“It’s time to move beyond the hype and develop vertical farming as a truly sustainable industry through collaboration and transparency.”
- Henry Gordon Smith, Co-Founder of The Association for Vertical Farming
There are so many innovations happening in the food production landscape right now. Public attention is starting to shift towards solving problems with food waste, food safety, and improving the sustainability of food production around the world. Vertical farming and controlled environment agriculture (CEA) are an important part of the future of food innovation.
Business models are quickly adapting to make vertical farming profitable, but we must not forget why it was conceived in the first place. CEA technology creates opportunities for places like Japan and Singapore to secure their food supply while helping China and the USA with food safety issues. Vertical farming also has the potential to be a less environmentally intensive way of producing food in many ways.
Growing food at the point of consumption (also known as net-zero distribution) greatly mitigates fossil fuel impact by reducing the number of miles that food has to travel from the point of production to the point of consumption. Vertical farming also reduces water and fertilizer usage significantly while completely eliminating the need for chemical pesticides or herbicides. Lastly, vertical farming is far more robust against extreme weather events and climate change than traditional farming methods.
Technology, however, is morally neutral. Since vertical farms use artificial light and climate controls, the source of electricity is crucial for reducing the net carbon footprint per unit of food produced. There are environmental limitations of growing indoors, and the technical criticisms for current sustainability of vertical farming are valid. Otherwise, we might end up subsidizing the future of our food with more CO2 production, not less. As we continue to innovate our way to a more environmentally regenerative future, we must consider not only the present challenges, but the future opportunities that new technologies will bring.
Looking towards the future, vertical farming stands to benefit immensely from adjacent technologies such as LED, solar, net-zero building design, artificial intelligence, and more. Solar power, for instance, is an exponentially growing technology. If this trend continues, we will enter a world of carbon-free energy abundance within the next few decades. That conclusion alone about the future of the world’s energy supply changes the environmental calculus of vertical farming immensely.
Joel Cuello proposed that we can aspire for a corollary to Moore’s Law for growing plants in controlled environments. He believes that, based on our technological capabilities, we should aim to double plant mass produced in controlled environments per unit resource input (water, energy, fertilizer, etc.) every four to five years.
In order to overcome the faux-sustainability propaganda often called “greenwashing,” we should look at the real impact of each farm objectively. The Association for Vertical Farming (AVF) is working on a sustainability certification scheme in order to standardize the way that we measure a vertical farm’s environmental impact.
Want to learn more?
Go to the AVF website and sign up for their newsletter to get involved with a fast growing nonprofit related to the future of agriculture. You can also sign up for an upcoming virtual summit that’s all about vertical farming here.