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Is Vertical Farming the Future of Urban Agriculture?

Agriculture | Feb, 2022

More than half the world’s population (approximately 4 billion) live in urban areas. As people continue to migrate from rural to urban areas, the global urban population is anticipated to reach around 7 billion people by 2050. The growing urbanization activities could pose a threat to food security since they are likely to reduce the availability of valuable croplands, which are necessary to produce an adequate amount of fresh food for the rising population. According to a study, the global urban expansion would result in approximately 1.8-2.4% loss of global croplands and a 3-4% reduction in crop production by 2030. Besides, changing climatic conditions could put a strain on Earth’s resources, creating a serious demand-supply chain issue. Therefore, sustainable development and growth of the urban population require a great need for innovative farming methods to meet the demand for more food and more land to grow food. Vertical farms are at the forefront of the controlled environment agriculture segment and rapidly take over traditional farming methods for producing eco-friendly products in metropolitan areas.

Vertical farming (VF) or high-rise farming essentially means indoor farming in vertical greenhouses with regulated growing conditions, offering a favorable environment for crops to thrive, regardless of the weather conditions outside. This kind of agriculture practice has the potential to produce food year-round and thus maintain a steady flow of products for consumers as well as ensure consistent income for growers. Besides, vertical farming provides an array of advantages such as urban water recycling, fewer farm inputs, low crop failure risks, restored farmland, energy conservation, reduced soil erosion and air pollution, urban beautification, and ecological sustainability. Due to the significant benefits of vertical farming over traditional methods of agriculture, many countries have started implementing the innovative farming system on a large scale.

How Does Vertical Farms Work?

In vertical farming setup, plants are arranged in layers that can reach several stories high. For this purpose, multi-story buildings (also known as farm scrapers) are utilized to produce vegetables in a space-saving manner. Modern technologies like artificial intelligence, machine learning, and Internet of Things are utilized to provide adequate conditions for crops and every parameter that affects the growth of crops is closely monitored. Workers take preventive measures to eliminate the risk of pest infestations that could damage crops. Smart sensors monitor technical variables such as temperature, light, carbon dioxide, oxygen, humidity, precipitation, nutrient concentration, pest control, and irrigation whereas advanced imaging technologies measure plant growth, temperature, and other factors. All these modern technologies are a part of controlled environment systems (CES), which have proven beneficial to grow leafy greens, herbs, microgreens, and vegetables like pepper, tomatoes, etc. Some of the essential components of controlled environment systems include:

  • Dosing systems

Dosing systems are utilized in vertical farms to provide optimal nutrients to the plants and monitor nutrient solutions. Automated dosing systems are connected to peristaltic pumps that suck the required dose of nutrients and dispense them into the reservoir, which further supplies a precise amount of nutrients to each plant. Probes placed inside the reservoir continuously provide information about pH and EC levels, nutrient concentration, water temperature, etc. More control over nutrient solution with automated dosing reduces the risk of plant shock or stunted growth.

  • Sterilizing Systems

The crops grown in vertical farms need to comply with international food safety regulations. Hence, adopting rigorous sterilization and disinfection strategies in indoor farming is necessary to ensure the production of pesticide-free crops throughout the year. Common sterilization methods include chemical disinfection, UV sterilization, and ozone sanitation. Chemical disinfection involves sterilizing floors, transporting equipment, and other tools with hypochlorite and hydrogen peroxide. UV sterilization is a chemical-free method involving UV emitting light to destroy micro-organisms invisible to the naked eyes, such as fungi, viruses, and other pathogens. Ozone sanitation is performed to clean air in indoor farms, killing fungi and other microorganisms.

  • Lighting

Artificial light used in vertical farming is the crop’s sole source of illumination, so the grower needs to do a great deal of research to control the light, intensity, and duration to ensure plant growth and generate a good yield. Every stage of plant growth requires different lighting; thus, many companies provide light formulations to vertical farmers to increase biomass production and enhance flavor. Generally, three kinds of lights are used for vertical farming such as LED lights, high-pressure sodium lights, and fluorescent grow lights. LED lamps are one of the most common choices since they generate less heat than high-pressure sodium (HPS) grow lights, lasts long, and conserve energy. HPS grow light promotes flowering and fruiting but can slow down plant growth during the early stage of development and affect output. Also, HPS lights emit a lot of heat since they contain mercury, which can prove to be hazardous for health. Fluorescent lights are highly efficient since they produce less heat and are specially designed for indoor farming.

  • Air Control

Vertical farmers need to maintain the ideal CO2 concentration (1000 parts per million) in the indoor farming set up to promote rapid plant growth and increase plant productivity. Some common type of CO2 enrichment techniques involves CO2 gassing, compressed CO2, and misting aqueous CO2 through delivery solutions. CO2 gassing is a conventional method of producing carbon dioxide gas by burning propane or natural gas into the plant growing area. Another method is to transform compressed CO2 into gaseous form and inject it into the growing chamber for a certain time frame. CO2 delivery systems are one of the cost-effective methods of infusing gas directly as microdroplets into the plant’s leaves via an overhead misting system. Besides, vertical farms must maintain proper airflow, reducing the build-up of heat and humidity in the growing area to reduce the risk of infection. Generally, airflow transducers are used and located at the farm’s entrance and exit points to assess air velocity continuously and transmit data to the terminal. Additionally, dehumidifiers and dehumidification systems are utilized to eliminate excess moisture and maintain optimal humidity in the growing area.