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A study:

Life cycle assessment of indoor vertical farms

"A large share of the scientific and grey literature promotes vertical farming as a sustainable solution for food provisioning. However, assessments of the environmental implications of IVFs remain limited in scientific literature, with few cases applying systematic environmental assessments," Michael Martin and Francesco Orsini state in a new study. 

Research by Michael Martin, Researcher at the IVL Swedish Environmental Research Institute and KTH Royal Institute of Technology, Sweden and Francesco Orsini, Researcher at the University of Bologna, Italy analyzed the 'Life Cycle Assessment (LCAs) of indoor vertical farms'.  

Michael Martin and Francesco Orsini

According to them, there are few studies that validate claims made by vertical farming of their resource efficiency and reduced environmental impacts, which are often focused primarily on the farm-level metrics. 

"Employing LCAs may be an essential methodology for IVFs to meet the criticism of many of the claims in the industry and provide knowledge for working with sustainability more strategically, providing transparent and scientifically based metrics," they concluded. 

Aim of the study
Ultimately, the researchers aim to provide insights on conducting an environmental sustainability assessment of an IVF employing LCA methodology and outline important considerations during the process.

The layout is designed to provide an overview of the method, and after that describe the different phases of conducting an LCA, providing guidance specifically for IVFs.

It also outlined the limitations of employing LCA and provided knowledge on challenges, important aspects, and possibilities to improve the environmental performance of IVFs based on previous research. The methodology and insights are applicable to different forms of IVF.  

Figure 2: System boundaries for the life cycle assessment of an IVF, including inputs, and outputs, of the system. Based on Martin et al. (2022). Click here to zoom in on the photo.

Research showed that the majority of current vertical farming systems employ linear approaches to their production. This entails that they utilize imported (often virgin) materials from outside their immediate regions for all their resource and energy demands. 

In the future, Michael and Francesco see recycled materials in addition to renewable and residual energy sources being employed so they can reduce the environmental impacts of the consumables and other inputs.

"With cities becoming an important driving force for the circular economy and as critical stakeholders for developing and improving food security, synergies between IVFs and their urban infrastructure are essential for understanding and planning future urban food systems," they add. 

Photo taken at V+ AgriTech, Singapore

Even more so, sustainable solutions for more integrated food, water, energy, and transportation will become increasingly important. As they explain, some companies are exploring such developments worldwide, which have the potential to develop more circular approaches for the IVF industry and potentially improve the environmental performance of IVFs. 

"In the coming years, it is expected that IVF production will gain in terms of product diversification, moving from the current systems, which are mainly based on leafy vegetables, herbs, and microgreens, toward a wide range of agricultural goods," added the researchers. 

According to Michael and Francesco, in the future, these are expected to include berries, edible flowers, potted seedlings, etc. For these products, comparative assessments versus conventional production systems (both in terms of cultivation and transportation/storage), may become more relevant to compare the implications of IVFs. 

For more information:
IVL Swedish Environmental Research Institute and KTH Royal Institute of Technology
Michael Martin 


University of Bologna
Francesco Orsini, Professor at the Department of Agricultural and Food Sciences