As climate change continues to affect soil quality and precipitation rates around the world, it is becoming increasingly difficult to adapt agricultural systems for a rapidly changing global environment. In response to the climate challenges of conventional agriculture, some farmers are turning to high-tech greenhouses and indoor vertical farming techniques.
Today, some agricultural businesses are shifting from manual labor models to highly automated systems which require virtually no workers on-site to function. Simultaneously, new technologies, such as robotic workers and climate controlled atmospheres, are on a path to making some traditional methods of farming obsolete.
Automated indoor farming is the process of growing produce through new methods of technology such as controlled climate systems, vertical farming robotics and AI-powered software that have the potential to increase crop yield. These new methods have the potential to minimize the environmental impact of growing crops by limiting intensive water use and runoff waste.
Dr. Dickson Despommier, Emeritus Professor of Microbiology and Public Health at Columbia University, first coined the terms “vertical farming” and “medical ecology.” Despommier says that for the first time, vertical farming is giving “humanity the chance to finally address its future in agriculture.”
“When you damage a natural system, there’s a health crisis. That’s what we’ve been doing through traditional farming,” Despommier says. “Climate change is affecting every food chain simultaneously, so there’s no way to control it… but [vertical farming] finally gives us the ability to control it again.”
Traditionally, most produce grown on conventional farms must travel thousands of miles by truck or plane before reaching a grocery store. But produce grown in vertical farms need only travel a few miles before reaching its destination, vastly decreasing transportation costs and expanding availability. Vertical farming can also eliminate the need for herbicides and pesticides via a sterilized, self-regulating environment.
As the world’s population is projected to exceed 9 billion by 2050, with two out of every three people expected to live in urban areas by the same year, this method of farming can produce an abundance of fresh, chemical-free produce for people living in cities.
Some entrepreneurs are already experimenting with new vertical farming ideas. Plenty Farm in Compton, California has changed their method of growing produce through indoor vertical farming, and their farm can yield up to 350 times the produce per acre of a conventional farm.
While these technological innovations are developing quicker and more sustainable methods to produce crops, indoor vertical farming still faces considerable limitations. Constructing vertical farms can be an extremely cost-intensive process. Technology such as climate controls, shelving units, LED lights, and mechanical parts can cost millions of dollars to build and maintain.
Vertical farming is also an extremely energy intensive process. On a typical vertical farm, approximately 40 to 50% of the total production costs goes towards energy consumption. The shift to vertical farming would also require extensive training; workers need to be highly skilled technological engineers and agricultural workers to excel at their jobs.
Another module farming company called GreenOnyx has developed an innovative solution to address these technical challenges. The company was founded in 2013, with the mission of producing energy-efficient crops that can be delivered directly from their headquarters in Tel Aviv to markets around the world. Their product is called WannaGreens, a vegetable that contains iron, zinc, potassium, and other vitamins with a higher nutritional to calorie ratio than most leafy greens.
The company was developed with the singular goal of producing efficient crops that require minimal amounts of human labor and energy consumption. The farm has developed innovative, deep-tech automation that is responsible for sterilizing the supply chain, controlling the climate settings, and harvesting crops. According to the company’s website, GreenOnyx is “entirely autonomous and self-sufficient. The unit is capable of functioning independently, without the need for direct human control or intervention.” The company can also operate solely on renewable energy, and recycles water in order to reduce waste.
According to Matan Gal, Vice President of Customer Experience at GreenOnyx, “We [the company] has become one of the most energy efficient vertical farm companies in the world… and we’re constantly finding new ways to adapt to climate change.” GreenOnyx is already marketing its produce to urban restaurants from New York and Paris to Tel Aviv, and they hope to expand their module farms to other locations in Europe and the United States in the coming years.
Dr. Despommier believes that, despite the limitations of vertical farming today, it may be a viable future solution to feed growing urban populations. “Imagine the city as a natural forest,” he says. “Using LED lights and a climate-controlled atmosphere…there wouldn’t be any difference between a building and a tree. Vertical farming would allow people to get fresh produce from anywhere, at any time.”
Despommier’s vision involves converting every single building in a city into a sort of vertical farm, complete with indoor trees and crops, as described in his book The New City: How to Build Our Sustainable Urban future. “We can grow tomatoes, wheat, and even corn using hydroponics and aeroponics and converting just 25% of the sun’s natural energy through photovoltaics,” he says. This would allow people in urban areas to purchase cheap, fresh produce that comes right from their own neighborhood, while reducing transportation and production emissions in the process.
“If experts can jump the financial and technological hurdles to begin constructing indoor farms on a massive scale, we can change humanity’s entire relationship with food,” says Despommier. While indoor vertical farming has a way to go before becoming the leading practice of agriculture, it’s becoming an increasingly well-developed alternative to conventional farming, and may just be an innovative solution for the future.