Farming is one of the oldest and most essential human activities, but it is facing many challenges in the 21st century. Population growth, urbanization, climate change, resource scarcity, and environmental degradation to name but a few. Feeding the world is paramount but how can it be done without destroying the planet? Is it possible to produce more with less, and how can we make farming more efficient, profitable, and sustainable?
A rethink is needed and technology inevitably plays a big part, but with the rise (sorry) of vertical farming, should the focus be on looking up or improving the more traditional horizontal approach?
Vertical Farming: The Benefits
Vertical farming has many advantages over horizontal farming, such as:
- Higher productivity in a smaller area
- Shorter growing times and lower water use (Vertical farming can produce up to 100 times more crops per unit area than horizontal farming, with up to 90% less water use)
- Grown closer to consumers, thus reducing transportation and storage costs /emissions
- Less dependence on weather, soil, and pesticides
- Potential to reuse and recycle waste, water, and energy, creating a circular and sustainable system.
Can ‘Traditional’ Farming Compete?
All may not be lost for keeping our feet on the ground – the horizontal approach also has superiority in certain areas:
- Lower initial investment costs, as the infrastructure is already in place
- Scalability – small & medium-sized farming is also catered for
- Greater diversity of crops (e.g. taller and larger plants)
- Higher natural and organic farming practices, as it relies more on sunlight, rain, and soil, preserving biodiversity and ecosystem services
- More social and cultural benefits – supports rural livelihoods, traditions, and communities
In vertical farming there are several important considerations at play:
- High operational costs; this can lead to unprofitability, particularly in areas where utilities such as electricity are more scarce / more expensive. This means vertical farming cannot be deployed at a truly global level.
- Regulatory and ethical issues, as it may face legal, social, and environmental barriers and concerns – after all this is still an area of change and traditionalists will struggle with the concept.
- Market competition – produce using this form of farming is still expensive vs the horizontal form.
- Technical and biological risks – it may encounter problems with pests, diseases, contamination, and system failures.
Horizontal farming also has its problems:
- Land and resource depletion; the degradation of natural resources, such as land, water, and biodiversity all contribute to global warming and climate change.
- Fragility – current farming methods are vulnerable to extreme weather events, droughts, floods, and pests, affecting crop yields and quality.
- Food waste and loss, as it faces post-harvest losses due to spoilage, damage, and transportation.
- Food safety and security issues; contamination, adulteration, and shortages due to political, economic, and social factors are all regular challenges.
Is Agritech the answer?
Technology tends to be the default in examining the ways in which we can improve on and futureproof our industries, and farming is no different. ‘Agritech’ has been around for some time but its acceleration is exponential, largely due to pressures from the climate change crisis.
‘Smart farming’ is now commonplace, and the use of sensors, drones, robots and AI to optimise and manage farming practices is no longer in the realm of science fiction. Similarly, biotechnology and the use of gene editing, synthetics and microorganisms are used to create advanced crops etc.
Both types of farming can benefit from agritech, which can improve farming efficiency, profitability, and sustainability using technology such as those mentioned previously. However, agritech also faces high costs, regulatory hurdles, and market barriers, requiring investment, innovation, and collaboration.
Farming is not a one-size-fits-all solution, but a complex and dynamic system that needs to adapt to the changing needs and preferences of the world. Vertical and horizontal farming can coexist and complement each other, and agritech can help them achieve their full potential. The future of farming is not only about producing more food but also about producing better food for people and the planet.