The world needs more food! Global agriculture production has to be increased from the present production level to about 60 - 70 percent more in 2050, to meet the increased food demand.
The Covid pandemic has made it very obvious that a planned and regular production of crops is important for world food security. Disruptions in the logistics chains, and the difficulty of gaining access to agricultural labour, have intensified concerns that a shortage of food may arise again in the world. Even when the Covid pandemic has been eradicated, global food production still faces severe future challenges, combined with a rising demand for more and higher quality food.
We need new climate-proof tools and methods to grow crops, in a world where climate change causes increase of drought, floods and increasingly extreme weather with irregular and unpredictable temperatures.
In the last two decades, large-scale crop losses have become increasingly common in open field crops due to not only drought, but also due to periods of frost in unexpected parts of the year, and long periods of rain close to harvest time. The total amount of land suitable for agriculture will shrink significantly also as a result of climate change.
All farmers and gardeners have always strived to provide protection and maintain optimal growing conditions for their plants. Today, the most advanced way of doing this is by applying controlled-environment agriculture (CEA) – producing crops within enclosed structures, such as solar-driven transparent greenhouses or inside buildings with artificial lighting. Climate adaptation, the need for higher yields and the possibility of longer growing seasons or all-year production are the main driving forces for this. CEA aims to optimize the use of water, energy, space, capital and labour.
Different techniques are available for growing food in controlled environment agriculture: hydroponics, aeroponics, aquaculture, and aquaponics (aquaponics is the combined cultivation of crops and fish farming). CEA facilities can range from completely environmentally controlled enclosed closed loop systems, to fully automated glasshouses with computer controls for watering, lighting and ventilation, to low-tech solutions such as plastic-covered tunnels in temperate climates or shadowing textile structures in the tropics.
CEA methods has the potential to grow any crop, though the economic reality is that the production has to be economically viable and this will vary considerably due to seasonal and local market pricing, and the resource costs. Climate-proof crop cultivation increases the security of the supply of food as it is mostly unaffected by outside environmental conditions. Eliminating seasonality in the access to and price of food creates a more stable market pricing - which is positive both for producers and consumers.
Growing plants for food during all seasons in heated greenhouses is one way to get a more climate-proof food production. The number of advanced greenhouses is growing fast, particularly in Asia.
Another way to grow crops in a climate-proof way - which also has grown strongly in recent years - is vertical farming (VF).
In this crop cultivating system, crops are grown in stacked indoor systems under artificial light and without soil. Counterintuitively, plants actually don’t necessarily need soil to grow in. They need light for their photosynthesis, water, nutrients and some physical support where they can grow upright.
The plants in vertical farms (and in many greenhouses) are growing in circulating water enriched with nutrients (hydroponics). There are also even more technically advanced systems where the roots of the plants are growing in a mist of nutrient-rich water (aeroponics). When the plants are growing all aspects of the cultivation process such as temperature, nutrients, lighting, irrigation and air circulation are constantly monitored and controlled.
There are several advantages of vertical farming, compared to traditional agriculture, and also to greenhouse production. The most important benefit is a very stable plant production. A crop production completely independent of weather and wind, with full control over the growing environment for the reliable production of high-quality crops. VF systems give a very high crop yield per land area used. Vertical farming provides an ideal environment for growing plants in all climates, locations, and seasons. Crops could be very nutrient dense since factors influencing nutritional quality can be designed and continuously supervised.
A positive aspect is also the very efficient use of water – an important aspect related to the fact that agriculture world-wide consumes more freshwater than any other human activity. Vertical farming is also water-wise in a different way, because this type of crop production produces no agricultural runoff. In traditional farming this is a significant cause of algal blooms and oxygen starvation in lakes and seas.
Due to the structured and enclosed nature of Vertical Farming, the potential for the application of robotics, automation and AI is very high. Much higher, at least in the near future, than for traditional farming.
The challenges for vertical farming are mainly the high energy use, large investment costs, significant operating costs due to the great need for electricity for lighting and ventilation and also the need for specialized labour.
As in any new, innovative commercial sector, there have been a large number of start-ups, but also closures of VFs in the last decade. Structurally, the VF sector today has many similarities to what happened in the IT industry in the 1980-1990s: the change from mainframe to personal computers. Many of the early pioneering companies in computer industry are no longer with us, but there are laptops, tablets or smartphones in most families in most countries in the world today.
Currently, very few major vertical farms have yet reached a stable Return on Investment, with the exception of the Japanese application of VF, “Plant Factories”. Some companies have changed their business model from getting revenue from crop production, to instead provide technical expertise and selling/leasing growing systems for other stakeholders to make the actual crop production.
In spite of this, vertical farming is growing very fast globally. Investments have been increasing from approximately 100 million USD in 2016 to more than 500 million USD in 2020, according to Financial Times (October 2020). However, a recent analysis from Rabobank Research Food & Agribusiness in the Netherlands, stated that vertical farming is still a very marginal part of the global food production – covering an area of 30 hectares of land worldwide. This should be compared to 0,5 million hectares of greenhouses and about 50 million hectares of land area of outdoor open field cultivation.
We need to see all the pros and cons of different food production systems – we will need all of them. Below is an overview in qualitative terms of some important aspects of vertical farming, heated greenhouses with all-year production using hydroponic growing systems and traditional outdoor open field agriculture in medium to high-income countries. All examples are for commercial medium or large-scale operations.
The history of agriculture and horticulture is largely one of biological and technological innovation and development. There is a long line of progress from the domestication of ancient grains to advanced machinery in farming, to CRISPR for plant breeding and ever-more efficient LED lighting. Plant growers, plant scientists, engineers and innovators have continually made crops more productive and more resilient to disturbances. The biological and technical methods for their production have also increased yields, without increasing resource use in the same proportion.
High productivity, intensive food systems which get as much food output for every unit of land, water and fertilizer input will almost always outperform less efficient extensive food systems by almost all quantifiable sustainability metrics.
We need to see all the pros and cons of different food production systems – we will need all of them.
We need innovations and sustainable intensification in open field agriculture. But we will also need much more of climate-proof controlled environment agriculture crops and technologies – both vertical farms and advanced greenhouses.
Growing crops in climate-adapted and climate-proof systems gives far greater yields than the outdoors and uses a fraction of the water and fertilizer normally required.
By continuously investing in research and development, we can make healthy and fresh food more accessible and affordable for everyone!
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