Growing Up, Not Out: The Potential of Vertical Farming

Laura Sykes | July-31-14


Image source: Observer

Guest post by: J.P. Brown, EPt
In 2011, the Earth's human population passed 7 billion for the first time. This milestone has added to the already significant concern that food, water, energy, and other resources may not be sufficient to meet increasing demand, especially considering the percentage of those, mainly in developing countries, that do without. The challenges in feeding a growing population are numerous, including a lack of infrastructure in developing nations, political instability, and the effects of climate change. Developed countries are also facing challenges, such as the rising cost of energy. A significant factor is the amount of food that goes to waste. Studies have estimated that as much as 50% of food is wasted between production and delivery. If this waste could be eliminated entirely, it stands to reason that available food could be increased by half again.
However, what is probably most problematic is that the Earth, while large, has only so much surface area. The majority of this is water and only a certain amount of the remainder falls within the zone conducive to livestock and agriculture. Within this smaller area, a further portion is set aside for cities, suburbs, parks, transportation, industry, and other uses. The end result is that a large number of people must be fed using a relatively small amount of surface area.
At the present time, we are already feeling the environmental stresses caused by increased agricultural development. However, a growing movement that combines decades-old growing practices with new technology may soon provide the solution. Vertical farming is a concept gaining traction in many urban centres.
What is it? Simply put, vertical farming means using a multi-level building to grow food, preferably within an urban centre. Of course, the ability to grow food indoors has existed for generations with the greenhouse, and more recently, with hydroponics. But until recently, using a building as an indoor farm would have meant drawing in an abundance of energy, mainly from CO2-emitting fossil fuel sources, to provide adequate light and heat, as well as water. This resource use would tax most municipal water systems. Furthermore, it was difficult to justify the use of a building in an urban location for anything other than a residential or commercial purposes.
Times have changed. Rooftop solar and underground geothermal technologies have developed to be more cost effective, especially for local use. This means that a vertical farm can now be powered with zero-emissions renewable energy at a competitive cost. Water technologies such as rainwater collection and grey water recycling are also improving. As for waste organic matter, the narrative of on-site decomposition for nutrient-rich soil and methane fuel practically writes itself. In addition, with the economy in its current state, many usable buildings are sitting abandoned, so the time for an uptake in vertical farming has never been better.
But what advantages does vertical farming provide? Can it actually improve our environment, while providing food to more people? Here are five reasons why vertical farming should be considered by every large urban centre.

Growing Up, Not Out

The single largest advantage of vertical farming from an ecological standpoint is that it allows us to multiply our food yields without consuming additional square footage at ground level. Previously, large-scale farming operations required large tracts of open field for crops, as well as supporting services such as barns, silos, machinery, vehicles, etc. This often required encroaching on forests and other necessary ecosystems that provide valuable ecological services, such as carbon dioxide sequestration. By growing crops in urban buildings we can avoid cutting additional forests, and could potentially return some farmland to its pre-agriculture environment. True, livestock will always be with us, and certain crops simply do not grow well hydroponically. However, by maximizing our vertical growing potential, we can convert some farmland to these uses and avoid additional encroachment.

Lower Transportation Footprint

For almost as long as civilization has existed, humans have lived together in towns, villages, and cities. This is as true today as it was then. Accordingly, if urban buildings are converted to agricultural use, then most of the food produced in a city will probably be consumed within it. This avoids the necessity of long-range transportation, which eliminates associated greenhouse gas emissions. It can also reduce the chance of spoilage and damage to food while en route.

Low-Risk Food

Of course, one of the best arguments for growing food indoors is precisely that it is grown indoors. Light, heat, moisture, and soil can be strictly monitored, and better controlled. Moreover, vertical farms stand a much better chance of surviving extreme weather events, such as hail, tornadoes, drought, flooding, and other calamities that have made agriculture a volatile and risky endeavour. Of course, the buildings themselves are still susceptible to risks such as earthquakes, so all required structural due diligence should be done when choosing a site for a vertical farm. Buildings should also be checked for any history of chemical or material problems, such as asbestos and mould, which could pose a health hazard to both employees and crops.

Naturally Organic

Vertical farming lends itself especially well to the practice of organic farming. Again, by virtue of being indoors, most pests can be prevented from accessing the crops in large numbers, eliminating the need for pesticides.

Grow Jobs with Food

In our present economy, the timing has never been better for vertical farming. There is potential to create jobs in urban cities in the areas of building recommissioning, renewable energy, food cultivation, and more. There is also the potential for work in returning some agricultural sites to their previous state through reforesting and other initiatives. International opportunities may also become available, as the concept becomes scalable to the point where it can be replicated in developing countries that have the greatest need for sustainable food sourcing.


About the Author

J.P. Brown has worked for over three and half years as a Sustainability Analyst with e3 Solutions, a Toronto-based environmental software firm that provides enterprise environmental management, regulatory compliance, and EHS software to some of the most prominent Fortune 500 companies. He served as environmental subject matter expert to the development team, particularly in the area of GHG emission calculation and reporting. Recently, he took on a new role at Brookfield Johnson Controls, in Quality Assurance.
J.P. is a graduate of Seneca College's Green Business Management program, and sits on the College's Green Citizen Committee. He is currently in his third year as an Environmental Professional-in-Training.