Year after year, cities expand and pristine natural habitats are turned into farms and pastures to support the world’s growing population. But despite our encroachment into the environment, we still struggle to feed everyone. Vertical farms could offer a solution by producing higher crop yields year-round in less space than conventional agriculture.

Shelves of bright leafy greens under bright white lighting

What is vertical farming?

With land for crops and pastures growing scarce — plus the threat of pesticides and herbicides taking a toll on our health and the environment — people are exploring new ways to grow food, such as urban agriculture. In general, this is the process of growing food within city limits – whether on rooftops, in backyards or on balconies. The goal is to provide families with fresh, healthy food that isn’t laced with chemicals — and when you grow your own crops, you can control these elements.

Vertical farming is a type of urban agriculture – but vertical farms are often constructed indoors in extremely controlled environments. Crops are grown on shelves that extend upward instead of outward, and the environment is carefully monitored, so crops grow year-round.

In addition to growing crops, some vertical farmers have developed ways to grow fish in a self-sustaining system. Water from the plants is recycled into fish tanks, and the waste from the fish becomes fertilizer for the plants. Then, both the plants and fish can be harvested for food.

The benefits of vertical farming

The benefits of vertical farming are numerous. Farmers can control the crops’ environment in vertical farms, so the plants aren’t subjected to nasty weather conditions or droughts. Humidity, nutrients and water are administered to growing plants to achieve optimum growing conditions. Because of the controlled environment, crops can be harvested more than once a year, resulting in higher yields than traditional farming.

Related: The GCC’s first commercial vertical farm launches in Dubai

Vertical farms are more sustainable than conventional farms because they use less water (which is often recycled through the system), they take up less space and they use less fossil fuels because they don’t rely on heavy machinery such as tractors and harvesters.

Technology helps vertical farmers get the best output from the farm. Tailored lamps help plants get more light exposure, which encourages them to grow faster than crops that rely on the sun. Vertical farms also provide greater protection from insects, thus decreasing the need for harmful chemical products.

A shelf of crops

Downsides to vertical farming

While vertical farms can help with local hunger issues and sustainability, there are some barriers that may keep them from gaining worldwide traction. The cost of setting up a vertical farm can be prohibitive. Conservative estimates put the initial start-up cost at around $110,000, but there are estimates upward of millions of dollars.

Finding an abandoned warehouse or building in an urban setting for a reasonable price might be difficult. Since vertical farms rely on electricity for growing lamps and strict environmental controls, the location has to have reliable power — not just any old abandoned building will do. Vertical farms also depend heavily on technology, which can be costly. Keeping the lights on and the environmental controls running will impact energy use — and your budget.

Related: The “most technologically-sophisticated commercial indoor farm in the world” will grow 30X more produce

Not every crop that is grown traditionally can be raised successfully in a vertical farm. Leafy greens and herbs do the best in an indoor environment, while staple crops like wheat and potatoes are difficult to grow indoors, as are some fruits and vegetables. The crops that can be harvested from a vertical garden are limited.

Growing food to feed the hungry is a noble gesture, but it also has to be profitable, especially when the initial cost to set up a vertical farm is so high. If there isn’t a market in your area, it’s a waste of time to grow large amounts of food that you won’t be able to sell.

Close-up of leafy green plants in a vertical farm

The verdict

Despite the downsides, the positives are plentiful. In addition to embracing sustainability and helping combat hunger, vertical farms can also encourage support for local economies. These farms can create jobs, turn a profit and provide a healthy source of food for locals.

As technology continues to advance, new approaches will improve the efficiency and productivity of vertical farms. If nothing else, the idea sparks the conversation about changing the agricultural industry and gives us a place to start for finding better, more sustainable ways to grow food.

Images via Depositphotos, Aqua Mechanical and Mike Chino for Inhabitat