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Vertical Farming: A Resource-Conscious Tool for Community Transformation

By 2050, the world’s population is projected to surpass 9 billion people. What this translates to, in agricultural terms, is a 59-98% increase in global food demand over the next three decades. As the timeline to avoid the worst impacts of climate change shortens, global leaders are tasked with advancing agricultural technology that is more innovative, more efficient, and more resilient than ever before. Moreover, these solutions need to be considerate of land scarcity, adaptive to climate change, and mindful of justice and inclusion.

Vertical farming is one solution that is changing the way we think about food production. Vertical farming is a type of controlled-environment agriculture (CEA), in which crops are grown indoors in vertically stacked rows that rely on LED lighting technology in the place of natural sunlight. The three types of vertical farming techniques are described below.

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Source: Modified from https://www.investmentbank.barclays.com/our-insights/vertical-farms-green-agriculture-on-the-rise.html 

Vertical farming allows fresh produce to be grown without natural sunlight, soil, or chemical pesticides. Despite requiring fewer inputs than traditional farming, the optimized environments maintained in vertical farms allow crop yields to be maximized year-round, regardless of weather patterns, daylight, or season. New Jersey-based company AeroFarms reports that it produces 390 times more food per square foot than conventional farming, all while using 95% less water. In fact, vertical farms use up to 99% less water than traditional farms, and the small fraction of water that is needed is recycled back into the indoor system for reuse. This stands in stark contrast to traditional agriculture, which currently accounts for 70% of global freshwater withdrawals. The ability of vertical farming to produce more food in up to 99% less space is especially appealing in crowded urban areas, with one company producing 120 pounds of mushrooms per week in a bookcase-sized space. Impressively, vertical farms can be implemented almost anywhere, making local food production a possibility in places where open-field agriculture is not possible. By shortening the food supply chain for open land-constrained areas, vertical farms can offer fresher, safer, and more nutritious produce to neighboring communities in less time. By reducing the amount of food miles it takes for produce to get from farm to table, vertical farming allows nutritional content (which can decrease significantly during transport and storage) to be maintained, while also avoiding transportation-induced carbon emissions. Furthermore, in reducing food miles, food waste is minimized because less food is lost in transport. This is a key benefit to vertical farming, because for traditional field farming, “about one quarter of produced food is lost along the food supply chain.”

Vertical farming has attracted attention from the public and private sector alike, as the market for vertical farming is projected to hit $12.77 billion globally by 2026. Multiple American vertical farming companies have received multi-million dollar capital investments from investors like Jeff Bezos, Apple, Google Ventures, IKEA, and the United Arab Emirates, which hopes to use this technology to expand domestic food production. Due to factors like higher energy costs and expensive lighting technology, very large investments are necessary to finance the development of large vertical farms, which can be cost-prohibitive to start without adequate financing. At the federal government level, vertical farming and urban agriculture garnered bipartisan support in the 2018 Farm Bill. Among the provisions were the creation of the Office of Urban Agriculture and Innovative Production within USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service and new grant program funding for increased research, education, and extension activities related to urban and indoor agriculture. Generally, vertical farming is included within the broader context of urban agriculture alongside other emerging strategies like community gardens, rooftop farms, and urban forests. What distinguishes vertical farming, however, is its ability to address growing demand for locally-produced food in a way that is: 1) conscious of resource scarcity, 2) resilient to systemic shocks, and 3) mindful of community-building.

Resilient and Resource-Conscious

The full potential of urban agriculture is best demonstrated in the broader context of the global agricultural sector. Historically, calls for increased food production were met with converting grasslands and forests to farmland. In the future, however, these methods will be challenged by land scarcity and soil degradation. In the past 40 years, one third of Earth’s arable land has been lost due to pollution or erosion. In the United States, the erosion of cropland soil is outpacing its replenishing rate by ten times. A senior UN official warned that, if soil degradation continues at its current rate, “the world’s topsoil could be gone within 60 years.” Topsoil is responsible for producing 95% of the world’s food and, with its erosion comes a loss in “earth’s ability to filter water, absorb carbon, and feed people.” Given the challenge of meeting soaring food demand while also maintaining healthy, arable land and protecting biodiverse landscapes, the question becomes: what role can vertical farming play?

Because of its ability to produce exponentially higher yields while using no soil and very little land, vertical farming can help food supply chains become more localized. This is an especially appealing technology for certain crops like lettuce, which typically travels an average of 2,055 miles to get to your plate. In answering the urban call to “eat local,” vertical farms could reduce the pressure on conventional agriculture to meet mounting food demand in urban areas, allowing open-field farms to instead prioritize rebuilding soil health, reforesting their spaces, and embracing natural pathways to sequestering carbon. While vertical farming is by no means a “silver bullet” and is not applicable to all crops, it serves as a useful additive technology that is responding to consumer trends without placing additional demands on limited land resources.

Finally, by bringing fresh produce closer to the point of consumption, food access becomes less vulnerable to systemic shocks. As extreme weather evens increase in frequency and severity due to climate change, and as COVID-19 exposes major weaknesses in supply chains, ensuring that communities have access to a reliable stream of fresh food is critical now more than ever. Thus, scaling up vertical farming would help maintain a functioning food system for Americans even in times of crisis. As the public and private sectors work to feed a growing and increasingly urban population, vertical farming presents real opportunities for fruitful partnerships between the tech, agriculture, and food sectors.

Community Transformation and Environmental Justice

Another key benefit of vertical farming is its ability to transform communities that have historically been victims of environmental injustice and food insecurity. 2020 has been a year of “internal reckoning” for organizations and political leaders alike, as protests against racial injustice prompted conversations about concurrent forms of injustice faced by communities of color. Included in this “wake-up call” were demands to develop safer, cleaner environments for black and indigenous communities, which are disproportionately burdened with air and water pollution and the poor health outcomes associated with it (asthma, heart attacks, stroke, etc.).

1) Underutilized urban spaces:

-To date, vertical farms have been established in abandoned warehouses, a former laser tag arena, used shipping containers, and even an old pork-packing plant. By transforming abandoned and underused spaces into local farms, communities become more involved in the food they eat. In a 2010 Brookings article titled, “Reimagining Land Use in America’s Distressed Older Cities,” author Alan Mallach emphasizes using urban land revitalization as a means of improving the overall quality of life on a community level. This vision is shared by companies like Plenty, which is poised to build its next vertical farm in Compton, California. Aiming to serve large numbers of Los Angelenos by providing nutritious, locally grown food, Plenty plans to channel Compton’s rich agricultural past while combating food insecurity in the community.

2) Providing educational and professional development opportunities:

-With the growth of vertical farming projects also comes job creation, agricultural-based skills training, and educational opportunities in STEM. Washington-based AgTech company 7 Generations is using vertical farming as a tool to educate at-risk Native American youth by introducing AgTech curriculum and vertical farms into K-12 classrooms. By “taking the farm to the people,” 7 Generations is partnering with other organizations, universities, and corporations to “ensure the creation of the next generation of Native professionals in food and agriculture.” Included in this initiative is a “business incubator indoor vertical farm pilot” (located on a single reservation) which, if successful, will be expanded to other reservations, creating new jobs in tribal nations, which have historically suffered from some of the highest rates of food insecurity, poverty, and chronic unemployment in the country.

What’s Needed Going Forward: Renewables, Investment, and Inclusion

As with any technology in its relative infancy, investment and innovation are needed to bring vertical farming to scale in a climate-conscious fashion. In this case, improvements in energy use are needed to decrease the carbon footprint of vertical farms, whose energy demands are high mainly due to the artificial (LED) lights used throughout the indoor systems. In 2018, Dutch vertical farming company OneFarm released a report comparing the carbon dioxide-equivalent emissions from five agricultural methods: conventional vertical farming, green vertical farming, conventional greenhouse, advanced greenhouse, and open-field agriculture. By measuring, in kilograms, CO2eq emitted per ton of harvested lettuce, OneFarm found that vertical farming generates the lowest CO2eq emissions (158 kg of CO2eq/ton of lettuce) when it is powered by renewable energy (“Green VF” in the figure below). If it is not powered by renewables, however, vertical farming is by far the largest emitting agricultural practice, generating 5,744 kg of CO2eq per ton of lettuce (“Conventional VF” in the figure below). As a basis for comparison, the study reported open-field agriculture emitting 540 kg of CO2eq. What this means is that renewable-powered vertical farming has the potential to emit 70% less CO2eq than open-field agriculture, while significantly reducing food losses and land and water use.

Source: Modified from OneFarm CO2 Emissions Scoping Report 

As renewable energy becomes more affordable, the prospect of incorporating it into vertical farms becomes more economically feasible. Vertical farming companies like Plenty are already applying this strategy into their current and prospective farms, with Plenty announcing its intention to power its new Compton facility using 100% renewable energy. LED lighting is also projected to be up to 70% more energy efficient by 2030.

In addition to becoming more energy efficient, vertical farming would benefit greatly from continued and increased federal funding that incentivizes more stakeholders to enter the vertical farming space. As they currently stand, vertical farms often incur capital-intensive start-up costs, and it is still three to five times more expensive to grow food in a vertical farm than a conventional farm. By continuing and expanding its support for indoor and urban farming development, the USDA can assist in making the vertical farming market more financially accessible. Furthermore, increased cooperation between localities, state governments, and the USDA will also be critical in facilitating well-coordinated vertical farming initiatives that benefit their surrounding communities.

Lastly, and perhaps most urgently, the scaling of vertical farming must be done in an equitable and inclusive way. As COVID-19 has revealed vulnerabilities within America’s food systems, there is a unique opportunity for urban agriculture to be included in the next federal recovery bill due to its ability to shorten and simplify food supply chains. Following Plenty’s lead of investing in the Compton community, vertical farming development needs to happen in communities that have historically not been considered as sites of ag tech innovation. Across the country, the communities hit hardest by COVID-19 are largely the same communities that have become more food insecure because of it. Including vertical farm funding in the next relief bill would help mitigate these disparities by investing in farms that feed America’s frontline communities, revitalize their underused spaces, and create employment opportunities at a time when they are desperately needed. Incorporating community members into the planning of vertical farming initiatives is an essential component to energy justice and will be vital in vertical farming development.

As policymakers seek opportunities for bipartisanship wherever possible, vertical farming presents a chance for both sides of the aisle to support a technology that can complement existing farming operations, reduce demands on limited resources, and support disadvantaged communities. By helping to meet the increasing demands on both traditional agriculture and small, local farming, investments in these supplemental innovations will be key to building a diversified agricultural sector that will carry us through to 2050.

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