The Sustainable Vertical Farming research project was launched in 2022 at the University of Bologna, together with the collaboration of the Universities of Naples, Turin, and Pauda. This project is coordinated by Prof. Francesco Orsini of the Department of Agri-Food Sciences and Technologies (DISTAL). With it, the research institutions want to address climate change by proposing innovative solutions for the development of Vertical Farms in Italy.
"One of our goals is to optimize the use of energy, nutrients, and water resources as well as diversify production towards small fruits, exotic tropical species, and medicinal plants. Today in Italy, lettuce is mainly grown in vertical farms; some companies have embarked on the production of strawberries, but with still limited results. However, not all crops can be grown in this way, and it will take some time before we can grow cereals or fruit trees. But as far as horticulture is concerned, what is currently produced in greenhouses could find interesting applications in vertical farming too."
High costs but equally high impact
In environments subject to extreme heat and at risk of water scarcity - such as in the Arabian peninsula - this technology is spreading rapidly, given that vertical farms allow consistent temperatures regardless of the outdoor climate.
At the same time, costs to set up vertical farms are still very high (1500-3000 euros per square meter of cultivated area). It is thus crucial to come up with more cost-efficient systems not only to improve a country's food security and supply but also for the impact vertical farms can have on local employment rates.
"In vertical farms, it is possible to employ people at risk of exclusion, given that the tasks are rather simple. This is why in some territories, this system proves to be an opportunity also from an employment and social redemption point of view. In other words, both types of systems - highly automated or more manual - have strengths and weaknesses depending on the conditions of the countries in question and the objectives to be achieved.
There are examples of technologies implemented in the slums of Nairobi or the northeast of Brazil through the use of simplified hydroponic systems. In other cases, they went for cultivation in bags using recycled plastic bottles to house the plants, and in other cases, since there wasn't any plastic, bamboo was used. This is to say that there are many possibilities for creating innovative systems for cultivation in urban environments. Even with low costs and simplified technologies, they give excellent results and also have a high social impact."
The uses of Vertical farms are already the most disparate, depending on the parts of the world in which they are built: in Japan, they have been inserted in some hospitals to make the sick carry out activities with a view to rehabilitation; in the USA as well as in Europe and Italy, it is increasingly required to gain experience in schools. But some restaurants and bars start their vertical farms to have fruit and vegetables available to cook or to prepare fresh smoothies.