Interest in vertical farming is growing worldwide. This method of cultivation has major advantages: local, fresh produce, which is possible at any location, in a very sustainable way. On the negative side are the high electricity consumption and investment costs. Scientists from Wageningen University & Research, together with international colleagues, provide a balanced view of the state of affairs in a review article in the renowned scientific journal Nature Foods.
Cultivation possible everywhere
"It is a solution for high-quality local production of fresh fruits and vegetables, close to the consumer in urban areas. This way, cities can become independent of production elsewhere; during the pandemic people became aware that supply problems can cause dire situations. You solve that with this," says Sander van Delden, first author of the article in Nature Foods.
"Production and quality can be planned every day of the year. You have complete control, including over the nutrient content, although the insights in this area still need to grow," says co-author Leo Marcelis, professor of Horticulture and Product Physiology at Wageningen University. "The system also has many sustainability advantages. Compared to all other methods of cultivation, the consumption of water and nutrients is low and it also takes up little space. In principle, you can grow without pesticides. On the other hand, the electricity consumption and the required investments are high.
Photo credits: Urban Harvest, Belgium
The high investments are not a stumbling block for the time being. Large investors are queuing up. However, it is not only a question of technology and finance, both scientists emphasize. Only an interplay between crop experts, technicians, marketers, and investors can take vertical farming to the next level. This is necessary and certainly possible. Marcelis: "We are only at the beginning; there is still much room for improvement. Growers will learn to get much more out of the cultivation system. Breeders are working on special varieties for this method of cultivation. At the moment, you see mainly lettuce varieties and herbs such as basil in daylightless cultivation, but in time you will certainly also see tomatoes and strawberries. Technically, any crop can be grown, but for bulk crops - cereals, rice, potatoes, cassava - it will remain economically unviable." Research on status and challenges of upscaling vertical farming systems.
Guaranteed healthy vegetables
Van Delden sees many opportunities in improving the quality of fruit and vegetables. Think of vitamins, antioxidants, flavorings, or health-promoting substances. It is difficult to control the quality of vegetables in open field and glasshouse cultivation because of the ever-changing conditions. In a vertical farm, it is always the same ideal spring weather.
The Nature article also discusses socio-economic consequences and policy aspects. Vertical farming can provide employment in inner cities and reuse discarded buildings. It enables food production in countries that for various reasons cannot be self-sufficient now, such as Singapore and Arab countries with desert climates. Public policies, especially in Europe, have so far been little prepared for the new developments. Little thought has been given to the impact and, if any policy exists, it differs from region to region. More attention to the developments and, moreover, to the new types of healthy (and virtually organic) products from vertical farms, would make the advance easier.
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Wageningen University & Research