Myth or Reality? Exploring the high flying aspirations of Vertical Farming

Thea Pease

Published: 2021-06-08

The Hanging Gardens of Babylon were built, it is said, around 600 BC by King Nebuchadnezzar II for his wife Amytis, because she missed the verdant landscapes of her native Media (modern-day Iran). Descriptions of these gardens also suggest that they could be considered the first example of a vertical farm, with a series of stacked terraces irrigated by manually operated water pumps.

In modern times, vertical farming can sometimes seem as distant as the Hanging Gardens. Images of hazmat-clad workers handling plants in surreal, pink-lit environments often accompany news of exponential increases in venture capital raises, led by the likes of Plenty, Bowery, Aerofarms and Infarm. According to Dealroom, over $500m was invested in vertical farming startups in 2020 alone (up to October 2020).

However, early proof points that our food can be grown with less land, less water and in our backyard are also tempered by legitimate concerns around the high costs of energy and labor needed to produce crops. This has prompted questions around whether vertical farming is really a viable method of food production in the long term.

At Rapid Innovation, we have been closely following the development of vertical farming, and we are seeing encouraging signs of innovations that support reduced costs, particularly in the development of component manufacturing to accelerate plant growth, growing mechanism improvements and system automation. Cost reduction is the key moving forward to support vertical farming, as high capital expenditure and operational costs  are one of the main reasons why variety of crop production is currently limited to high value crops like leafy greens.

However, if this can be overcome, vertical farming can solve real world problems. Agriculture is currently the greatest single industrial consumer of water, contributing to 70% of freshwater withdrawals from lakes and rivers. In addition, the agrochemicals that are essential to food production are a large-scale cause of pollution, both in terms of chemical manufacturing and the knock-on effects of run off and spraying on the environment. Vertical farms, which can use up to 99% less water than traditional farming, and, as a controlled environment, can look to prevent pest or disease outbreaks and manage waste effectively, could significantly reduce the environmental impact of food production.

Grand View Research’s recent Vertical Farming report predicted a move toward consolidation  of larger players in the sector, however we believe there is still significant room for the development and growth of innovations within vertical farming. In the past few months, we have come across early stage, IP-rich companies with lighting techniques that improve photosynthetic activity in plants, hydroponic nutrient systems that utilize food waste, and remotely managed ‘DIY’ vertical farms for personal use.

There are also exciting opportunities around increased variety of produce, whether that is shrimp farming with aquaponics, production of juvenile field crops such as potatoes in a low disease environment, and even the opportunity to produce feedstock for animals onsite in vertical farming modules.

However, it is also prudent to view vertical farming as a sub-sector within the wider context of CEA (controlled environment agriculture), other sub-sectors of which we will explore in parts 2 & 3 of this blog series. For example, Peter Tasgal’s analysis on the cost of lettuce production in hydroponic greenhouses and vertical farms in 2019 provides a useful perspective on comparable methods of production. It is worth remembering that many of the environmental benefits of vertical farming can also be achieved by greenhouse farming. Additionally, lower operational and labour costs, due to access to a free source of energy and heat (sunlight) and rural or peri-urban greenhouse locations, can often provide greater cost flexibility that will support trials of early-stage technologies.

If vertical farming still feels a bit too much of a stretch for the imagination, I would recommend finding a local M&S in the UK, where in some stores, InFarm’s units allow you to pick herbs and salad as they grow. Although, to my knowledge, vertical farms have yet to be described as “a wonder for all peoples”, like the Hanging Gardens, at RIG we are advocates of a more measured level of interest in IP-rich technologies within this space.