Vertical farming, also known as Controlled Environment Agriculture (CEA), is the practice of growing crops in stacked layers in a controlled, indoor environment. Crops are grown using soil-free techniques in specially designed beds and trays. In hydroponics, crops are fed using a closed-loop water system containing all the nutrients needed.
You may think that the hydroponic growing methods of most vertical farms will require huge amounts of water. But the opposite is true. The estimated water savings for hydroponics are 90%-95% when compared to traditional outdoor farming use. This is because the water is held in a closed water system that is constantly recirculating, meaning less water is ultimately needed to nurture a plant from seed to harvest. As an example, it is estimated that, on average, it takes 130 litres of water to grow a kilogram of lettuce outdoors, yet in one study of hydroponics, it was discovered that indoor farming only used 6.14 litres of water to grow a kilogram of lettuce.
The water efficiency of vertical hydroponic farming is staggering - and the water savings are even more profound with another branch of soil-free farming, aeroponics. In aeroponics, the plant roots are suspended in the air and irrigated with nutrient-dense mists dispersed using ultrasonic sound waves. The precision achieved means a lot less water is required.
It’s not difficult to see how, after experiencing a summer of water stress, we find the idea of vertical farming so fascinating. And it’s not just the incredible water savings that make it exciting.
The nutrients needed to fertilise the soil in traditional agriculture have long been a problem for the environment. With the closed water system of a vertical hydroponics farm, there is no runoff at all. The nutrients are recirculated until they are used which means nothing is wasted.
In the controlled indoor atmosphere of a vertical farm, there is little or no need for pesticides and herbicides. Without the need to spray the crops, no pesticides will enter the atmosphere where they could harm organisms they were not intended to affect - including humans.
In a closed and controlled environment, it is easier to produce healthy, more uniform crops, leading to greater harvests and less waste. Nick Green of CEA developer Shockingly Fresh told The Guardian that its Worcestershire greenhouse facility had the capacity to grow four times the yield usually harvested on the same-sized patch of land.
Big businesses are seeing the advantages of vertical farming and are willing to invest. In 2021, Ocado invested £5m with the Jones Food Company to help it build what will become Europe’s largest vertical farm just outside Bristol.
With CEA you can grow fresh foods 365 days a year, so you don’t have to import food from other countries out of season. With a controlled climate, it’s possible to grow summer fruits such as strawberries at any time of the year. And with less time taken between harvesting and eating, the food is more likely to taste better too.
Vertical farms make more efficient use of space and can be set up almost anywhere. Vertical farming company GrowUp began its farms in old shipping containers before moving to its first commercial premises in London's East End. The ability to create vertical farms in small spaces, in urban areas, on brownfield sites or even in prisons, combined with the use of vertical space, means we need to take over less of the countryside in order to grow enough food. This means there’s more room left for nature… which is as vital to the future of humanity as agriculture.
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