Vertical farming — stacking plants and growing them in an enclosed space — is a quickly growing industry that shows great promise for efficient and sustainable farming practices, and could be the future of modern agriculture.
The benefits of vertical farming are many, according to advocates such as Dickson Despommier. He authored what could be considered the industry’s Bible, The Vertical Farm, in 2010.
According to Despommier’s theory, by as soon as 2050 the world will run short on land suitable for the amount of traditional farming that will be required to feed a growing population. Vertical farming, he argues, would make for more efficient use of the limited land. It also comes with a number of other benefits, including year-round crop production regardless of climate and a shorter distance between farms and consumers.
Further, all the produce grown in vertical farms is, due to the nature of its cultivation, organic and free of any chemicals, herbicides or pesticides — meaning that the food is both local and healthy.
The industry is growing so quickly, according to Maximilian Loessl, the Munich-based vice chair of the Association for Vertical Farming, that it can be difficult to keep track of where new vertical farm operations are being built. Though all of the world’s vertical farms were based almost entirely in Japan as recently as seven years ago, about 100 companies were already spread throughout the world by 2012. Loessl says there are 24 farms currently operating in the U.S., ranging from large commercial operations to smaller research facilities like CityFARM.
These aren’t just pie-in-the-sky startups chasing after the latest micro-trend either, Loessl argues. He points out that major companies like Philipsand General Electrichave entered the industry to help develop lighting solutions.
“These companies wouldn’t invest hundreds of millions of dollars if they thought it would be a trend that would fade out,” Loessl said. “I think vertical farming is here to stay and that we’re just at the very, very beginning of really seeing the potential it has in making the world more food secure and more food safe, providing clean and local food to basically any location in the world.”
Still, success is no guarantee. VertiCrop, a large vertical farm founded in 2011 in Vancouver, British Columbia, declared bankruptcy earlier this year. Harper points out that no farms have yet released data proving that their operations are profitable. None most likely are, he says — at least currently.