Also known as skyscraper farming, this method of crop production utilises vertical space to improve yield while reducing the amount of land required.
In its current state vertical farming mostly focusses on leafy greens and fresh herbs, but as it allows total control over the growing environment, it can also provide out-of-season fruits — such as strawberries in winter — as well as more exotic produce.
Vertical farming yield is not dependant on weather, climate, or quality of land, and it can provide reliable and consistent year-round crop production. But just how eco-friendly is it? Here, Brushtec highlight a few of the ways that vertical farms could mean a more sustainable future for British agriculture.
Fewer square miles
The key concept of vertical farming is that it is a way to grow more crops per field or patch of land. By ‘growing upwards’, vertical farms can have an increased production per square foot than traditional methods, which improves yield while saving space — a precious commodity here in the UK.
Vertical farming may reduce the environmental impact of agricultural activity and help to improve biodiversity, because farming at this scale does not cause the same amount of land surface disturbance. This may support local flora and fauna, avoid deforestation, and reduce the reliance on cultivated land for food production.
That said, care must be taken to only build vertical farms in ways that doesn’t impact local wildlife and biodiversity. Building over farmland is not the ideal, but rather looking for opportunities to create vertical farms on brownfield land or in urban areas.
Vertical farms allow farmers to control all aspects of crop growth, including humidity, temperature, light, and the amount of nutrients each crop receives. This means that UK can enjoy more exotic or out-of-season produce without having to import it from other countries. Avoiding importation is great for the planet, but it also means that the UK can be more self-sufficient and less reliant on international trade lines that can be easily disrupted. We have seen this recently as a result of the pandemic, the blocking of the Suez Canal, and the war on Ukraine.
Fewer food miles
Growing more crops closer to home also has an undeniable impact on food miles. Food produced in the UK for consumption in the UK reduces transportation times and costs as well as the farm’s carbon footprint. Planes, ships, and other long-haul methods of transportation can be used less and less as vertical farming takes off. Shortening the distance that crops need to travel can also help keep food fresh without the need for refrigeration, further decreasing the carbon footprint of a vertical farm.
As they don’t need fields to grow, vertical farms can be installed in urban areas, allowing fresh produce to be closer than ever before to the consumer.
Less water needed
Vertical farms typically require significantly less water than normal production methods. Even hydroponic farms, where the crop is suspended in water rather than soil, use less water because only the exact amount of water needed per plant can be distributed due the controlled environment. And, because the water used in hydroponic crop production is usually clean after use, it can be recycled and reused which further reduces waste.
Less energy consumed
One major criticism of vertical farming is that the buildings require electricity in order to run crucial elements such as lighting and heat. However, these farms have the potential to be managed using green energy only. With smart systems in place, energy consumption can also be monitored, evaluated, and made more efficient where possible. What’s more, vertical farms may be artificially lit with energy-efficient LED lights, but many simply use natural sunlight to grow their crops.
Because the plants in a vertical farm are grown inside, there’s no danger of fertiliser run-off polluting nearby land and rivers. In fact, many farms don’t use soil or fertiliser at all, opting for hydroponic or aeroponic methods instead. This principle works in reverse too, as there’s no risk of contaminated water from nearby livestock or wildlife making its way into the farming system. There are also fewer potentially polluting pesticides being used, as the absence of insects and other pests in this controlled environment means they’re not as necessary as they are in an open field.
Barry Crackett, Product Designer at Brushtec comments:
“Vertical farming is far from perfect, but it has the potential to transform the UK’s agriculture and improve the sector’s eco-credentials. From reducing our carbon footprint to increasing sustainability, there’s a lot to be said for growing upwards.
“Most vertical farming in the UK grows salad leaves and herbs such as basil. However, root vegetables, strawberries and other fruits are also well on their way to being vertically farmed on a large scale.
“One of the most exciting effects of vertical farming could be the increase in quality of British grown crops. With more humidity, heat, and nutrients, we could see even better food than we’re used to grown close to home.”