Is vertical farming a solution or a distraction?

Depending on how you do the math on what’s habitable, agriculture currently occupies almost half or over half of the habitable land on the planet. That number continues to increase. Most (but not all) agriculture is food related. This article in Wired discusses the possible role of so-called vertical farming - farming using artificial light and hydroponics in buildings - in reducing the land-use footprint of food production. There’s no suggestion that the approach offers an immediate alternative on a large scale. The question is whether there is sufficient promise to justify further investment or other possible approaches will suffer for lack of financing because vertical farming is attracting available capital.

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FWIW, it seems like it’d be much easier to control pests and runoff in vertical than traditional farms.


As I understand it, pest control issues would be similar to the pluses and minuses of greenhouses (in which pest outbreaks can occur). There would be no runoff, as such, and much lower total water use.

I could see this being worth it for some high value crops where farming in population centers also saves on transportation costs (much like with greenhouse farming).

But there’s no way to generate the amount of artificial light needed to replace large scale farming. Outside, plant-based ag is essentially solar-powered, while vertical farming is mostly not.


That’s certainly the case with current LED tech and power systems and advances are unlikely to happen in any foreseeable timeframe that would permit replacement of conventional agriculture before the forests are all gone but replacement isn’t necessary in order to make a difference. Replacing some of the ongoing conversion of natural habitats with vertical farming could presumably at least slow the pace of conversion if it turned out to be otherwise technically feasible. There would be many trade-offs, some of which the article touches on. Vertical farming needn’t be the whole answer for it to matter.


Any building-related greens are good IMO, not exactly sure how soon it could be turned into life fully, but some places are trying to achieve that already for some years and I never read complains about what they do.

Agreed that it doesn’t need to be the whole answer, but I don’t see much overlap between the kinds of ag responsible for forest clearing and those amenable to vertical farming.

Most deforestation that I know is related to crops like palm, soy, pastureland, coffee, and cacao. These generally aren’t the crops grown in vertical farming because that just isn’t feasible. Vertical farming crops tend to be similar to those grown in greenhouses, not surprisingly, so I doubt that it will prevent conversion, though I suppose it might allow restoration of other ag land to more natural space?

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for plant crops, personally, i think vertical farming is a little bit of a distraction beyond a very few niche crops like illicit cannabis and maybe a few herbs and sprouts, but farming indoors (same thing, just not vertically) is not a distraction.

i think the main selling point of vertical farming is that it can be done in urban environments, close to the consumer, but the truth is that there are lots of places in urban environments that could already be turned into grow spaces more efficiently – rooftops, existing landscaped areas, etc. – but usually, it’s not worth the cost and effort.

the real benefit of indoor farming is water savings and control over temperature and light. so if you can locate in a place that has tons of of cheap energy – solar, wind, hydro, geothermal, etc. – then you can grow all year round, 24 hours a day, even if there’s not a lot of water or good soil nearby.

beyond plants, mushroom farming can work well vertically, and raising things like insects could also work well vertically, i think. to an extent, you could even do some aquaculture in a vertical kind of setup.


Yes. The article discusses the fact that to have major impact the technology will need to be scaled up by orders of magnitude and applied to crops of food staples, including grains. The current implementations are focussed on the sorts of crops you mention. The early versions of the technology were more or less conventional farming with lights and hydroponics - very labour intensive. The company featured in the article has since invested heavily in robotics and AI which they suggest will make adaptation of the existing model to other crops much more feasible.

Palm may not be amenable to this model but competitors to palm might be. Plant oils are heavily commoditized and interchangeable in the market to a large degree. More to the point, freeing up arable land will mean that palm can expand there rather than in forested land.

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I’ve worked on these issues for years, and I see vertical farming as largely a distraction. It has a role to play for a few high-value crops (salads or drugs) as others have said, but it’s too niche to be a solution for agricultural expansion on a large scale. Why? Huge energy demand to replicate sunlight, huge costs and material demands to build multi-storey buildings, and high land cost in urban areas.

We already have the solutions to prevent further deforestation and land clearance, but they’re not as sexy. Address food waste throughout the supply chain, eat more plants and fewer animal products, effective land-use planning and implementation of laws protecting native habitats, stop using crops for biofuels, adoption of existing best agricultural practices to improve productivity of existing agricultural land… These mostly require us humans to change some aspects of the way we live, rather than being a purely technological solution, but we have the tools we need.


Some of the fruit and veg I buy is grown hydroponically. As a source for more expensive crops, grown hydroponically … maybe. Years ago in Switzerland they said the rockwool substrate had to be dumped in toxic waste, as it was contaminated with agri-chemicals.

Australia has a HUMUNGOUS inland greenhouse for growing tomatoes. High water use. Not a problem?

And … vertical pig farming in China. Animal welfare?

i don’t know about the customer base for the greenhouse-grown tomatoes in Australia, but assuming they are all consumed by Australians, then i think this is actually as good as it gets without eliminating tomatoes from Australian diets altogether. it’s true that the fruit themselves contain a lot of water, but growing them in a controlled environment can eliminate a bunch of the water waste that would otherwise occur as a result of evaporation, runoff, etc., and then you’re not just shifting the water problem to a place like, say, Mexico, which would then also require additional huge quantities of fuel to transport the fruit (which is basically almost 100% water by weight). so all ag will create problems somehow, but this seems relatively less problematic than its other tomato-centric alternatives.


Sure. But they also aren’t working.

Agreed. The scale of this is enormous and manifested in ways that many people would find surprising. There is great room for improvement but not all of the issues are readily dealt with in market economies in which economic efficiency sometimes involves ecologically unsustainable practices and resource wasting.

Sure. But this is also a social and cultural problem, not a technical problem, and therefore complex by definition. The sort of widespread cultural change across many nations that would be required is pretty mind-boggling. This is most definitely not a short term fix.

Agreed. There is a lot of room for improvement everywhere. On the other hand, these sorts of solutions are also vulnerable to political and economic pressures.

Particularly soy and maize whose energy production per hectare is risible. But biofuels account for a relatively small part of global ag production with the overwhelming bulk of production concentrated in a small number of countries. If biofuels are ever going to contribute much of global energy production it will be from algae or some other high density organisms not anything like the current industry.

If by best practice you mean the technological developments that flowed from the Green Revolution, that’s an interesting set of tradeoffs. A very large part of the gains from the Green Revolution flow from things like fertilizer production from methane and have their own ecological implications.

Yes. And they inevitably involve tradeoffs and sacrifices that will be asymmetrical within and among nations, pitting groups’ perceived self-interest against each other in potentially explosive ways. It is easy to list the things that would make a difference and very, very hard to bring most of them to bear on the problem on a scale that will matter, without severe, negative knock-on effects.

I’d be interested in your critique of the Wired article specifically. I’m skeptical for a bunch of reasons (partly because I’m just skeptical on general principle) but I’m also aware of how huge the challenge is and hopeful that novel solutions can be found, even if they only contribute partial solutions. There are no solutions that are straightforward unless we pretend that social, political and economic factors don’t matter.


I agree with your skepticism, and with that of Jonathan Foley, who’s looked in detail at what we can do to move our societies in the direction of sustainability. He is quoted in the article as saying:

“Vertical farms are a round-off error to the round-off error in terms of contributing to the big levers out there,” Jonathan Foley, an environmental scientist based in Minneapolis, says. “Like most technologies that are getting a lot of venture capital and which come from Silicon Valley kind of thinking, it’s being massively overhyped at the cost of real solutions. There’s an opportunity cost to put all this technology, money and renewable energy – that could be used for other things that we need energy for – into growing arugula for rich people at $10 an ounce.”

I agree, and I think this why technological miracles can seem attractive - because they can help without having to worry about the messiness of politics and culture. The fundamental issues with vertical farming, even setting aside the economics, are its high requirements for energy and materials, both of which come with additional costs. It’s hard to see how those requirements can be met without great additional impacts.

I disagree - these approaches are working to different degrees in many places around the world. Progress is never smooth or without problems, but there are countries like Costa Rica showing that it’s possible to do two things at the same time - expand native forest cover and grow more food.

By best practices, I meant exactly best practices, not Green Revolution practices. Best practices are very context-dependent, but can include more efficient (reduced) use of inputs, better use of information instead of agrochemicals (think nipping pest problems in the bud), and maintaining rather than degrading soils. You are absolutely right that there will always be trade-offs and competing interests, but I am much more excited by the possibilities of companies turning pea protein into vegan meat and milk alternatives than I am by vertical farming. That’s much more likely to be scalable to the point where it can help reduce pressure to clear more land globally.


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