What are vertical farms and how can they combat hunger?

Do you know what a vertical farm is? Discover here what is different about them and how they can be a solution to combat food shortages.

Using technology to increase the area of plantations is a way to feed the growing urban population

Have you ever seen a plantation in which food is grown in layers that are on top of each other — and not side by side? To be even more different, this crop is not located in the countryside, but in buildings and warehouses in and around cities.

This is the basic description of a vertical farm, where food is grown indoors and with intensive use of technology to ensure more stable production (even in adverse weather conditions) and consume up to 95% less water than traditional farming. 

There are those who say that the idea of vertical farms comes from the time of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, but its current concept was proposed in 1999 by university professor Dickson Despommier. At the time, his students at the Columbia University School of Public Health (United States) challenged him to come up with a more exciting solution to the damage caused to health by environmental changes.

Despommier chose rooftop gardening and asked the class how many Manhattanites could be fed with this type of farming. The answer was not satisfactory: 2% of the population. From then on, the professor began to dedicate himself to the project of creating a viable vertical farm — and in 2001 he arrived at the model that is used today.

A food safety solution

In vertical farms, food is grown indoors, with controlled light, temperature, water and, often, carbon dioxide levels — factors that, combined, greatly increase its productivity without the use of pesticides. The plants are stacked in vertical rows that reach heights of up to 10 meters.

A difference is that the food is grown in the hydroponic system, a method of growing plants without soil, which eliminates the need to use pesticides and artificial ripening agents and helps in the production of vegetables rich in nutrients. 

Another different point is the use of artificial lighting (with LEDs, for example). It helps extend the hours of natural daylight, which further increases plant health, growth rate and yield. Furthermore, it allows increasing the availability of crops throughout the year. 

By increasing productivity in reduced areas, vertical farms are considered one of the solutions to increase food production. Expanding agricultural operations is essential to feed a world population that is expected to exceed 9 billion people by 2050 —year in which two out of every three people in the world are expected to be living in urban areas, according to the UN (United Nations Organization). 

After harvesting, this type of cultivation in cities brings other advantages: food arrives fresher at supermarkets and, because it travels less, it contributes to the reduction of carbon dioxide emissions

Producing fresh vegetables in cities, therefore, is a way to meet the growing global demand for food in an environmentally responsible and sustainable way, reducing the need for transport, providing products with more nutrients and saving water.

Fertilizing fish

At the beginning of 2022, the Upward Farms announced the construction of the largest vertical farm in the world on an area of 23,200 square meters, in Pennsylvania (United States), which should be completed in 2023.

The company uses a system inspired by indigenous practices: aquaponics, in which fish organically fertilize crops by swimming beneath the plants. In the vertical farm, which has water and nutrient recirculation structures, fish manure helps to make the soil more fertile. Ultimately, Upward Farms sells both vegetable and sea bass produce, both of which are certified to guarantee the absence of pesticides, mercury, antibiotics and hormones.

Before that, the French built the largest vertical farm in the world in one rooftop, at the top of the Paris Expo Porte de Versaille. In an area of 14,000 m2 (or two football fields), the plantation provides a ton of food per day. 

“Our vision is a city where flat roofs and abandoned surfaces are covered with these new growing systems. Each one will directly contribute to feeding urban residents, who today represent the majority of the world's population”, says Pascal Hardy, founder of Agripolis, the company that created this vertical farm.

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