Vertical and indoor farming operations have gained popularity over the past decade, mostly in urbanized environments of developed countries. Some such farming operations rely solely on artificial lighting, and some still rely on sunlight.
With the Covid-19 pandemic unabated at this point in time, many food-deficient countries are still looking for ways to address and ensure food security. During the worldwide lockdown from March to June 2020, supermarket shelves were half empty, and many people panicked. Disruptions in the supply chain due to the pandemic have put even more pressure on future food demands. This pressure is on top of ongoing climate change, competing land use issues, and population increase factors. Vertical and indoor farming are widely touted solutions, but is vertical farming commercially viable?
Vertical farming naturally results in a very high production output per unit area, saving on land and water resources significantly. Producing food in urban environments means being a lot closer to consumers, decreasing transportation from farmgate-to-dinnerplate, which helps reduce the carbon footprint.
Being able to produce food in land-scarce countries through such means will allow a degree of food insecurity to be addressed, but not without a cost. Unfortunately, indoor and vertical farming is costly, resulting in a higher unit production cost compared to land-based farming, and someone has to pay for it. That someone is either the taxpayer, through government grants and subsidies, or consumers paying higher food prices. The irony is the food insecurity arising from a one-off pandemic is felt when there is no shortage of food in rich urban areas and countries otherwise, such as in Singapore and oil-rich Middle East.
At the moment, mostly leafy greens are being produced despite many such vertical and indoor farming operations claiming that they can grow tens of varieties. Being able to grow them is one thing but growing them economically is another thing altogether.
Besides, growing crops in an indoor environment entails using artificial lighting, which incurs a very high energy cost. The need for cooling due to heat generated by the lights adds to the energy cost.
Having gone vertical to reduce space and land needed is not sufficient to offset the high cost of energy inherent in such farming operations. Heat accumulated in the growing environment and then having to cool down, as mentioned earlier, adds to the energy cost. So, it seems the next logical step would be to increase planting density further by not having any aisles, but this requires a higher degree of automation and ensuring there is a way to reach and treat any parts of the crop that are infested with pests and diseases.
Creating an environment free from pests and diseases will require clean rooms like ones used in pharmaceutical or semiconductor production. Such pest-free environments would incur even higher set-up and maintenance costs. In current operations, pests and diseases are inevitable as they can come through the ventilation systems and doorways, on top of accidental contamination by workers and through seeds. Bacterial and fungal spores as well as tiny pests such as mites can get through even the most well-maintained, controlled environment. Besides, circulating air as well as the humid growing conditions favor the spread of fungal spores and outbreak of mite infestations.
Many vertical farms have high-tech systems, such as sensors, robots, and AI. Not only are these very useful, they are also very expensive, which is why many farms need investments. Hopefully, those farms which have raised a lot of investment funds will help companies move forwards. Then, and only then, can they effectively address food insecurity and meet future food demands in a meaningful and sustainable way.
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