Vertical farming is a big discussion point in the agricultural world right now - and for good reason. With restrictions on travel and growing concerns surrounding food supply chains and local food security, the benefits of vertical and urban farming are more recognizable than ever. Yet vertical farming is not without its critics. Some suggest that it distracts from seriously implementing a transition to organic farming, whilst others simply argue that we cannot feed the world with salad.
It’s true that vertical farming is not a miracle solution to our global food production issues. There is no one size fits all solution to our agricultural and supply problems. However, vertical farming and other forms of controlled environment agriculture (CEA) can play a crucial role in diversifying our supply systems and creating a more stable global food network. Here are just a few ways that CEA can help to feed the world.
Access to healthy foods
In vertical systems, it is possible to grow a large number of crops such as microgreens quickly, because trays can be stacked to make better use of space and growers can use land otherwise unsuitable for growing crops. These types of crops are small but packed with nutrients - meaning you don’t need to consume large amounts of them to receive that nutrition. Plants are most nutritious when they are seeds - however, seeds are difficult to digest so you are not able to absorb all the nutrients. The closest a plant can be to a seed is when it’s a sprout or microgreen, so this is when the plant is at its most nutritious but in a form easiest for us to digest.
Access to highly nutritious and fresh food is particularly important during times of crisis, when access to food supplies might be impaired - whether that be due to panic buying, for financial reasons or because of difficulties traveling to a supermarket. Setting up urban farms can improve food security by ensuring people are more likely to be in closer proximity to healthy foods.
A helping hand
CEA projects, such as vertical farms, are not a replacement for traditional or organic farming. However, it can provide an excellent support system and supplement harvests throughout the year.
Growing certain crops in these systems means that it reduces pressure on our soils and farmlands. Crops that are more delicate, seasonal or difficult to transport can all benefit from being grown in indoor and vertical environments. Salads and microgreens also have a short shelf life, so harvesting near the point of consumption reduces waste and wilted leaves - meaning precious farming resources are not wasted. This also means that wheat, barley, oat or some rooting vegetables that thrive in soil environments can take precedence in the outdoors and we can increase the overall productivity of our farms.
It’s about more than salad
Although CEA is best equipped to produce delicious salads, leafy greens, and microgreens, there is also huge potential to use this technology to grow far more. At LettUs Grow, we are trialing crops such as carrots and strawberries, and other studies have shown that crops such as potatoes can also be grown in these systems.
The benefits of vertical farming also move beyond just what is grown. It’s also about where and who. Bringing food production closer to the consumer also brings with it an understanding and love of food. Some studies have shown that children are much more likely to eat vegetables if they have been involved in the growing process! Urban population in the UK was reported at 83.4 % in 2018, so urban farming provides a great opportunity to get young people interested in growing through science and technology. It also means farm labor is a more accessible work option for those in urban areas.
Those living in urban areas are far less likely to have access to highly nutritious foods. These areas, called 'food deserts,' are places that don't have many affordable or healthy food options nearby. Around 76% of food deserts in England and Wales are in poorer urban areas. Therefore, setting up urban farms and community projects can bring food closer to those who need it most. Vertical farming and urban agriculture may not single-handedly feed the world, but it could play a part in helping to tackle food inequality and deserts by enabling more highly nutritious foods to be grown and eaten locally.