Why we cannot assume Vertical Farms are good for the planet.

And how we can support those that are.

In the first part of our series on Vertical Farming and Urban Sustainability, we will look at what is means to be a sustainable farm and how we can make sure this promising tech lives up to its potential.

Vertical farming (VF) is different from traditional farming in that, well, it’s vertical. When lights, ventilation, and often soil-less technologies are combined with rigs, shelves, pumps and the likes, it becomes possible to stack growing bays. This in turn means that you can multiply your planted area by the amount of growing floors you can stack, increasing productivity by footprint dramatically. That is the short and rough definition of vertical farming.

Radish leaves growing “wild” in central London — but at what cost?

On paper, vertical farming is great. When applied in controlled environments (which it often is), growth is possible all year. This means it can be moved into cities and can reconnect eaters with growers. Freeing agriculture from arable land and, crucially, the sun, has led to all sorts of creative applications. They can be built in closed loops and with little inputs. Farms are popping up all over the globe, with messages touting sustainable living, low impact foods, zero-carbon and so on. The photogenic pink glow of an LED-lit grow room and futurist narrative of #futurefood have helped it take off.

However, amid euphoria, few have paused to measure the social, environmental, and economic implications of VF.

This is important as it means that those who are really driving positive change in the way we eat and grow are not always recognized for their efforts. Meanwhile others are free-riding off the “green” credentials of the industry. On the whole, this means VF is not used to its full advantage.

Research from Germany estimates that half the studies on building integrated agriculture assume the process to be sustainable, and the few times sustainability has been picked apart, studies tend to focus tightly on specific applications. The reality is that VF is rarely isolated, and tool are unable to account for this. As a result, investors and consumers do not know the true impact of a VF project, and may be duped by strong branding.

Half the studies on building integrated agriculture assume the process to be sustainable

Here are two cases to illustrate the inability of current methods to paint the full picture of VF:

In physical terms, growing vertically can reduce pressure on land and water, through denser growing and more targeted irrigation. It can also reduce the need for pesticides and nutrients, for similar reasons. However, lighting, heating, and maintaining warehouses can be incredibly wasteful and costly, especially when well-oiled alternative supply chains exist. This means that a Life Cycle Analysis may well suggest that rocket salad should be grown in Italy and bulk shipped to the UK, while a Cost Benefit Analysis could show some social or environmental externalities that would prone growing locally. The same issue, different tools, different results.
In commercial terms, the business model is key to the impact of a business. A vertical farm that ships its “sustainable” produce in plastic clam-shells clearly cannot make the same claims as a closed-loop system that only serves a local food bank. And once again tools are inadequate, as a line up to the SDGs might not equate to a circular business model, which in turn might not meet the standards of a B-corp. All of these are good measures of sustainable business, but none are universally suited.

This has motivated us at Qincho to develop a new method. Our Sustainability Services are aimed at innovators and investors who want to use food technologies as a force for good. To empower them, we study the team’s vision and mission, their business model, and look deep into their supply chain. This is how we deliver clear recommendations for, and evaluation of, sustainable food systems.

The key issue is that important factors are missed when business models, access issues, co-location, technology or climate are overlooked. This means that the assumption that vertical farming is sustainable is flawed.

This is a pity because in many cases, it can be.

The Association for Vertical Farming recently published a white paper on circular and integrated business models for VF. It outlines how an ecosystems-approach can be used to design a fully closed loop system. They argue that when waste is used as a resource and all leakages are blocked, systems are sustainable — VF can be a powerful enabler for this.

Vertical farming is booming. Many businesses are tapping into the sustainability narrative, and investors too. Many know that they hold truly empowering technologies, that their solutions can feed tomorrow at larger scales and lower costs. Working together with investors and communities, vertical farmers must design systems that fully make use of the technology. Stakeholders too must be critical and request circular systems. Assuming that VF is a silver bullet and will fix our food system is bound to lead us to an AgTech bubble and do little for global food security. Success will depend on the ability to see in systems and think long-term.

“We cannot manage what we do not measure” — Global Alliance for the Future of Food

Lack of a clear method to assess the sustainability of a project has until now been the Achilles heel of VF. While biophysical components like nutrients, greenhouse gas emissions, water pH, and energy use have measurement units, business and social models scarcely do. Herein lies the need for Qincho’s new method.

To sum up, the sustainable VF is the farm that understands that it needs to engage in a system and realises that growing is just a part of the life cycle of a good. The energy, nutrients, and water that feed into a farm also flow out, and these must be accounted for. A sustainable VF understands that while it is part of a system, it is responsible. It treats eaters as citizens, not consumers, and makes its decisions for the long-term. Of course, a sustainable business must make money. It needs engaged investors who understand that its actions today affect its ability to act tomorrow. Crucially, a VF must be considered like the complex system that it is. To drive the transition to food sustainability, we need to assess and design VF projects appropriately, and enable supporting environment that value sustainability.

We cannot assume all Vertical Farms are sustainable. But many are, and for them to succeed, innovators, investors, and stakeholders must have access to the right information. This is why we’ve built Qincho.