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Bringing the Future of Farming Across Cities

The world’s population is growing at an unprecedented rate and is said to exceed 10 billion by 2050. The challenge to provide sufficient food for everyone in a sustainable and cost-effective way is getting more difficult. Thanks to urbanisation and industrial development, we’re losing out on arable lands every day. Many scientists say that the Earth has lost about 40% of its arable land. We can’t imagine how much more we’ll lose in the next 50 years!

For thousands of years, people have farmed land for food. With a sharp rise in the urban population over recent centuries, increased living standards, and low mortality rates, the pressure on traditional farming is growing. While technology has streamlined the way we farm our lands, only 11% of the total land area in the world is now used for crop production. This creates challenges like loss of habitat, soil degradation, and placing extreme pressure on our planet’s resources.

Overcoming the restrictions of farming such as unexpected weather changes, transportation issues, pollution, natural calamities, etc., comes a very innovative and efficient way of farming, called vertical farming. It is said to significantly change the future of food production. Will it really be the future of agriculture? Let’s find out!

The Basics

Vertical farming is the practice of growing food in vertically inclined surfaces. Instead of farming vegetables and fruits on a single level, like on a field or a greenhouse, food products are grown in vertically-stacked layers. These layers are commonly integrated into structures like skyscrapers or warehouses. This modern method of farming uses Controlled Environment Agriculture (CEA) technology. The artificial control over light, temperature, humidity, and gasses, is what makes indoor farming possible. Most vertical farms use enclosed structures like greenhouses. The only difference is that the crops are stacked vertically, just above each other or staggered for better natural light exposure. Most vertical farms are either hydroponic, where plants are grown in a bowl of water containing specific nutrients, or aeroponic, where the roots of the plants are sprayed with water and nutrients that plants require to grow. These methods need about 70% less water than traditional farming. Neither of the two methods needs soil, which reduces the weight of each layer.

In Kyoto, Japan, a vertical farm called Spread, is soilless and sunless. They only use LED lights, robotics, and hydroponics to grow more than 10 million lettuce heads per year! A semiconductor factory was converted into a vertical farm and the company has been producing fresh food since 2007. They opened another facility nearby in Keihanna. They have ultimately slashed their labour costs by eliminating work for seeding and harvest.

AeroFarms, New Jersey, is the largest indoor-farming facility in America. They have around 9 farms across the States, and more in development, across the world. They deliberately chose sites near major American cities, to curb the problem of transportation. Watercress, kale, arugula, and around 20 other types of leafy greens are grown on this farm.

The Working

There are 4 key factors that determine the feasibility of vertical farming — physical layout of the farm, lighting, growing medium, and sustainability measures.

The primary objective of vertical farming is to grow maximum food crops in a confined area. To maximise the volume per square metre, the crops are cultivated in vertical stacks in a tower-like structure. Secondly, a perfect combination of natural and artificial light is needed for the crops to grow in a healthy and sustainable way. Improved specialised technologies such as rotating beds increase the efficiency of light sources and cater to different requirements for different crops.

Thirdly, as discussed earlier, in vertical farming, instead of using soil, crops are most commonly grown using hydroponic or aeroponic methods. Another method that is becoming popular is aquaponic. It is a closed-loop, food-producing method where both fish and plants are cultivated. The fish waste provides proper nutrients required by the plants, and in turn, the plants filter the water for the fish. Lastly, vertical farming uses sustainable features like rainwater tanks, wind turbines, solar energy, etc., which cut energy costs. Indoor farming uses less water than traditional farming and it is also not season-dependent which ultimately increases revenue and helps maintain a round-the-year supply chain.

The Good and the Bad

Having better and larger output is not the only advantage of vertical farming. It is predicted that around 80% of the world’s population will be moving to urban areas which will eventually lead to a huge demand for food. Efficient use of vertical farming will help to prepare for such challenges.

Vertical farming helps produce more crops in the same square footage than a traditional farm. The crops that vertical farming produces in 1 acre of land, traditional farming will use 4–5 acres of land to produce. Additionally, these crops can be grown year-round in a controlled, indoor environment, which is completely managed using vertical-farming techniques.

Crops on a field can be influenced by external factors like drought, birds, pests, etc., which majorly affect the field crops. Vertical farming minimizes the effect of external influencers on crops. As this new farming technique doesn’t use chemicals and pesticides, the crops can now also be more organic than ever!

Vertical farming promises a lot in the future and seems to be sustainable to feed future generations. It does, however, come with a few limitations. The financial feasibility of this technique remains uncertain. The cost of building skyscrapers for vertical farming, combined with other costs such as lighting, heating, and labour, can be quite extensive.

Vertical farming also needs more skilled labour than traditional farming. Plus, the cost of labour near the urban areas will be much more than those in rural areas. This technique is highly dependent on technology, right from maintaining the temperature to controlling the lighting. If the farm faces a technical glitch even for a day, it can prove to be a very expensive ‘pest’ in the system.

Where Does India Stand?

India is one of the largest producers of vegetables, fruits, and many other agricultural commodities. The Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) is constantly innovating and has been working towards developing vertical farming, even on multi-storeyed buildings in populated metro cities like Mumbai, Delhi, and Kolkata. Small-scale adaptations are already seen in places like Punjab, Delhi, Mumbai, and West Bengal. Bidhan Chandra Krishi Vishwavidyalaya in West Bengal saw initial success in producing brinjal and tomatoes, while a facility in Punjab has also recorded success in producing potato tubers, using vertical farming.

IdeaFarms, a design-in-tech company in India, is producing fresh foods that are being preferred more because they’re organic, possess higher quality, and have rather predictable supply. A Mumbai based startup, U-Farm technologies is using the hydroponic farming method to customise modular farms for individual apartments or supermarkets.

Hydroponic farming is setting up its roots all across India. Herbivore Farms run by Sakina Rajkotwala and Joshua Lewis, has come into the limelight in recent years. Linesh Pillai started Terra Farms in Manori, as a pilot project, before taking his idea countrywide. A Gurugram-based organisation, Barton Breeze, has six homesteads across Haryana, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, and Uttarakhand.

In India, the farmers working in hi-tech farms often complain of having electricity issues, lack of water supply, no control over market glut, etc. The huge initial cost of infrastructure is a major hurdle for implementing vertical farming in India. Other challenges like public awareness, technical know-how, the cost of maintenance and management, are also economic liabilities.

The amount of people rushing towards urban cities is unimaginable. About 66% of the total population in the world will live in cities by 2050. We’re going to need all kinds of new technology to sustainably feed everyone. The key to making food affordable in the future is, continuing to make more food, using fewer labourers. Vertical farming is surely going to be one of the solutions which will eradicate scarcity and oversupply of crops, use of pesticides and overuse of fertilisers, and deterioration of soils.

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