Vertical farming: The potential climate benefits may stack up, but is it a distraction?
The world’s largest vertical farm is to be built in Dubai backed by $40m investment, but is this the future for agriculture or a distraction from more pressing climate problems?
Vertical farming: eco-friend or foe? Well, the first thing to say – to invoke Jez from Peep Show – is that it is not pyramid selling.
No, whatever the name might imply to the suspicious and unacquainted, ‘vertical farming’ isn’t, to its proponents at least, an obtuse money-grabbing scam. What it actually refers to is the growing of fruit, vegetables, and medicinal ingredients on stacks of shelves indoors using artificial light and nutrient solutions, negating the need for sunshine and soil.
Now, to some cannabis dealers in high-rise buildings the general concept may not seem particularly novel, but the idea that large numbers of humans can actually be fed from indoor cultivation has risen to much wider prominence over the past decade, thanks in part to huge advances in hydroponics – aka growing plants using nutrient solutions instead of soil – and sunlight-mimicking LED technology.
At first glance the concept sounds a potential game-changer for action on climate change and world hunger. After all, the planet is already rapidly warming, bringing with it increasing risks of drought, devastating storms, soil erosion, flooding, and crop failure, all of which impact global supply chains and hit some of the world’s most climate vulnerable, agriculture-reliant economies.
Surely, then, by cultivating crops inside multi-storey buildings we can protect them from these extremes, while also potentially reducing pressure on land-use, boosting biodiversity, and opening up opportunities for rewilding in rural areas elsewhere? Indeed, unlike crops exposed to the elements outside, vertical farms aren’t subservient to the seasons, thus promising year-round production with little risk of crop failure. What’s more, supporters of the technology point to lower water usage, a reduction in fossil fuelled farming machinery, no pesticides or herbicides, and the opportunity to bring food production closer to growing urban populations where it is needed.
Yet detractors highlight suspiciously strong interest from Silicon Valley tech investors and water-scarce petro states in the Middle East as evidence that vertical farming is merely a power grab for a means of production that could hurt developing economies while also putting yet more distance between humans and nature.
Moreover, despite its many promised green benefits, vertical farming remains a niche concern that has never quite taken off, largely because property, energy, and technology costs make commercialisation difficult. But might that be about to change?
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