A company in Scotland has unveiled what it claims is arguably the world’s most technically advanced indoor farm. Intelligent Growth Solutions’ vertical farm uses artificial intelligence and specially designed power and communication technologies. The firm says this reduces energy costs by 50% and labour costs by 80% when compared to other indoor growing environments, and can produce yields of up to 200% more than that of a traditional greenhouse.
Vertical farms like this aim to minimise water use and maximise productivity by growing crops “hydroponically” in small amounts of nutrient-rich water stacked in a climate-controlled building. But it’s important to recognise that the increased productivity of indoor vertical farming comes at the cost of much higher energy usage due to the need for artificial lighting and climate control systems.
By 2050, global food production will need to increase by an estimated 70% in developed countries and 100% in developing countries to match current trends in population growth (based on production information from 2005-2007). But in countries that already use the majority of their land for farming, this is easier said than done.
The UK, for example, uses 72% of its landmass for agricultural practices but imports nearly half of the food it consumes. To improve domestic food security and prevent natural habitats from being destroyed for new farmland, countries such as the UK need to consider new methods of food production.
Urban farming presents a unique opportunity to grow food on already developed land, increase domestic food production and minimise the distance food travels. Since the publication of Dickson Despommier’s 2010 book The Vertical Farm: Feeding the World in the 21st Century, vertical farming has become synonymous with urban farming. Although the agricultural skyscrapers illustrated in Despommier’s book are yet to be realised, the idea of growing food vertically has captured the minds of designers and engineers alike.
The energy demand associated with vertical farming, however, is much higher than other methods of food production. For example, lettuces grown in traditionally heated greenhouses in the UK need an estimated 250kWh of energy a year for every square metre of growing area. In comparison, lettuces grown in a purpose built vertical farm need an estimated 3,500kWh a year for each square metre of growing area. Notably, 98% of this energy use is due to artificial lighting and climate control.
Even with the reductions promised by Intelligent Growth Solutions, the energy demand associated with most vertical farms would still be very high, which positions vertical farming in a grey area. On the one hand, the world needs to produce more food, and on the other hand, it needs to reduce energy use and the production of greenhouse gases.
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Photo credit: Intelligent Growth Solutions