Vertical Farming on the High Rise

By Catherine Hu | May 17, 2016 3:00 pm

Imagine getting your fresh produce directly off of a nearby building. This building would have multiple stories, with an intricate system that cultivates different plants on every level. This is an example of vertical farming, an idea proposed by Columbia University microbiology and Public Health professor Dickson Despommier, where food is continuously grown in tall buildings within an engineered environment [1]. With an estimated 1,090,000 square miles (about 120% the size of Brazil) of farmland needed to grow enough food for the world’s population in 2050, it is no wonder that vertical farming has been on the rise [2]. In fact, one acre of vertical farm is estimated to equate to about 10 to 20 traditional soil-based farms [1].

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Design of a vertical farm. Photocredit: (Cjacobs627/Wikimedia)

Hydroponics

Implementation of vertical farms requires new innovations for delivering nutrients to plants. Enter hydroponics, a soil-less way of delivering nutrients to the plants through a mineral enriched water solution. One example of this system was developed by VerticropTM; the product consists of suspended trays that are moved around on a conveyor to optimize access to air and light [3]. Run-off water and nutrients are then recycled [3]. Hydroponics has successfully resulted in 20 to 25% higher yields of produce when compared to conventional cultivation [4].

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Hydroponics offers a soil-less way to deliver nutrients to plants. Photocredit: (Britt Reints/Flickr)

Feasibility

Large-scale vertical farms may be difficult to implement. Land in urban cities is much more expensive when compared with rural farmland, which is also more abundant [5]. In addition, complex irrigation and climate control systems must be established, which can increase cost of production [5]. One company, Vertical Harvest Hydroponics, provides a smaller scale alternative with a vertical farm set-up that fits in a portable boxcar-sized cargo container [6]. Each container can produce 1,800 heads of cabbage and other leafy greens at a time. The company hopes to lower costs attributed to the food chain supply and provide fresh produce to remote communities [7].

Vertical farms have the potential to conserve resources, provide fresh food to remote areas, and remove the role of fossil fuels. However, vertical farms may be difficult to put into action due to cost and required resources. For now, hydroponics and small-scale vertical farming may just be the stepping-stones needed to take indoor gardening to a whole new level.

References Cited:

  1. Despommier, D. D. (n.d.). The Vertical Essay. Retrieved from: http://www.verticalfarm.com/?page_id=36
  2. Pati, R., Abelar, M. (2015). The Application and Optimization of Metal Reflectors to Vertical Greenhouses to Increase Plant Growth and Health. Journal of Agricultural Engineering and Biotechnology, 3(2): 63-71.
  3. Vertical Takeoff. (2011) Fresh Produce Journal. 62-66.
  4. Wahome, P.K., Oseni, T.O., Masarirambi, M.T., Shongwe, V.D. (2011). Effects of Different Hydroponics Systems and Growing Media on the Vegetative Growth, Yield and Cut Flower Quality of Gypsophila (Gypsophila paniculata L.). World Journal of Agricultural Sciences 7(6): 692-698
  5. Johnson, K. (2016, January 3). Closing the Farm-to-Table Gap in Alaska. The New York Times Magazine. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com
  6. Beyer, S. (2015, April 9). Newark Subsidizes A Crackpot Idea: Vertical Farming. Forbes. Retrieved from http://www.forbes.com/
  7. Willingham, C., Perpich, D., Janes, L. (2016) Vertical Harvest Hydroponics. Retrieved from http://verticalharvesthydroponics.com/

Catherine HuAbout the author: Catherine Hu received her B.S. in Psychobiology at UCLA. When she is not writing about food science, she enjoys exploring the city and can often be found enduring long wait times to try new mouthwatering dishes.

Read more by Catherine Hu


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Science & Food

Science & Food brings you content on food and science including but not limited to: the scientific and culinary aspects of food that you eat; how knowledge of science and technology can be used to make better food; how science is integral to understanding the impact of food on our health and environment; as well as profiles of scientists and chefs that are advancing the frontiers of science and food.
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