The Good, the Bad, and the New: Vertical Farms & Modern Agriculture

Lydia Scherr

Agriculture is one of the single most important technological developments in 10,000 years of human civilization. Agriculture is a human invention that has made our society possible. Looking at the world as an enormous interlaced set of ecosystems, humans are the only conscious species on the planet that purposely destroys an ecosystem in favor of food production. Farming is in antithesis of the global system, and yet it makes our food possible. Intensification of agriculture has not, however, been an unmixed blessing. Environmental impacts have increased, including potential degradation of the soil and water resources vital to both farm productivity and human health. The environment is responding to agriculture practices and consumers’ preferences are shifting to demand for fresh, locally grown produce. Both natural forces and the market economy are driving a revolution in agriculture. 

‍Crowd in New York City, source, CNN.

Feeding people and the results of farming practices demand constant, immediate attention. World population is expanding at an annual rate of about 1.3% and is projected to double its present level of 6.5 billion by 2063. Compound the factors of growing population and environmental degradation with rapidly warming climates threatening to disrupt crop yields. Global agriculture is facing predicted food shortages by 2100 for half of the world’s population. 

Vertical farming is being put into practice as a solution to address the challenges associated with modern farming methods, as well as the planet’s growing food need. Right now, our world food chain is associated with water wastage, erosion, scandal, and the long-distance transportation of food. Which leads to the discussion of transitioning to vertical farming methods and how those compare to the status quo. 

A Brief History of Modern Agriculture

Ever since colonial days, agricultural leaders have been interested in increasing the productivity of American farming. In the 25-year period between 1950 and 1975, agricultural productivity changed more rapidly than at any other time in American history. Although the acreage in farming dropped by 6% and the hours of farm labor decreased by 60%, farm production per hour of on-farm labor practically tripled and total farm output increased by more than half. These dramatic changes were produced by technological innovations, development of hybrid strains and other genetic improvements, and a fourfold increase in the use of pesticides and fertilizers. This huge increase in efficiency in the modern era has become capable of producing higher yields using less labor and less land.

Image source, Food Tank.

When DDT and other synthetic organic pesticides were discovered, it was incredible. These substances vastly increased pest control capabilities and made it possible to increase efficiency through practices such as continuous cropping and devoting large acreages to a single crop. In 1962, Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring brought public attention to the fact that these organic compounds are highly persistent in the environment and accumulate in animal tissues causing water contamination, fish kills, and decline of some bird populations. 

DDT was banned for agricultural use in the United States in 1973, and since that time similar chlorinated hydrocarbons have been replaced by less persistent, but more acutely toxic, compounds. Because some of these new pesticides are highly soluble in water, they may leach into groundwater underlying farming regions. In Suffolk County at the eastern end of Long Island, for example, 13 different pesticides have been measured at least once in ground water samples. Nationwide sampling for pesticides has been quite limited, but 23 states have reported at least one of 22 pesticides in groundwater. 

High crop intensity also leads to soil erosion and soil erosion from farmland threatens the productivity of agricultural fields, causing a number of problems elsewhere in the environment. Eroded soil clogs streams, rivers, lakes, and reservoirs, resulting in increased flooding, decreased reservoir capacity, and destruction of habitats for many species of fish and other aquatic life. As a result, drinking water supplies may contain nitrate or organic chemicals in concentrations that exceed public health standards, or surface waters may become clogged with excessive plant growth from the added nutrients.

Pesticides are toxic substances, source‍trayntfarms, .

Use of pesticides on U.S. farms has risen 10-fold over the past 40 years as agriculture has become more intensive. Even more, the increasing pesticide use also leads to the development of resistance in pest species. The trend toward intensive crop production, through intensive pesticides, in modern farming has led to many negative consequences, including increased potential for damage by pests and diseases. 

Water supplies are increasingly becoming threatened by contamination, even in areas where supplies are generally plentiful. Farming is one potential source of such contamination. Surface runoff carries manure, fertilizers, and pesticides into streams, lakes, and reservoirs, in some cases causing unacceptable levels of bacteria, nutrients, or synthetic organic compounds. Similarly, water percolating downward through farm fields carries with it dissolved chemicals, which can include nitrate fertilizers and soluble pesticides. In sufficient quantities, these can contaminate groundwater supplies. 

If vertical farming becomes the new standard growing method, then agriculture can be 130% more efficient without the use of soil, pesticides, or other toxic chemicals as done by Square Roots in Brooklyn, New York.

The Dawn of Vertical Farming 

Vertical farms are a very powerful concept in part because they do not require soil to yield crops. If, for example, the best tasting basil you ever had was when you were on vacation in the south of Italy in June of 2006, it is possible to go back through public historical climate records to identify the light, temperature, humidity, CO2 level from the South of Italy in June of 2006, and recreate that environment in a box in Death Valley to create that same tasting basil in February. 

‍Source, Skygreens.

Vertical farms, which require no soil, are the next step in efficient agricultural production. An average of 10 times as much soil erodes from American agricultural fields as is replaced by natural soil formation processes. Because it takes up to 300 years for 1 inch of agricultural topsoil to form, soil that is lost is essentially irreplaceable. Vertical farming opens the door to where natural resources are actively regenerating because humans are able to provide for themselves more efficiently using less resources. Forests once burned for crop land could be replanted and given time to grow.

Dickson Despommier, a professor at Columbia University in the City of New York, is considered the father of vertical farming for publishing the first book on the subject and credits the invention to his students in a class project. Vertical farming offers solutions to feeding a growing population with a shrinking land mass to feed them on. Vertical farms also address the problems of soil erosion, water contamination, and pesticides associated with modern industrial farming practices. During an interview for the VPRO documentary The rise of vertical farming, Dr. Despommier points out that many people oppose the idea of farms in buildings because they think it is not natural. What needs to be understood is that farming is not natural. Vertical farming is a technology that applies soil free methods like hydroponics and aeroponics to the growing of plants in spaces outside of traditional modern farms. Fruits and vegetables are literally grown vertically, making this type of farming ideal for urban locations and in areas lacking arable land.

‍Dr. Dickson Despommier, Columbia University, Source.

In these controlled environments, water and energy can be used efficiently and it can be easier to combat pests and plant diseases. For every indoor acre of farmland, some 10 to 20 outdoor acres of farmland could be allowed to return to their original ecological state. Indoor farming is not a new idea — greenhouse based agriculture has been around for centuries — vertical farming cranks things up several notches by potentially producing enough quantity to sustain large cities using resources mostly found within city limits. Some other benefits of the technology include year-round crop production, no weather-related crop failures, and the elimination of agricultural runoff.

Governments and people are trying to learn from nature in the next phase of civilization. China is turning municipal waste into energy. The City and Municipalities of San Francisco divert 90% of their waste to recycling and compost facilities. Vertical farming also poses potential for humans to contribute to the natural environment rather than taking away from it. Municipal water can be filtered.

Transitioning to vertical farms gives society time to undue damage done over the past 50 years. Negative effects of soil erosion on farm productivity have so far been masked by improved technology and increasing use of fertilizers and pesticides. Ironically, many of these measures used to increase the short-term productivity of American farms are also causing excessive erosion, which threatens productivity over the long term. 

Vertical farming answers the four F’s that matter in farming: food sovereignty, food safety, food security, and food sustainability. Underused infrastructure can be created into a state of the art farm. What you can do in 1 acre here is equal to 130 acres in the outside. A better local, hydroponic approach to farming is 95% more water efficient and uses zero pesticides, fungicides, or herbicides. The vertical farming industry is a trend changing the world in a lot of ways. Consumers know our food system is more challenged than ever before and we need a new paradigm. 

‍Japanese vertical farm, source Arch Daily.

Vertical Farms are popping up around the world, regardless of liberal or conservative leaning. According to the World Economic Forum the largest vertical farm is located in the United States and farms are taking root in Japan, Singapore, Saudi Arabia, and throughout Europe. State governments in the U.S. are investigating and publishing reports for impoverished local growers with interest in local production using a cost-effective lighting to encourage specialty-crop production. 

Research has showed it is possible to produce experimental plants under 100% LEDs with no negative outcomes on plants. Light emitting diodes (LEDs) are key to improving energy utilization and production for greenhouse and controlled crop environments. LEDs also present new opportunities to save energy and provide growers with affordable, more energy efficient lighting to supplement limited sunlight for greenhouse production so that the growing season can be extended and optimized for increased vegetable production. Growing indoors is a meticulous process. Growers must carefully evaluate lighting technology and test fixture efficacy under cultivation conditions, especially in the winter when energy costs are high. Continued price reductions in light emitting diodes (LEDs), new product features, and consumer demand for locally sourced crops could make the economics of growing crops year-round more viable for vertical farmers. 

Vertical farms can produce crops independent of the outside climate as long as the controls are properly maintained. Companies already poking around this field include Amazon, Starbucks, Kellogg, Target, and many of the world’s largest food-producing corporations. Another indicator: Japanese researcher Eri Hayashi is a feet-on-the-ground scientist who has spent the last three years visiting and evaluating actual indoor farms around the world. It took her a while to become convinced, she says, “But I really do now believe we are heading into a new era in food production.” 

Recommended Reading:

Despommier, The Vertical Farm,

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