Can Vertical Farming Save the Planet?

Proponents of vertical farming say the system has the potential to fight food insecurity around the world.

Credit: NowThis
Credit: NowThis

Did you know you can make a salad … that was grown indoors … with no soil or pesticides … and barely any water?

By utilizing a method called vertical farming, the environment is totally controlled: The amount of light, nutrients, moisture, and air needed for crops to grow is all calculated.

Proponents of vertical farming say the system has the potential to fight food insecurity around the world. It also conserves water — it's estimated that vertical farms use 95% less water than traditional agricultural methods. In addition, vertical farms save space by growing up to 100 layers of stacked crops on just one hectare of land. In the U.S. alone, the vertical farming market is projected to reach $3 billion in sales by 2024.

Credit: NowThis

Aeroponics and hydroponics are two popular approaches to indoor vertical farming. Hydroponic systems don't use soil, but instead grow plants with nutrient-infused water. The water can be recycled and reused repeatedly within the hydroponic system.

Aeroponics also forgoes the use of soil while using 40% less water than hydroponics. The plants are either rooted in cloth or moss and misted with nutrients for growth.

At AeroFarms, an aeroponic vertical farm in New Jersey, 550 types of plants are grown. The company’s co-founder and chief marketing officer, Marc Oshima, said their method allows them to control for climate change, drought, and food safety issues “to optimize the plants for taste, for texture, for nutrition, color, and ultimately yield on how to have the right business model.”

Credit: NowThis

Oshima said their leafy greens can be grown in one half or even one-third of the time compared to traditional methods. While it would traditionally take 30 to 45 days to grow baby leafy greens, AeroFarms is able to grow them in just 12 to 14 days.

Not only can the farm grow plants faster, but apparently it can grow more flavorful and, by some metrics, healthier plants. “We think about what are the 17 essential elements the plant needs — the macronutrients, the micronutrients. And we're able to deliver that as part of our growing algorithm,” Oshima explained.

So, can vertical farming save the planet? Yes, with one caveat. The electricity used at vertical farming facilities needs to be renewable. The farms use 38.8 kilowatt-hours per kg of produce, which is significantly more than traditional greenhouses, which average at 5.4 kilowatt-hours per kg. So any future that sees the expansion of vertical farms will also need to see our power grids move to more renewable sources of energy.