The Food Journal and Food, Nutrition & Science

An alliance between The Lempert Report and The Center for Food Integrity

Vertical Farming

Vertical Farming

In the News

October 25, 2009

The world’s population is expanding at an annual rate of about 1.3% and is projected to double its present level of 6.5 billion by 2063. At the same time, rapidly warming climates are threatening to disrupt crop yields. With global agriculture facing some worrisome prospects – some experts predict serious food shortages by 2100 for half of the world’s population – new technologies are emerging with some possible solutions to the planet’s growing food needs.

Vertical farming is a technology that applies soil free methods like hydroponics and aeroponics to the growing of plants in spaces outside of traditional farms. Fruits and vegetables are literally grown vertically, making this type of farming ideal for urban locations and in areas lacking arable land. In these controlled environments, water and energy can be used efficiently and it can be easier to combat pests and plant diseases. 

Dr. Dickson Despommier, a Professor of Public Health in Environmental Health Sciences at Columbia University, is considered the father of the large scale vertical farming concept – an idea that he says grew out of a classroom project. Despommier, who is currently working on a prototype, says that vertical farms can not only revolutionize and improve urban life but also revitalize land damaged by traditional farming. For every indoor acre farmed, he says, some 10 to 20 outdoor acres of farmland could be allowed to return to their original ecological state. He envisions a future with blocks of vertical farm skyscrapers, providing enough food and water for thousands annually with no waste.

UK-based company Valcent Products Inc. is currently testing out their version of the vertical farm, called VertiCrop. VertiCrop differs from Despommier’s multi-story vision in that it is a single story structure with food growing on vertical planes. Combining vertical growing, hydroponics and greenhouse production into an integrated commercial production system, plants are grown vertically in trays suspended from an overhead track. This set up allows the trays to rotate and pass through a feeding station for water and nutrients, permits even airflow over the plants and equal exposure to light, and allows for nutrient runoff to be captured and recycled.

VertiCrop is designed to increase production volume for field crops up to 20 times while using only 5% of the water usually needed in conventional farming. A 100 square meter machine can grow up to 11,200 plants at a time. A pilot program – the first commercial vertical farm of its kind – is currently underway at the Paignton Zoo in Devon, with the ultimate goal of reducing food miles and bringing down the zoo’s bill for animal feed, which can reach up to £200,000 annually. 

Chris Bradford is Managing Director of Valcent Products (EU) and oversees the company’s vertical farming initiatives. He says that vertical farming solutions can serve the needs of vulnerable populations without a reliable food supply, help protect food security and address environmental concerns like water consumption. Also, says Bradford, the technology can meet the needs of the human population while reducing the pressure to clear precious habitat for crops. 

“Our system does not compete directly with conventional farming and we will never replace conventional farming systems. However, we offer a unique solution to vegetable production in specific environments or for special applications like urban and desert farming,” says Bradford. 

While indoor farming is not a new idea – greenhouse-based agriculture has been around for centuries – vertical farming cranks things up several notches by potentially producing enough quantity to sustain large cities using resources mostly found within city limits. Some other benefits of the technology include year-round crop production, no weather related crop failures and the elimination of agricultural runoff. And since food grown in this manner can be produced in an urban area on a large scale, food transportation miles can be kept to a minimum, saving additional energy.

Currently, most vertical farming models are produce-based, but smaller animals like fish and poultry could one day become part of the mix, notes Despommier. 

He adds, “The vertical farm is a theoretical construct whose time has arrived, for to fail to produce them in quantity for the world at-large in the near future will surely exacerbate the race for the limited amount of remaining natural resources of an already stressed out planet.”

The world’s population is expanding at an annual rate of about 1.3% and is projected to double its present level of 6.5 billion by 2063. At the same time, rapidly warming climates are threatening to disrupt crop yields. With global agriculture facing some worrisome prospects – some experts predict serious food shortages by 2100 for half of the world’s population – new technologies are emerging with some possible solutions to the planet’s growing food needs.

Vertical farming is a technology that applies soil free methods like hydroponics and aeroponics to the growing of plants in spaces outside of traditional farms. Fruits and vegetables are literally grown vertically, making this type of farming ideal for urban locations and in areas lacking arable land. In these controlled environments, water and energy can be used efficiently and it can be easier to combat pests and plant diseases. 

Dr. Dickson Despommier, a Professor of Public Health in Environmental Health Sciences at Columbia University, is considered the father of the large scale vertical farming concept – an idea that he says grew out of a classroom project. Despommier, who is currently working on a prototype, says that vertical farms can not only revolutionize and improve urban life but also revitalize land damaged by traditional farming. For every indoor acre farmed, he says, some 10 to 20 outdoor acres of farmland could be allowed to return to their original ecological state. He envisions a future with blocks of vertical farm skyscrapers, providing enough food and water for thousands annually with no waste.

UK-based company Valcent Products Inc. is currently testing out their version of the vertical farm, called VertiCrop. VertiCrop differs from Despommier’s multi-story vision in that it is a single story structure with food growing on vertical planes. Combining vertical growing, hydroponics and greenhouse production into an integrated commercial production system, plants are grown vertically in trays suspended from an overhead track. This set up allows the trays to rotate and pass through a feeding station for water and nutrients, permits even airflow over the plants and equal exposure to light, and allows for nutrient runoff to be captured and recycled.

VertiCrop is designed to increase production volume for field crops up to 20 times while using only 5% of the water usually needed in conventional farming. A 100 square meter machine can grow up to 11,200 plants at a time. A pilot program – the first commercial vertical farm of its kind – is currently underway at the Paignton Zoo in Devon, with the ultimate goal of reducing food miles and bringing down the zoo’s bill for animal feed, which can reach up to £200,000 annually. 

Chris Bradford is Managing Director of Valcent Products (EU) and oversees the company’s vertical farming initiatives. He says that vertical farming solutions can serve the needs of vulnerable populations without a reliable food supply, help protect food security and address environmental concerns like water consumption. Also, says Bradford, the technology can meet the needs of the human population while reducing the pressure to clear precious habitat for crops. 

“Our system does not compete directly with conventional farming and we will never replace conventional farming systems. However, we offer a unique solution to vegetable production in specific environments or for special applications like urban and desert farming,” says Bradford. 

While indoor farming is not a new idea – greenhouse-based agriculture has been around for centuries – vertical farming cranks things up several notches by potentially producing enough quantity to sustain large cities using resources mostly found within city limits. Some other benefits of the technology include year-round crop production, no weather related crop failures and the elimination of agricultural runoff. And since food grown in this manner can be produced in an urban area on a large scale, food transportation miles can be kept to a minimum, saving additional energy.

Currently, most vertical farming models are produce-based, but smaller animals like fish and poultry could one day become part of the mix, notes Despommier. 

He adds, “The vertical farm is a theoretical construct whose time has arrived, for to fail to produce them in quantity for the world at-large in the near future will surely exacerbate the race for the limited amount of remaining natural resources of an already stressed out planet.”