Nowadays, agriculture and food production are under great risk. The major factors for this are as follows
- The land under food cultivation is dwindling so as to give way for real estate activities owing to increase in urban population and their standards of living.
- Climate change is making our food systems vulnerable. Weather has become unpredictable and as a result farmers, especially small and marginal ones suffer from huge crop losses. At some places there are droughts due to delayed or scanty monsoon. At others there are more cyclones and untimely rains flooding the farms.
- The traditional agricultural techniques and practices are getting lost. Aspiring for more profits, farmers are doing mono-cropping and using chemicals in the form of fertilizers and pesticides extensively. This has taken a toll on our soils and has rendered it infertile. Moreover the crop thus raised is harmful for consumption.
Health conscious urban dwellers are switching to organic crops. Few others have gone to the next level of growing their own veggies in their rooftop or kitchen gardens. Demand for healthy and organic food is growing. To cope up with the limitation of land resources and the unpredictability of the weather conditions, scientists and entrepreneurs are developing modern agricultural techniques and technologies. One such innovation is Vertical Farming which is a type of precision farming. The goal of precision farming is to optimize returns on inputs while preserving resources. Vertical farms can produce more crops in less space with minimal environmental damage.
The characteristics of vertical farming are
- It involves producing crops in vertical stacks of plant beds one above another. This reduces the need for more land and eliminates the need for tilling.
- It is done indoors and environmental conditions are controlled, thus effectively isolating it from the outdoor weather conditions.
- This soil less farming is achieved either by hydroponics or aeroponics. Hydroponics uses water as medium for conveying nutrients to the roots. Mineral nutrients are dissolved in water, pumped and fed directly to a plant’s root system without any involvement of soil. In aeroponics, the roots are exposed to nutrient rich mist. The benefits associated with these technologies are quicker growth, faster harvest, higher yield and low nutrient and water wastage.
- Here, sunlight is replaced by light from LEDs. When plants photosynthesize they convert light of certain wavelength into chemical energy which is not necessary to come from sun. LEDs which are having high acceptance in replacing traditional lights, have been evolved to provide optimum electromagnetic spectrum for photosynthesis, consume less energy and have minimal heat signatures which keeps the energy requirement for temperature maintenance at a minimum.
Crops generally grown in this method are green leafy vegetables. The vertical farming market is estimated to reach USD 3.88 billion by 2020, at a CAGR of 30.7% between 2015 and 2020.
In some developed countries, vertical farms are on the verge of starting the next green revolution. The first ever commercial vertical farm was setup in Singapore in 2012. The world’s largest vertical farm is coming up in Newark, New Jersey by a company called Aerofarms which aims to produce about two million pounds of leafy greens a year using aeroponics techniques.
In Japan vertical farm technology gained traction after the Fukushima nuclear meltdown exposed the susceptibility of arable land getting contaminated. Closer home, start-ups such as Futurefarms based in Chennai has setup such farms and has begun promoting it.
Vertical farms can be setup in abandoned factories or warehouses. It promises to create more jobs and attracts public-private investment. The vegetables can be locally grown and thus the cost and emissions due to their transportation can be significantly cut down. These farms also give us the option of year-round harvest. And of course, huge swathes of land can be returned to their natural state by reforestation.
Nevertheless, some scientists are sceptical about this technology. They consider it to be a factory rather than a farm almost like a broiler producing plant. Further, the whole system is vulnerable due to human error and technological malfunction. Considering that these systems use huge number of LED lights, motors and sensors the demand for power increases substantially which can make it unsustainable. Detailed research work has to be done before it gets commercialised in India.