According to data from NASA and FAO, by 2050, around 80% of the Earth’s population will reside in urban spaces, an increase of about 3 billion people. It is estimated that an increase of 109 hectares of farming land will be necessary to sustain this population growth if current agricultural technologies are maintained.
Based on the population increase and the unbridled growth of urban centers, agriculture has a growing role in food supply. However, the distances between cities and the countryside make this a difficult task, since much of the produce can be damaged or even be unsuitable for human consumption when it reaches the consumer’s table. Within this scenario, the creation of vertical farms becomes meaningful and, to some extent, becomes a viable alternative for food production.
What are vertical farms?
Vertical farming is a common method of growing vegetables indoors, with carefully controlled weather and light conditions. The idea behind the concept is to use automated facilities that, with the aid of technology, aim to have the lowest possible impact on the environment and to increase the production of agricultural products considerably. The great advantage of this type of agricultural activity is that it is independent from large horizontal flat spaces. The term “vertical” is used due to the fact that this production can be done in floors, that is, stacked on several planes.
Agricultural techniques employed on vertical farms involve sustainable energy sources, artificial light control and conscious use of water (and other scarce natural resources) for the planting process. Environmentally controlled farming technologies, that is, environmental factors such as temperature and humidity, can and should be controlled on vertical farms.
Why use digital technology on vertical farms?
Vertical farm plants are grown in a fully controlled, enclosed environment powered by blue and pink Led lights that simulate sunlight and accelerate photosynthesis. Water and fertilizer are supplied in exact doses and pesticides are not used in this system.
The number of digital technologies that can be used in the vertical farm complex is very large. The term “vertical farms”, then, is almost confused with the term “digital farms”. Because they are generally located in urban centers, network connectivity at higher speeds is much more likely than in traditional agricultural regions.
Examples of activities that can be digitized:
Sensors: In the vertical farm environment, it is possible to obtain a large amount of crop information. Data such as temperature, humidity, pH and concentration of nutrients in the water used on the farm can be obtained and used more easily than in traditional agriculture. This is because vertical agriculture is carried out in a controlled environment and is not so influenced by climate and external factors that may make data extraction difficult.
IoT (Internet of Things): With data from the sensors, the meaning of Internet of Things can be explored more easily and in many situations. As vertical farms are typically located in regions with more stable internet systems, alarms or sensors with intelligence for actions in the production can be created according to the data obtained (such as humidity, air temperature, water temperature, level of fertilizer in water).
Cloud/Big Data: All information from the vertical farm can be logged and stored in the Cloud. With this, a lot of property information can be stored, such as sensor data, production of each batch, time from planting to harvest, among other data. Intelligence algorithms can be created based on the set of information collected. For example, it is possible to correlate a high yield to certain data levels (amount of fertilizer, temperature, degree of humidity among others).
Machine Learning/Artificial Intelligence: The large amount of data that can be stored on the network can also be used to make the system learn through its own aggregated data sets. For example: by comparing production information and associating it to water pH and nutrient content, the system could use learning algorithms to indicate the best combination of resources to yield the best result.
Robotics: Since vertical farm platforms can be set up at the farmer’s will (usually in the form of rectangular beds), the process of using robots for tasks such as performing cultural tracts or harvesting products is feasible.
The Pros and Cons of the New Agriculture
According to information released at the 2016 GreenTech Summit, vertical agriculture (the most general term for vertical farms) can produce 10 to 20 times more relative to the size of land that traditional agriculture requires. In addition, the harvesting potential (yield) of vertical farming is 90%, while traditional farming is only 50% (as there is a greater chance of transport losses and inadequate harvesting). Thus, the application of vertical agriculture is a good idea, as vertical farms can be built in various environments (preferably in or very close to cities), since crops are mass-produced within safe, closed and widely controlled environments.
On the other hand, some claim that the vertical farm system can be a waste of resources. This is because farms should generate considerably higher profits compared to traditional farming to be classified as profitable and, therefore, justify their existence. In traditional farming, large horizontal areas are used in more remote locations. The structure and cost of production of vertical farms are much higher and this cost/revenue ratio needs to be thoroughly evaluated before the implementation of vertical farms.
The energy source used in these farms also influences their viability. Countries where the main source of energy comes from fossil fuels can generate a large amount of greenhouse gas emissions, further diminishing the potential benefits that the technology would bring. The use of treated water in cities can also affect the effectiveness of these urban farms.
But, after all, are vertical farms worth it?
The first commercial urban vertical farm in Latin America was launched in São Paulo, with ambitious plans. Its name is Pink Farms and it is one of the cases to be followed and studied in the coming years.
Vertical farms help protect crops from weather changes, increasingly influential with major climate change due to global warming. Certainly, other factors may negatively influence the design of vertical farms, such as possible impacts on cities, and even some nuisance that planting in urban areas may cause — such as noise pollution at different times or even problems arising from the use of cities’ water treatment systems.
Another point to be evaluated regarding vertical farms concerns their economic viability. Productivity in these environments needs to be much higher than traditional environments, since the expense required to assemble the frame is extremely high.
One thing is certain: vertical farms are the major laboratories for using the latest digital technologies available to date. In other words, the high-tech world has many tools to help the evolution and development of vertical crops, given the large amount of technologies that can be used to leverage this type of production.