over.
Another paradigm that must overcome vertical agriculture is the use of solar energy by plants. Contrary to what is believed, photosynthesis is quite inefficient, taking advantage of only 3 to 6 percent of all solar energy captured. In addition, with adequate lighting systems the plants do not require to be exposed to natural sunlight, without this implying a decrease in the productivity and the quality of the same.
Objective of vertical agriculture
It is estimated that by 2050 we will be approximately 9,100 million inhabitants on our planet. This will take us to face the biggest challenge we have ever had: produce food for everyone. The problem is that arable land cannot be increased at the rate that the population increases. And if it were done we would have to forget forests, jungles and other ecosystems, which is already happening.
The solution will not reside in a single production system, and the increase in yields will be vital. But if this does not become sufficient, and at the rate that we are going, it seems that it will not be, then we have to seriously consider a complete efficiency in the use of resources. Of these, the only one that is still wasted is the space upwards, where there is a place to produce food.
Therefore, the main objective of vertical agriculture is related to the agricultural use of all that vertical space. That today is more viable than ever in the history of mankind. In fact, some projects are already being envisaged to build the first one-kilometer high skyscraper, so sooner or later we will have the first skyscraper-farm.
But over the next decade the imminent challenge of vertical agriculture is to demonstrate its viability to convince all skeptics. For this we must achieve excellent performance using as few resources as possible. To which it adds that it must provide economically viable food to be acquired by people of all economic strata.
Advantages of vertical agriculture
Growing plants in a vertical structure, be it a couple of meters or the size of a skyscraper, is something completely different from what has been done for thousands of years since agriculture was invented. So the first problem is to break the paradigm of horizontal agriculture. It is precisely this question that highlights the main advantage of vertical agriculture: efficiency.
However large a skyscraper is, space per floor would be small, so vertical agriculture should be intensive to be profitable. In addition, the amounts of water, light and nutrients used would be strictly monitored. This would avoid wasting resources and minimize production costs, which in turn would result in more responsible agriculture.
Another important advantage is that the prices of the products would be lower when eliminating the transportation that has to be done from the countryside to the city. What would also result in products of higher quality and above all, with greater freshness. In addition you could have greener cities, as the current cities are complete jungles of steel and concrete, where plants do not take place.
If the vertical farms were completely hermetic spaces, it would also have the advantage that the use of pesticides and herbicides would be considerably reduced, which would undoubtedly be a very good thing. Because it would greatly reduce production costs, in addition to minimizing the environmental pollution produced by agricultural activities.
Disadvantages of vertical agriculture
The first disadvantage of vertical agriculture is that in theory it would be more expensive to build skyscrapers to produce food in them. Compared to working large tracts of agricultural land to do the same. This problem could be solved with the idea of the mixed use of constructions. That is to say, that the buildings are used so much for homes and offices as for orchards.
Another important disadvantage is that it would start only for crops of small and medium size. The cultivation of trees would be complicated, both by the weight and the size of them. This could have a certain solution if we start to develop varieties of small size. I am referring to dwarf trees, although this would undoubtedly take time and many resources for research.
Another current drawback is that many of the technologies necessary for vertical production still need to be developed further. For example, hydroponics can already be applied efficiently. But we need to do more research involving efficient systems and types of lighting. And at the same time the efficiency of green energies, such as wind and solar energy, must increase considerably.
An interesting disadvantage of producing on vertical farms is the fact that they require a lot of knowledge of various technologies. Some are hydroponics, irrigation systems, nutrition and lighting, renewable energy, among others. What will undoubtedly need a new generation of farmer-scientists. Are farmers around the world prepared for so much?
Current situation of vertical agriculture
Much of the world’s arable land is currently in use. Although there are still large extensions in Asia and Eastern Europe, it will not be enough to satisfy the food demand of the coming decades of a growing population. The main problem with the arable land that remains to be exploited is its distance from the cities, a strong point of the vertical gardens.
The world’s first vertical farm began operations in Singapore in 2012 and is known as Sky Greens. It consists of a series of rotating gutters that are placed in towers up to 9 meters high. In these towers are cultivated lettuce, spinach and Chinese cabbages. Each tower contains 38 levels of gutters, in addition to being a system that makes the use of water and energy more efficient.
For 2013 Farmed Here opened its doors, in an abandoned warehouse of 8,361 square meters on the outskirts of the city of Chicago, in the United States. This vertical farm provides about 400 nearby stores of arugula, kale, mint and basil. Highlighting the fact that they reuse 97 percent of the water that production requires.
In regards to the largest vertical farm in the world, we have Mirai. Located in Japan, in a semiconductor factory abandoned after the 2011 earthquake. It highlights the fact that it produces 100 times more vegetables per square meter than a traditional field, using 99 percent less water. It produces lettuce of various types and other vegetables of small size.
Perspectives and challenges of vertical agriculture
Vertical agriculture works. But there are several issues to solve before converting it is a world production system. The technologies required in a vertical farm have to be cheapened. Especially the LED lighting systems. You also have to break certain paradigms of consumers, and find ways to produce any crop under a vertical system.
With regard to lighting systems, fluorescent lights are being widely used in vertical farms around the world, for their low cost, although they have little efficiency so they spend a lot of electricity. If you want efficiency LED spotlights can provide light at the wavelengths that plants require. Although they must still lower their price.
Another detail is that many consumers would have some opposition to consuming products grown on vertical farms. For the simple fact that a vertical farm is more like a laboratory than an agricultural field. Overcoming this challenge will be a matter of time. Little by little consumers will realize that production on vertical farms will imply greater food security.
One more challenge that vertical farms have is the production of any type of crop, including fruit trees. In this topic many researchers consider that as the technologies used in vertical farms become cheaper, crop diversification will occur. The initial solution could lie in cultivating trees at ground level and at higher levels putting small-sized crops.