Onwards and…Upwards? Vertical farming and why it could be the future of crop cultivation

When you think of farming, it’s rolling green fields, wooden barns and tractors that most often spring to mind. But could all that be about to change? Find out in this fascinating new blog post from the Save My Exams Biology team

Solutions for a hungry planet

The global human population has been growing exponentially for the last 150 years. As the number of people on our planet increases, more and more food is needed. As a result, a greater amount of land is required for farming. The clearing of natural habitats to make way for agricultural land is leading to the rapid loss of these habitats and the biodiversity they support (e.g. through deforestation).

It’s not all doom and gloom though! Humans are excellent at coming up with solutions to problems like these. A key part of this particular problem is that growing food crops takes up a LOT of space, 2D space that is. But what if we could farm in three dimensions…?!

The Jones Food Company vertical farm (based in Scunthorpe, UK) is the largest vertical farm in Europe.

What is vertical farming?

Vertical farming is exactly what it sounds like: crops are grown in vertically stacked layers rather than on a single horizontal surface. Although the concept is simple, vertical farming is a relatively recent technological advancement in modern farming and is not widely used yet.

Most vertical farms currently in operation are housed within large warehouses, but one day they could be integrated into buildings such as skyscrapers! The abiotic conditions within these warehouses are carefully controlled to provide the stacked layers of crops with the optimum levels of carbon dioxide, temperature, light intensity and humidity they require for photosynthesis and growth.

How does it work?

Vertical farming uses hydroponics – a system in which plant roots grow in nutrient-enriched water, rather than in soil. The nutrient solution can be precisely controlled to ensure it contains everything the plant needs to grow, including the optimum amount of dissolved oxygen, as well as the correct minerals and trace elements required for growth. This, along with the ability to control CO₂ and light, ensures the maximum rate of photosynthesis in the crop plants.

An example of a simple hydroponics system.

The benefits of vertical farming

Vertical farming has a HUGE number of potential advantages compared to traditional farming! These include:

  • More food crops can be grown on the same amount of land, reducing the environmental impact
  • The use of hydroponics makes vertical farming a lot more water efficient (less water is required to grow crops, which could be advantageous in areas where freshwater is less freely available)
  • There is no chance of fertilisers leaching and causing eutrophication in streams, rivers and lakes 
  • Crops can be grown all year round
  • Crops are shielded from pests and diseases, minimising losses
  • The space saved can be used to provide more living space for the growing human population
  • As vertical farms can be set up anywhere, they could eventually be used to provide fresh food directly to urban areas, minimising transport costs and providing people with access to fresh, healthy food

The verdict

Although this technology is still developing, it is clear it has a BIG part to play in the future of farming and food production. 

Regarding the future of the vertical farming revolution, Michiel Peters, the CEO of Dutch vertical farming company PlantLab, simply states:

“It’s not really a question of ‘if’ anymore. It’s going to happen. It’s a matter of scaling up now.”

And this scale up is rapidly gathering pace. Infarm, a Berlin-based industry leader that uses robots and AI-powered tech to care for its crops, has recently partnered with retailers including Aldi, Carrefour, Marks & Spencer and Kroger.

So although we won’t be waving goodbye to traditional agriculture any time soon, keep your eyes peeled for the first vertically-farmed veggies hitting the supermarket shelves on your highstreet.

Surprised by the future of farming? It’s time to go share those newly discovered facts with your friends! Or get in touch with us by messaging us on social media: @SaveMyExams on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

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