“What’s the worst thing we’ve ever done to the planet?” asks author and journalist, George Monbiot, in his recent Ted Talk. The answer - not war, urbanisation, or overpopulation - might come as a surprise to some.
Farming, responsible for 80% of the deforestation, and the greatest cause of habitat destruction and wildlife loss of the past century, has, and continues to, cause irreversible damage to the Earth.
Innovations in agri-tech such as vertical farming may offer solutions to two of the greatest challenges the global food system currently faces – building resilience and limiting environmental harm. However, there remain obstacles that these solutions must first overcome.
Rethinking farming for the sake of the supply chain and the Earth
Vertical farming solutions could improve the security and sustainability of the food system by reducing agricultural land use. Often referred to as ‘the future of farming’, vertical farming uses environmentally controlled agricultural technology to grow crops indoors, without the need for traditional agricultural land and resources.
“If the biggest issue [facing the food system] is land use, the best solution is shifting food production off the land and into the factory,” said Monbiot.
In this method, crops are grown in vertical layers, rather than horizontally, requiring less water, soil, and around 10 to 20 times less land than traditional farming, according to research by Wageningen University. By controlling environmental factors like temperature, light exposure, and humidity, farmers can produce more regular, reliable, and abundant yields without the need for pesticides.
Vertical farms can be built into cities, shipping containers, and even empty offices, reducing the path from farm to fork, saving on transportation costs and emissions and lessening the environmental impact of food production.
Innovative startups are disrupting traditional agriculture
Finnish agtech startup iFarm provides urban, indoor farming solutions to clients across Europe and the Middle East. The startup’s turnkey vertical farming facilities include racks, LED lamps, digital systems, and ventilation which together organise entire agricultural processes from seeding to harvesting.
Via its proprietary software, iFarm collects technical and business data, which provide knowledge and step-by-step methods of utilising farming space for maximum efficiency to users. Replacing the need for agronomists, the technology allows farmers to access and analyse vast data sets using only a mobile phone or desktop. In the years ahead, the startup plans to expand into Asia with the goal of operating one million square metres of farmland globally using its software.
Another company disrupting traditional farming is Israeli startup Saffron Tech. It recently raised $1 million in partnership with Korean-based company Dreamtech Co for its saffron produced via vertical farming methods.
Notoriously challenging to harvest and source, saffron is a rare and expensive commodity, priced at around $20 per gram. Much of the world’s supply of saffron originates from Iran and passes through a supply chain that is inefficient and corrupt. Smuggling and fraudulent production of counterfeit so-called ‘Red Gold’ have become widespread and highly profitable industries, as investigations by Europol show.
“Saffron yields are suffering due to climate change, and indoor farming could be an answer to have a more reliable production in the future,” said Matthieu Vincent, co-founder of DigitalFoodLab, Paris-headquartered food tech consultancy.
Using an AI-powered vertical farming solution, the company grows saffron corms – bulb-like stems that serve as the base for the flower stem and help it grow - in controlled indoor environments and produces four harvests a year, rather than one. While interest in saffron as an ingredient in food and fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) products is rising, reports show that cultivation of the spice has dropped significantly in recent years, partly down to climate change.
“We see immense potential in satisfying consumer demand for saffron in the [Asia-Pacific] APAC region and beyond,” said Kevin Joung, CTO of Dreamtech.
High energy costs and consumption could be a barrier to the success of vertical farming
Vertical farming offers huge potential in decentralising food production and shortening supply chains, resulting in better quality produce, reduced waste, and a more resilient food system. However, this method of farming also faces challenges associated with high operational costs and volatility.
Due to the dependency on LEDs and ventilation systems, vertical farms have high energy consumption and operational costs. The war in Ukraine caused energy prices to soar worldwide, reaching a 20% increase for a consecutive five months following the initial invasion in February 2022.
Despite profiting from the ability to grow crops all year round, the expense and usage of energy by vertical farms is drastically higher than traditional agriculture which depends on free sunlight and rainwater. The reliance on energy to grow crops also makes vertical farms susceptible and vulnerable to volatile energy prices and supplies.
The source of the electricity used to fuel vertical farms is also an important consideration. In certain countries, this electricity still comes from fossil fuels, in which case the greenhouse gas emissions for vertical farms can be higher than for traditional farms. Using renewable energy is one way to combat this, yet renewables come with their own significant land requirements.
“I’d like to hope that scientists have huge potential to deliver on their promises, as we absolutely need their solutions and breakthroughs to feed the planet! The challenges [are] cost efficiencies during an energy crisis, the complicating effect of political and big business interests and, ultimately, will consumers trust it and pay more than the alternative,” Alex Beckett, director at Mintel Food and Drink, told Fi Global Insights.
Farming is a threat to both the planet and itself
The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that 38% of all land globally is used for the purpose of agriculture. Over a tenth (12%) of this is covered by crops and the remaining 26% is used as pasture for raising cattle such as cows, sheep, and goats.
With the global population expected to grow by two billion by 2050, an area equivalent to double the size of India will be needed to sustain a required 60% increase in food production, data from the World Resource Institute (WRI) shows. Producing food for this number of people would likely increase greenhouse gas emissions and accelerate the climate crisis drastically.
“Our environmental crisis is not driven by intensive or extensive farming but by a disastrous combination of the two […] farming itself is threatened by the environmental harm it contributes to, such as climate breakdown, soil degradation, and water depletion,” Monbiot said.