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 . 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 . In fact, one acre of vertical farm is estimated to equate to about 10 to 20 traditional soil-based farms .
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 . Run-off water and nutrients are then recycled . Hydroponics has successfully resulted in 20 to 25% higher yields of produce when compared to conventional cultivation .
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 . In addition, complex irrigation and climate control systems must be established, which can increase cost of production . 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 . 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 .
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.
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About 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.