Food security is a balance of four dimensions: physical availability of food, economic access, nutritional utilization, and the stability of the first three dimensions over time. Like a table, cut a leg short, and food security will tumble to the ground. Understanding the role of vertical farms in urban food security needs a focused appraisal of vertical farms for each of these dimensions.
In a city, food is sourced through rural or international imports. The “just-in-time” food sourcing for perishable produce is efficient, but transporting food thousands of miles is susceptible to unforeseen events leading to “food deserts” in the cities. Vertical farms in the cities can help mitigate these issues.
Currently, only a select few high-value salad crops are grown in vertical farms, and these crops cannot meet the caloric demands of the urban population. Efforts are underway to expand the crop selection for vertical farms to beans, tomatoes, and berries. Even with the adoption of more crops and developments in technology, VFs could, at most, meet the vegetable requirements for part of the urban population.
Availability of food alone does not ensure food security. If one cannot afford the available food, one will still go hungry. Economic access to food depends on the public income and food prices. The initial start-up, real-estate, and energy costs for vertical farms are prohibitively high, and these farms have to make money to keep the lights on, quite literally, to produce food. Running a vertical farm can be economically viable only by growing high-value crops such as leafy greens and speciality herbs that fetch a high-profit margin. The produce from vertical farms, therefore, can be more expensive than field-grown crops.
Food utilization refers to the proper biological use of food to meet the caloric and nutrient requirements. Utilization also closely ties in with nutritional quality and food safety. There is one aspect of food for which vertical farms are unrivalled: quality.
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