Vertical farming may not feed the world, but could empower cities

Non-soil based crops grow at south Philadelphia vertical farming operation Metropolis Farms. (Philadelphia City Council/Flickr)

Aware of population growth’s growing impact on global food security, many agricultural experts are debating the use of vertical farming – and its ability to feed the world – but don’t deny its potential in urban agriculture.

Vertical farming is a relatively new term that, at its core, simply means growing more food in smaller spaces. Instead of having a single layer of crops over a large land area, for example, stacks of crops climb upward, typically in highly controlled indoor environments.

The method usually grows crops without soil or natural light. It’s dramatically different from how humans grew food just a few decades ago, but has the potential to produce drastically higher yields with significantly less space.

For humanitarians, the idea is tantalizing. The world’s population is exploding at an exponential rate, stressing the need to find ways to feed people without further destroying the planet. Proponents say vertical farming uses less water and fossil fuel than outdoor farming and eliminate agricultural runoff, all while providing fresh and local food.

As the concept garners both attention and legitimacy, vertical farms are already popping up in Seattle, Houston, New York and Milwaukee, as well as Linköping, Sweden. Some enthusiasts have even considered the rise in vertical farming the “third green revolution.”

Whether the model can be used among the rural poor – where the bulk of the world’s food is grown, in countries with highest food insecurity – is still up for debate.

“Can vertical farming feed the world? I’ll tell you right now: No it can’t,” said Erik Cutter, founder of California-based urban farm company Alegría Fresh, in an interview with Humanosphere. “It’s too expensive to feed the world.”

According to Cutter, the price tag on the type of vertical farm tower conceptualized by Dickson Despommier – the ecologist credited for modernized the idea of vertical farming – can be upward of $1 billion.

He said such a model might intrigue the elite, but is irrelevant to the majority of the world’s farmers. For them, many agriculturalists say building food security would rely on the adoption of regenerative agriculture – a range of techniques with the aim of restoring soil fertility and sequestering carbon.

In Irvine, Calif., Cutter uses a hydroponic vertical farming system – utilizing coconut fiber instead of soil, and powered by the sun – but is quick to describe its shortcomings. Vertical farms generally have a limited range of crop species, such as leafy greens or herbs, and its energy requirements are debated among critics who say lighting and other necessary equipment have a heavy impact on the climate.

But the biggest problem with vertical farming, Cutter adds, is that there isn’t an economic model to sustain it.

“Really, we have to train thousands of thousands of farmers in this country to farm differently, plus source capital, plus develop a market for that food,” he said. For this reason, he says one of his goals is to create decent-paying jobs in urban agriculture.

Even if it can’t feed the planet, proponents of vertical farming say it could at least work for the world’s cities. One of the largest, AeroFarms in Newark, N.J., appears to have created a sustainable economic model. An in-depth look at the company by the New Yorker explained that its main crop is baby salad greens because its premium price makes the enterprise attractive – and because it’s easy to grow.

If sustainable, such enterprises could help prevent cities from what urban agriculturalists warn is the inevitable: intolerable overcrowding with overwhelmed sanitation systems, housing, water and, of course, food. If the bulk of food production could happen close to these highly concentrated centers, the hope is that urban populations could harbor some control of their food supply.

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About Author

Lisa Nikolau

Lisa Nikolau is a Madrid-based reporter for Humanosphere, covering gender equality, indigenous rights and poverty in Latin America and worldwide. Find her on Twitter at @lisanikolau, email lisa.nikolau@humanosphere.org or see her latest work at www.lisanikolau.com

  • “Feeding the world” is a great idea, but feeding just one more person better food is what it takes. We often talk about the big, audacious ideas like feeding 9 billion people, which is totally admirable, but talking about it won’t get us very far. At the end of the day, we would gladly trade 1k people talking about the problem for just 1 farmer actually growing food for their local communities. And with the technology and training available today, a single small farmer with passion and persistence can start feeding a lot of people on small footprint farms with relatively tiny resource inputs compared to conventional ag. 1 is always better than 0.

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