The vertical farming solution21 June 2023

vertical farming agriculture

How we feed eight billion people – and growing – is a challenge the world is now grappling with. Could vertical farming be part of the solution, asks Brian Wall

The global human population reached 8.0 billion in mid-November 2022 from an estimated 2.5 billion people in 1950, adding one billion people since 2010 and two billion since 1998. The total is expected to increase by nearly two billion in the next 30 years and could peak at nearly 10.4 billion in the mid-2080s, according to the UN.

Adding to the dilemma is that current and former agricultural practices are seen by many as harmful to the planet. Agriculture has been implicated as a driving cause of climate change, deforestation and soil degradation, to such a level that it is estimated we have lost a third of our arable land over the past 40 years. The only way forward, it is widely agreed, is to find better ways of producing food.

To meet that need, 80 Acres Farms is one organisation that has made supplying fresh food its mission, using fully automated, indoor vertical farming. The company grows everything from salad, microgreens and herbs to tomatoes and baby cucumbers, with Siemens supporting the industrialisation and scaling of the company’s proprietary Loop platform from 80 Acres Farms’ technology-focused subsidiary Infinite Acres. The solution encompasses crop management software, algorithms, environmental controls, robotics and automation.

For Mike Zelkind, co-founder and CEO of 80 Acres Farms, vertical farming is not the ‘plaything’ of the few, but the future of the many. “Ten years ago, this was science fiction. Tomorrow, indoor vertical farming is going to be so ubiquitous that everyone will wonder how we lived without it,” he insists. That future, says Livingston, is all about collaboration: “finding the best partners to help scale and industrialise the technology, so that fresh, clean, nutritious food will be accessible to more people around the world”.


What does a typical vertical farm actually look like? It is an industrial unit stacked high with layers of plants, LED lighting at each level, making maximum use of the vertical space and significantly increasing food production, while conditions are monitored around the clock to ensure the plants have the right amounts of light energy, carbon dioxide, nutrients, air, temperature and humidity.

Vertical farming leads to healthier and more sustainable food, points out John Parrott. “For one, everything 80 Acres Farms grows is 100% pesticide-free. Compared to traditional agriculture, 300 times more food can be grown per square foot at an 80 Acres Farms site. And with 17 to 20 more growing cycles annually, output is considerably higher. Because produce is grown close to consumers, there are lower carbon emissions associated with travel. Finally, optimised water and land use lead to less agricultural waste.”

The collaboration also extends to research and development. For example, Siemens Technology is leveraging artificial intelligence and machine learning to develop an app that optimises software for controlling vertical farms. The goal here is twofold: to avoid adverse conditions within the plants that could impair yields, and to determine which conditions lead to better nutrition and flavour.

Vertical agriculture is also regarded by Eden Green Technology as a compelling way to produce the food needed by future generations. For brothers Jacques and Eugene van Buuren, the company’s founders, the Eureka moment came in their native South Africa when they witnessed a five-year-old boy stuffing his pockets with the candy that was being handed out at a community event. When asked why, he explained that it wasn’t his day to eat, so he was saving the food for his three-year-old sister. It was then they decided, as engineers, to create a way for communities to have access to produce.


Eddy Badrina, Eden Green’s CEO, says that using vertical farming’s hydroponic technology (where plants are fed in a growth medium, soaked in water containing nutrients) enables his company “to shrink about 35 traditional farming acres into an acre and a half greenhouse, and place it anywhere in the world.” With around 80% of the world’s population predicted to be living in urban areas by 2050, this will mean a higher demand for food in the areas where land is hardest to come by, states Eden Green. “Vertical farming offers a way to meet this increased demand for food in large urban centres.”

Eden Green’s approach is to build, manage and license its greenhouse technology platform, taking a ‘harvest-to-home’ approach where food is grown close to the point of need. “That reduces the typical hundreds or even thousands of miles to 20 miles (or less) from a distribution centre or grocery store,” points out Badrina.

Not surprisingly, when comparing traditional farming with vertical farming, water springs into the debate. “Using VF in a city block, you can be producing 12 to 13 harvests annually,” he says. “That’s £1 million worth of leafy greens. For that amount of produce on a 35-acre farm, you would need at least 700,000 gallons of water a year and a lot of that is wasted, too. One of our greenhouses only consumes 90,000 gallons of water a year for the equivalent yield. And water really is the next oil.”


The understandable excitement around vertical farming does need to be put into a wider framework, however, as not everything in the garden is rosy. Last year, a massive new vertical farm was opened by Infarm on the outskirts of Bedford with the promise that it would, in time, produce 20 million plants annually. By November 2022, that vision had crumbled away, with Infarm’s founders emailing its UK workforce to say they were laying off around 500 employees – more than half of the workforce. The reason? Soaring energy costs, which, states the company, “puts a lot of additional pressure on our business and seriously impacts our cost of production in affected markets. This is in addition to inflation, supply chain disruptions and rising material costs”. This year, Infarm has closed its operations in the UK, France, the Netherlands, Germany, Denmark and Japan.

Other question marks have been raised about VF, such as the vast amounts of electricity consumed by the LED lights that replace sunlight, although, as Arrell Food Institute points out, “new technologies are making carbon neutral vertical farming possible, such as solar panels that use waste LED light, co-generation systems for power and HVAC, and integration with other infrastructure.”


Fischer Farms is another company set on creating a big impact with its UK vertical farms: one at Lichfield near Birmingham and, almost completed, another at Norwich. It is working towards operating 365 days a year, using only sustainable energy sources and providing yields 250 times greater than conventional farming, it claims.

“The quality that you get from vertical farming is just better than the quality you get from a field-grown crop,” says CEO Tristan Fischer. “It’s tastier, has a longer shelf life, is more nutritious, it has a lower environmental footprint. There’s just a whole long list of reasons why vertical farm products are better than field-grown crops.” See more players on pp10-11.

Brian Wall

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