Vertical Farming: Growing Up After the Pandemic

Food
Vertical Farming
The Top 5 Benefits of Vertical Farming for Building a Sustainable and Resilient Fresh Food Supply Chain

“The COVID-19 crisis has really shown the cracks in the system. And I think that it was a test by Mother Nature to say, ‘Humanity, get your act together because your food systems are pretty fragile.’" This was an observation made by Dr. Nate Storey, co-founder and Chief Science Officer at Plenty, one of America’s leading indoor farming companies. Dr. Storey participated in a recent vertical farming webinar, co-presented by Heliospectra and the Association for Vertical Farming (AVF). Its purpose was to discuss the road ahead for vertical farming and building a sustainable blueprint to supply food to the world.

The global response to the pandemic had an impact on all industries, and the food supply chain was not exempt:

  • Laborers were unable to tend to the crops.
  • Farmers were unable to get their produce to market.
  • Restaurants, schools and independent stores were shuttered.  
  • Consumers had to adapt to different ways to source their food.

As COVID-19 restrictions are easing around the globe, one of the things we have learned from the pandemic is that it is time to redesign and reengineer the food supply chain. Vertical farming may be the answer. Here are the top 5 benefits of vertical farming for building a sustainable and resilient fresh food supply chain:

1.) Proximity to Markets Results in Efficient Distribution

Transportation channels were disrupted as governments responded to the pandemic, which made it difficult for rural farmers to get their fresh produce to market. Vertical farms have a much smaller footprint compared to traditional field farms, which means they can be established inside, or closer to, urban areas. Heliospectra’s CEO, Ali Ahmadian, remarked during the webinar that “Urbanization is increasing, and by 2050 we're going to have close to 70% of the world’s population concentrated in urban areas. The population is growing, and COVID-19 has shown us that current food supply logistics are not sustainable when under stress. Going forward, we need to find ways to produce more food locally, where the population lives.” Proximity to market should also help reduce transportation costs and CO2 emissions, while time to market and produce freshness should improve.

2.) Innovative Technology Boosts a Growing Industry

Vertical farming is still in its infancy, but Dr. Storey noted, “We’re on the cusp of huge growth and expansion as an industry. In the next 10 to 15 years, vertical farming will rise as one of the dominant forms of agriculture.” He continued, “Technology has caught up with the vertical farming vision, and we're going to start to see tremendous growth over the next decade. I'm pretty excited about that.”  

Some of the fundamental technologies available to vertical farmers today include the ability to control and monitor:

  • Lighting
  • Irrigation
  • Nutrients, PH and CO2 levels
  • Air temperature and humidity
  • AI, big data and intelligent controls

Vertical farms address many of the shortcomings of traditional field farms. Dr. Joel Cuello, a Professor of Bio-Systems Engineering at the University of Arizona, noted that, “Vertical Farming is where artificial intelligence (AI) really has a big role to play. A lot of folks have already done optimizations in terms of lighting, temperature, relative humidity, but they are really done in a very limited scale. With big data and then applying AI, that is really a breakthrough waiting to happen in terms of vertical farming.”  

LED grow lights and recent advances in AI and intelligent control technology have been catalysts for sustainable year-round growing, enabling vertical farmers to maximize crop yields, refine crop quality and standardize production with no seasonal downtime. By providing the light spectra that plants need and a controlled growing environment in which they flourish year-round, vertical farming can provide a sustainable and resilient way to feed the ever-changing world.

3.) Modern LED Systems Increase Energy Efficiency and High Quality Crop Yields

The quantity, quality, duration and distribution of light that each plant receives can be optimized. Innovative lighting technology developments have enabled vertical farmers to produce more quality food with less. Dr. Storey commented, “At Plenty, the primary tech inputs are LEDs and semi-conductor technologies. As the cost of LEDs goes down and the efficiencies go up, we reap the benefits with very little investment on our part.” He continued, “We have created our own technology cost curve around indoor agriculture, which shows costs going down and quality going up. An illustration of that would be yield at Plenty has gone up 12X in the last 18 months. We have improved yield to the same unit of energy by 12X.”

4.) Labor Profile Shift Reduces Operational Overheads

There has been more recognition since COVID-19 of the inherent benefits of indoor/vertical farming, which can produce more with fewer hands. Lack of labor, particularly in times of global crisis, is a big contributor to food insecurity. The promise of vertical farms is that they could become a factor for resilience in any food supply chain. Dr. Storey commented, “With vertical farming the supply chain is less complicated. It changes the shape of the labor profile of the business, from employing many workers in the field, which is a source of instability for field production, to employing much smaller numbers of very highly trained people that are operating robotics and managing production lines.”

5.) Modular and Scalable Design to Meet Changing Market Demands

Another benefit of vertical farming is its ability to quickly respond to food demand. Vertical farms can be modularized, and the modules can be shipped on pallets and quickly set up where the demand lies. They can also be added to and scaled to accommodate the rotation of crops according to market needs. This scalability enables farmers to establish vertical farms quickly and anywhere there is need for food. It can also help farmers meet latent market demands. Storey commented, “When we look at the market, we see a world that consumes only 30% of what it should in terms of fresh fruits and vegetables. So, as we talk about scaling farms, we also have to talk about latent demand, like how much demand is out there that isn't being accessed because of low quality or just the lack of access to fresh food.” The potential for scalable, modular farms to fill this market need is enormous.

The COVID-19 crisis revealed weaknesses in the food supply chain. Storey commented, “We already had a system under stress that was beleaguered by rising labor prices, by the extended supply chains, and the fact that most of the consumers have been separated from the producers.” He continued, “The places where we produce the food and the places where we consume the food have been stretching out further and further and further. In many cases, it's a global supply chain now. We've been pushing the field to its max.”  

Want to know more? Watch the entire webinar: The Road Ahead for Vertical Farming Building Tomorrow's Industry Blueprint Today. WATCH NOW  

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