The Future of Farming?

Bananas from Calgary at Christmas? Pineapples from Liverpool in February? The rise of vertical farming could soon provide every kind of produce at 0km.

Just outside of Copenhagen is a farm that produces 1,000 tonnes of food a year, without the need for soil or sunshine.  Nordic Harvest uses LED lighting along with controlled growing and nutrition systems to cultivate crops in a fraction of the space that a traditional farm would use. Put it this way, they’ve calculated that their technique could feed all of Denmark, with a space the size of just 20 football pitches. Welcome to the world of vertical farming, where agriculture and technology come together in search of a solution to depleting resources in a growing population.

The basic premise is that by using technologies to support indoor cultivation, farmers can regulate the temperature and light to provide an optimum growing environment that greatly increases yield. Highly developed engineering and custom programming can provide tight control over every aspect of the growing process, and the laboratory-like conditions protect the plants from any outside contaminants, or plants and insects, eliminating the need for pesticides. And because these urban farms operate with a focus on taste and quality, rather than robustness and ability to travel, the flavour and nutritional content are said to be superior too.

At 7000 sq. metres Nordic Harvest may be the largest vertical farm in Europe, but it’s not the first and nor will it be the last. Climate change and supply chain issues are pushing innovators, businesses, and governments to find viable solutions, and they’re increasingly looking to this method of food production as a potential answer.

The concept could open the doors to any country eventually being able to grow any plant or vegetable at any time of the year. The idea of having access to whatever food you like, grown ‘locally’, 365 days a year certainly sounds wonderful. But vertical farming is not without criticism.

One thing holding back the concept has been the cost, from both a financial and environmental standpoint. It’s much cheaper to rely on the sun and rain for light and water than to use electricity to power LEDs and hydroponic systems. And while various efficiency measures make vertical farming appear to be an environmentally-friendly option, if the electricity for these facilities comes from fossil fuels, it could end up contributing to the problem of climate change, rather than playing a part in the solution.

It’s also important to consider the broader societal and economic implications. If suddenly Calgary were growing more bananas than India, and Liverpool overtook Costa Rica in pineapple production, what impact would we see on traditional farming communities, or on cultural identity?

Vertical farming is still in a relatively early phase, and who knows where it could take us. One thing is for sure, with the global population set to exceed 10 billion by 2050, the pressure is on to find a solution that makes sense. And in many ways, indoor farming ticks the boxes, especially if it can become carbon-neutral.  As it stands, 80% of global deforestation is a result of traditional agricultural production, which is also the leading cause of habitat destruction. If vertical farming could truly revolutionize the agricultural industry, this begs the question: What if the future of farming could give that land back?