Vertical farms with their soil-free, computer-controlled environments may sound like sci-fi, but there is a growing environmental and economic case for them, according to new research laying out radical ways of putting food on our plates.
The interdisciplinary study combining biology and engineering sets down steps towards accelerating the growth of this branch of precision agriculture, including the use of aeroponics which uses nutrient-enriched aerosols in place of soil.
Carried out by the John Innes Centre, the University of Bristol and the aeroponic technology provider LettUs Grow, the study identifies future research areas needed to accelerate the sustainable growth of vertical farming using aeroponic systems.
Dr Antony Dodd, a Group Leader at the John Innes Centre and senior author of the study, says: “By bringing fundamental biological insights into the context of the physics of growing plants in an aerosol, we can help the vertical farming business become more productive more quickly, while producing healthier food with less environmental impact.”
Jack Farmer, Chief Scientific Officer at LettUs Grow and one of the authors of the study, adds: “Climate change is only going to increase the demand for this technology. Projected changes in regional weather patterns and water availability are likely to impact agricultural productivity soon. Vertical farming offers the ability to grow high value nutritious crops in a climate resilient manner all year round, proving a reliable income stream for growers.”
Vertical farming is a type of indoor agriculture where crops are cultivated in stacked systems with water, lighting and nutrient sources carefully controlled.
It is part of a rapidly growing sector supported by artificial intelligence in which machines are taught to manage day to day horticultural tasks. The industry is set to grow annually by 21% by 2025 according to one commercial forecast (Grand View Research, 2019).
Green benefits include better use of space because vertical farms can be sited in urban locations, fewer food miles, isolation from pathogens, reduction in soil degradation and nutrient and water recapturing and recycling.
Vertical farms also allow product consistency, price stabilisation, and cultivation at latitudes incompatible with certain crops such as the desert or arctic.
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