Food for Thought:

Will Vertical Farms Become the Smart Way to Feed a Growing Planet?

Tuesday, June 28, 2022

Vertical farming – scalable, highly automated, and tightly controlled systems capable of growing vast amounts of produce indoors – may be the answer to the problem of feeding growing populations amid a climate crisis.

Could vertical farming be the big idea that saves us? 

Can food grown indoors, under controlled conditions and leveraging the advantages of automation and technology, be the answer to food security, the labor shortage, and climate change? 

A rapidly growing body of activity in the vertical farming space suggests yes. 

“If we have to produce twice as much food and we’re losing freshwater and farming plains, technology has to solve that,” Dave Dinesen, CEO of CubicFarms, recently told CTV News. CubicFarms is a B.C.-based company that sells vertical farming equipment and software. 

Vertical farming takes place indoors under carefully controlled and highly automated conditions. It’s an idea that was pioneered by NASA as a way to produce food on long space flights. 

Hyper-efficient

The upside? Vertical farming is immune to the impact of fickle and inhospitable weather. It’s hyper efficient, delivering crop yields that are 150 to 350 times greater per acre than traditional farming. It uses just one percent of the land that an outdoor farm requires and a tiny fraction of the water. 

Big players are now getting into the vertical farming space. Last January, retail giant Walmart took a stake in Plenty, a vertical farming startup based in San Francisco. In Canada, grocery giant Sobeys Inc. recently partnered with Infarm, an Amsterdam-based vertical farming company with a valuation of $1 billion. Sobeys is placing Infarm’s vertical farming kiosks in select stores, touting fresh, locally grown produce. Infarm has plans to rapidly scale operations in not only Canada but the U.S., Japan, Europe, the Asia-Pacific region, and the Middle East. 

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Less water, less carbon

It's easy to see why. Vertical farming addresses many issues vexing farmers and planners: 

  • It requires 70 to 99 percent less water than conventional cultivation, depending on the crop and the method, alleviating the water shortages and water scarcity caused by overuse and climate change. Many vertical farming systems recycle the water that they use. 
  • It allows for cultivation year-round, particularly advantageous in extreme cold- or hot-weather climates, and acts as a hedge against natural disasters such as floods or wildfires. 
  • It allows food to be grown locally, reducing trucking costs, supply-chain vulnerability, and the affiliated greenhouse gasses generated through shipping. 
  • It’s ideally suited for the productive utilization of empty office and warehouse space created by the post-pandemic shift in work habits and eases pressure on all rural land use, which is under threat from urbanization. 
  •  The automation embedded in vertical farming systems reduces the number of workers required, lowering costs and helping to ease labor shortages. Consider that in Canada, employers in primary agriculture “suffered earning losses of nearly $3-billion in total sales in 2020, directly attributable to unfilled vacancies.” 

In short, vertical farming addresses many urgent problems. 

Are there drawbacks? Yes.

Vertical farming is capital intensive. The technology and equipment needed to set up a vertical farming operation can run from $30 million to $50 million per site. Lighting and water costs eat into profits. Operations are vulnerable to disruptions in electricity and water supply. And farms need to reach a massive scale to be reliably profitable and efficient. 

But as severe weather episodes grow in intensity and frequency, the planet’s food supply grows ever more vulnerable. The United Nations has predicted that the planet will need to feed another 2.3 billion people by 2050. “Conventional agriculture,” the NASA space agency says, “may not be able to meet that demand.” 

The time to grow food indoors may well now be at hand. 

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