With the onset of global warming and food shortages across the world, alternative farming methods are needed to ensure food supply can keep up with growing populations, increasingly unpredictable weather patterns and an ever-decreasing availability of agricultural land.  

In 2016 the UAE alone imported over four million metric tons of fruits and vegetables. It is just one of many countries around the world where agricultural conditions mean depending on imported goods.  

Vertical farming, growing food in vertically stacked layers, produces food in challenging environments where suitable land, or conditions, is not available. It uses soil, hydroponic or aeroponic growing methods. The process uses 95% less water than conventional farming methods, less fertilizer and nutritional supplements, and no pesticides, while boosting food productivity and security. 

On the down side, it does rely on affordable electricity and a reliable supply, so in many developing nations, this would be a potential barrier to the technology. However, it is independent of extreme weather events and sudden changes in weather plus, increasing local production means food is fresher when it reaches the consumer, and has longer shelf lives for the retailer.

Many innovators around the world have seen the benefits of this method. Dave Dinesen, CEO of Cubic Farms, launched the company, which works on a conveyor rotation method, automated nutrient delivery and LED lighting. The machines created an optimal growing environment for the greens and it uses 1/26th the amount of water of traditional agriculture. In addition to being a more reliable income for farmers, the Dutch technology claims to be able to create more consistency to the size, taste and colour of the produce in addition to a higher nutritional content and longer shelf life, pesticide free produce, and consistent year-round output. 

The “undulating path” growing system leverages gravity as the machine moves around the system to distribute water and nutrients evenly, encouraging maximum growth in each insulated stainless steel tray and with this movement, the plants mimic the conditions of a natural environment where they encounter weather changes of wind and motion. This movement around the system of the trays, also ensures equal exposure to light and environmental conditions for the crops.  

Each machine is custom-built into its own stainless steel, insulated growing chamber, with its own air handling and monitoring system. Each chamber can have a unique environment to optimise growing for a specific crop. 

Canadian innovators, Zipgrow Inc, want universal access to sustainable and healthier, fresher food. Produce in North America travels on average 1,682 miles (2,700km) to get from farm to consumer, taking on average 16 days after harvest for food to be consumed, yet produce loses around 60% of its nutritional value in the first 10 days after harvest. An average of one third of food produced globally is wasted due to spoilage, so the company is pioneering local production. With hydroponic farming, crops grow around 50% faster and are soil free. It also requires less labour to grow effectively. Their system of farming towers recirculates water and has more yield with less space and minimal resources. Developed by Dr Nate Storey at the University of Wyoming, a drip nozzle is directed to the top of the tower and into the ‘Matrix Media’ where plant roots are being held. As the water/nutrient solution trickles down through the media, plants are able to uptake the nutrients from their roots.

In land-poor Singapore, Sky Greens has developed a revolutionary vertical farming system for urban living, which is a low carbon, hydraulic driven farm where vegetables are planted on shelves that keep on rotating throughout the day. The vegetables on the upper levels receive sunlight while the plants below, receive water, and so the process continues as it rotates through the day. The company says the system produces 10 times the yield of traditional methods. 

Blending container farming and vertical hydroponic farming, ModularFarms in Australia, where extreme drought can have a devastating effect on farmers, has created an innovative system which can be used as a supplement to farms or as a stand-alone concept. Designed to protect farmers, a concept designed by James and Prue Pateras who grew up around farms in Australia, it is all-indoor and can be used in any climate in any country. The Modular Farms App allows users to monitor and control their farm in real time from their smartphones. The technology of the containers includes custom dehumidifiers capable of removing and recapturing over 190 litres of transpired or evaporated water from the air and LED lighting. While success has been proven with leafy greens and herbs, researchers have also proven the containers work with vegetables such as cucumbers and even berries on a small scale. Currently the company is located amongst busy food retailers, supplying directly to the people preparing food for the public, reducing food waste and transportation, in addition to giving optimal freshness to the consumer and increasing food security.  

It is clear that vertical farming answers many of today’s pressing issues from food security to climate change. It gives greater earning power to farmers who suffer at the hands of unpredictable weather changes, and consumers can rest knowing that produce is fresh and more nutritious than counterparts flown around the world for days or weeks at a time. 

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