By Matt McIntosh
With the right technology, food can be grown anywhere
Food doesn’t always come from the field – sometimes it can be grown inside.
Indoor food production, also called Controlled Environment Agriculture, can take many forms. Greenhouses comprise the most common and fastest growing type of indoor farming in Canada, producing a wide array of vegetables, flowers, and even some fruits.
Vertical farming is a related form of indoor agriculture, characterized by stacks of crop-laden shelves in an enclosed space – think shipping containers or semi-truck trailers, and you’ll get an idea of just two spaces within which vertical farms could be constructed.
Like greenhouses, vertical farms use a variety of technologies to grow crops, including irrigation lines, plant nutrition schedules, a variety of automation technologies, and more. But where greenhouses do make use of sunlight for at least part of the crop production process, vertical farms do not.
Indeed, LEDs take the place of natural sunshine in vertical farms. Like greenhouses (LEDs are also used to supplement crop growth in greenhouse production systems) different coloured LEDs can be used for different crops, and for different growth stages.
Grow food anywhere
Vertical farms can exist just about anywhere, including areas where other types of farming are not possible – within buildings or on rooftops in densely populated urban environments, very cold climates, etc. In fact, there continue to be programs and investments being made by both the private and public sector to bring more vertical farms to more places, with part of the intention being to make fresh local produce more accessible for more people.
Keeping the growing area completely enclosed and in optimal growing conditions means the crop is substantially less likely to be harmed by pathogens or insect pests. In turn, the need for crop protection products like fungicides can be significantly reduced. Organisms which can harm the crop can still get in, though, so following stringent biosecurity protocols is critical.
As the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) describes, producing fresh greens and vegetables close to growing urban populations – or remote communities – could help meet growing global food demands while reducing the carbon footprint generated by transporting food from far away.
Just like other types of farms, how crops from vertical production systems reach the public varies by farm business. Some market direct to local customers, while others supply grocers. Guelph Ontario’s GoodLeaf Farms, for example, markets its leafy greens to Loblaws, Metro, Longos, and a variety of other food businesses of varying sizes.
Cost and labour
Promising as it might seem, vertical farming does have its share of challenges.
The cost of producing food in controlled environments is inherently high compared to open air production. The facility, the technology, temperature control and a myriad of other costs all contribute to this high price tag. The crops grown within vertical farms can be expensive by consequence.
An analysis from Alberta Agriculture and Forestry describes it thus:
“Vertical farming operations must find a way to market their produce at much higher prices if they are to be profitable. The results show that at a certain level of sales at retail prices (sales direct to consumers), all vertical farming operations can generate a strong net return. However, the results from this assessment also suggest that very large direct sales targets are required for the larger operations.”
Labour is an issue too. Controlled environment agriculture is labour intensive, requiring workers for a range of critical production tasks including propagation, planting, movement and management of plants, cleaning, harvesting, pest management, pruning, sorting and packaging.
Even though more and more automation technologies are being used in indoor farming – as well as in traditional field farming more generally – ongoing labour demands and worker shortages continue to be a problem.
Plenty of potential
The USDA estimates approximately 15 per cent of the world’s food is currently grown in urban areas. Despite the barriers, vertical farming could play a major role in increasing food production in an environmentally and socially positive way. It’s one of the reasons governments, companies and other groups worldwide continue investing in vertical farming technology, and business opportunities – not to mention the people needed to realize those opportunities.