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Business, Energy, STEM

Part 2 – Feeding 9.6 Billion People: Pros and Cons of Vertical Farming

06-05-2013foodmarket_source-worldbank-mariafleishmannIt’s a few days before Christmas and I’ve been patting myself on the back as to how good I’ve been managing the extra food and calories that comes with the holiday season the last six weeks of each year.

For the past 17 years, another year-end activity that I have engaged in is preparing for the Arizona Region Future City Competition. While there are no trees to trim and stockings to stuff, there’s an extensive list of tasks and activities that must be completed before the big event on Saturday, January 17, 2015.

The competition’s essay theme, feeding future cities, is a timely reminder that as the world’s population grows, overindulging on holiday food and drink may become a thing of the past. The price of food will certainly become more costly in the future without changes to current agricultural and commercial practices. A recent post, Part 1 – Feeding 9.6 Billion People: Will Vertical Farming Grow Roots? , introduces a non-traditional farming practice. Today’s post weighs the advantages and disadvantages of vertical farming.

Advantages

Some of the advantages of this non-traditional farming practice touted by Vertical Farm Systems (Ref 1) are:

Reliable Harvests – unlike traditional farming, vertical farming offers consistency and reliability that allows growers to commit to delivery schedules well beyond the growing seasons. Fully enclosed climate controlled farms remove external factors such as disease, pest or predators.

Gotham Greens Headquarters, Brooklyn, New York

Gotham Greens Headquarters, Brooklyn, New York

Minimum Overheads – overhead can often be a challenge for any commercial business operation. However, Vertical Farm Systems states that their installations are competitive. The cost of energy is often the biggest challenge, however, use of high efficiency LED lighting can deliver lower power usage while not sacrificing maximum plant growth.

Eliminating natural sunlight from the buildings reduces the need for climate control systems and allows the use of high thermal efficiency buildings. Lower labor costs can be realized because manual labor is only required for onsite planting, harvesting, and packaging of crops.

Vertical Farm Systems claim water usage at 10% of traditional open field farming and 20% less than convention hydroponics. More efficient water reuse can be achieved as well in these operations. With less pesticides and herbicides being used on crops, less washing and processing is required.

Growing crops closer to where they are sold will decrease transportation costs, and reduce the need for refrigerated storage and transport.

Increased Growing Season – the multi-level design that vertical farming offers allows for up to eight (8) times more surface and growing area than single level farming or greenhouse systems. The compact design allows vertical farms to be located just about anywhere including next to landfills or wastewater treatment plants and other locations previously not associated with high-quality agricultural activities. The landfill or wastewater treatment plant may offer a cheap source of energy to off-set other costs associated with operating a vertical farm.

Maximum Crop Yield – more crop rotations can be achieved per year than regular open field farming. Crop cycles are faster due to controlled temperature, humidity and light (natural and artificial).

Wide Range of Crops – vertical farming can support a variety of crops.

Fully Integrated Technology – with indoor farming, one has the ability to control the air quality and temperature, water, light and nutrition for optimum growth. These systems can be computerized further lowering the cost of manual labor.

Disadvantages

Agricultural Guide (Ref 2) identifies the two primary disadvantages of vertical farming:

Cost: The cost of land for an urban farm is usually significantly higher than the cost of regular farmland. Add to that the cost of a building(s) or structure(s), and electrical and climate control systems and the initial startup costs for a vertical farm can be financially unattractive.

Limited crops: Unlike traditional farms, vertical farms have not demonstrated the ability to produce more than a limited number of vegetables and fruits in an indoor controlled environment. However, as more knowledge and skills for vertical farming are developed, it is expected that the numbers of crops will increase and costs will decrease.

Vertical farming is on the rise in the U.S. and other countries around the world including, Japan, Singapore, Sweden and Korea.

Part 3 of this series will introduce a potential hybrid of vertical and traditional farming – rooftop gardens.

References

  1. Farm Systems, http://www.verticalfarms.com.au/advantages-vertical-farming. Last viewed on 12.20.2014
  2. Vertical Farming Advantages and Disadvantages, Ahmet, K., http://www.agricultureguide.org/vertical-farming-advantages-and-disadvantages/, August 1, 2011. Last viewed on 12.20.2014

 

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About Vi Brown

Vi is principal and CEO of Prophecy Consulting Group, LLC, an Arizona firm that provides business and engineering services to private and public clients. Prior to establishing her consulting practice in 2001, Vi worked with Motorola, Maricopa County Government, Pacific Gas & Electric, CH2M Hill, and Procter & Gamble. As an adjunct faculty member, Vi teaches undergraduate calculus classes and graduate level environmental courses. She is also a professional speaker.

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