As a player within the food industry, I like to keep my eyes and ears open to changes that are taking place. Recently, my colleague, IFCO executive Christoph Trixl, spoke at a roundtable meeting of the Association for Vertical Farming, attended by industry representatives, academics and other supporters of controller environment agriculture. The Munich-based non-profit AVF organization aims to establish a pilot project in Germany’s farming heartland of Bavaria.
Among IFCO’s customers are thousands of growers with farms large and small – and an increasing number of vertical farmers. No longer just a trend, vertical farming is providing a local, often urban approach to growing fresh produce sustainably. This modern agricultural method increases food supply, and at the same time, shortens the distance between crops and consumers. Also called controlled-environment agriculture, it generates greater crop yields, uses less water, less land and produces less waste. This is key to feeding people as urban populations grow and the available arable land declines.
What sets vertical farms apart from greenhouses is that crops grow almost exclusively without sun or soil – under artificial lighting, ideal temperature and humidity conditions. Supporters point out that vertical farms have faster harvest cycles, more predictable results, and chemical-free pest control. And, because indoor cultivation is not restricted by seasonal weather swings, it offers the potential to produce food year-round, and grow crops that would otherwise struggle in a climate that is too hot, too cold, too wet or dry.
Although vertical farms are high-tech ventures, they harvest more food at a lower environmental impact than traditional farming. Most are based on closed-loop systems, use renewable energy and produce fewer carbon emissions than with open-field crops. Even the first fully autonomous farms are taking up operations, using remote-controlled robotics to streamline planting, harvesting and logistics. This can soothe another pain point in agriculture – namely the cost and lack of human labor.
Most systems are at an early stage, but large-scale examples in Asia, the Middle East, the US and Europe show us that the future of agriculture has arrived. Such indoor plant factories offer warehouse-style, high-bay rows of shelves. Most need only about two percent of the land and water required by conventional growing to achieve the same or greater harvest volumes. With millions of plants, they produce several tons of food per day, able to feed thousands of people.
Yet conventional growers will not be out of work anytime soon. Vertical farming installations still require massive investment, are energy-intensive and are currently limited mostly to producing herbs and leafy greens such as kale or lettuce. Larger crop-plants or trees still require too much space, light and energy to be cost-efficient. As research continues and technology advances, however, that is likely to change. Projects are drawing great research interest along with investment in public-private partnerships.