Is vertical farming the future for agriculture or a distraction from other climate problems?

vertical farming for strawberries
An indoor vertical farm growing organic strawberries.

Vertical farming: eco-friend or foe? Well, the first thing to say — to invoke Jez from "Peep Show" — is that it is not pyramid selling.

No, whatever the name might imply to the suspicious and unacquainted, "vertical farming" isn't, to its proponents at least, an obtuse money-grabbing scam. What it actually refers to is the growing of fruit, vegetables and medicinal ingredients on stacks of shelves indoors using artificial light and nutrient solutions, negating the need for sunshine and soil.

To some cannabis dealers in high-rise buildings, the general concept may not seem particularly novel. But the idea that large numbers of humans actually can be fed from indoor cultivation has risen to much wider prominence over the past decade, thanks in part to huge advances in hydroponics — aka growing plants using nutrient solutions instead of soil — and sunlight-mimicking LED technology.

At first glance, the concept sounds a potential game-changer for action on climate change and world hunger. After all, the planet is already rapidly warming, bringing with it increasing risks of drought, devastating storms, soil erosion, flooding and crop failure, all of which affect global supply chains and hit some of the world's most climate vulnerable, agriculture-reliant economies.

Surely, then, by cultivating crops inside multi-story buildings, we can protect them from these extremes while also potentially reducing pressure on land-use, boosting biodiversity and opening up opportunities for rewilding in rural areas elsewhere? Indeed, unlike crops exposed to the elements outside, vertical farms aren't subservient to the seasons, thus promising year-round production with little risk of crop failure. What's more, supporters of the technology point to lower water usage, a reduction in fossil-fuelled farming machinery, no pesticides or herbicides and the opportunity to bring food production closer to growing urban populations where it is needed.

Yet detractors highlight suspiciously strong interest from Silicon Valley tech investors and water-scarce oil states in the Middle East as evidence that vertical farming is merely a power grab for a means of production that could hurt developing economies while also putting yet more distance between humans and nature.

Moreover, despite its many promised green benefits, vertical farming remains a niche concern that never quite has taken off, largely because property, energy and technology costs make commercialization difficult. But might that be about to change?

Last week, vertical farm operator Crop One Holdings announced a $40 million joint venture with Emirates Flight Catering to later this year begin constructing the world's largest vertical farming facility close to Dubai South airport in the UAE. At 130,000 square feet and 50 feet high, it is envisaged the facility will be able to harvest up to 2,700 kilograms of pesticide-free leafy greens each day for use in, essentially, airline meals.

According to Sonia Lo, Crop One CEO, the facility is commercially viable because of its scale, low-cost base, falling LED costs and because the leafy greens market, in the U.S. at least, is projected to grow from around $8 billion to $50 billion in the coming years.

In the not too distant future, she said, costs will continue to fall and vertical farming could account for more than half of our leafy greens as well as potentially helping to grow certain types of strawberries, rice, coffee and vanilla.

"This farm is definitely a Rubicon for the industry as a whole, because we are transitioning from these little dinky, pilot-scale farms to a major industrial-scale farm," Lo said.

Many, however, remain unconvinced of the concept's potential to scale in any significant way, and once you dig below the surface, it becomes easier to see why. After all, architects, city planners and tech investors may be excited by the idea, but it still seems a long way from playing a serious role in feeding the world, let alone making a sizeable dent in agriculture's estimated 6 billion gigaton annual greenhouse gas contribution. Surely a better use of the money and effort being invested in vertical farming would be better spent on reducing humanity's reliance on livestock — the agriculture sector's biggest single environmental impact by far, and one to which vertical farming offers no obvious solution.

Tim Lang, professor of food policy at City University London, certainly doesn't mince words on the subject, describing vertical farming as "ludicrous," "hyped-up" and a "speculative investment" that merely will end end up growing flavorless fruit and vegetables. "Let's be realistic, this is a technology looking for a justification. It is not a technology one would invest in and develop if it wasn't for the fact that we are screwing up on other fronts," he said. "This is anti-nature food growing."

Costs of production are certain to drop, but at present vertical farming does indeed seem a highly expensive means of cultivation compared to simply growing food in the ground using sunlight. But either way, the issue does raise fundamental questions about how the human race will feed itself in a future likely hit by less predictable weather and resource scarcities.

Some potential benefits of vertical farming are hard to argue with, but in fighting so hard to make it commercially viable we may fail to consider its negative impacts, both on nature and our society, and miss the far lower hanging fruit in developing more climate-friendly and resilient outdoor farming methods.

Vertical farming may not be a money-grabbing scam, but without proper pause for thought about its consequences, it could be a worrying distraction.

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