Vertical farming has a place for nations struggling to produce food

Vertical farming provides an impressive example of vegetable growing which looks more like a biotechnology enterprise than a farming enterprise. Photo: Getty Images
Vertical farming provides an impressive example of vegetable growing which looks more like a biotechnology enterprise than a farming enterprise. Photo: Getty Images
I am following the synthetic meat debate with interest. Will lab-derived proteins be the answer to solving the world's food and environmental problems?

When I speak with people on either side of this debate, there is an almost evangelical belief in their position. If the domestic discussion around Air New Zealand's support of the Impossible Burger is anything to go by, the debate is only going to get hotter. And, for those who think red meat is the only protein up for reinvention, check out Finless Foods (lab-derived fish) and Perfect Day (lab-derived milk) for what else is coming.

Humming alongside this debate, and almost going unnoticed in this country, is a growing interest in how we will grow vegetables, fruit and grain in the future. The world's population is approaching eight billion. Can we continue to farm broadacre crops and vegetables, using sprays and extensive land in the way we have been?

Organic farming has been touted as an environmental solution, but unfortunately, organic farming operations tend to generate much lower yields per hectare, therefore such systems are likely to require more land to feed growing populations - a problem in itself.

The answer, apparently, is to go up, not out, much as we should be in Auckland given the housing crisis. If you google the term ''vertical farming'' you will find impressive examples of vegetable growing looking more like a biotechnology enterprise than a farming enterprise. Protagonists wearing lab coats shuffle along multiple layers of lettuces amid zany-looking lights.

Vertical farming is based on hydroponics, in which plants are grown using nutrient media instead of soil. Temperature is controlled by air conditioning and highly populated countries, with low amounts of arable land, such as Singapore, are leading the way technically.

Growing conditions are kept as sterile as possible, so sprays are minimised and water is recycled. Electricity costs are high, but of course, as we move to greater generation of renewable electricity, then this may become less of an issue.

Will indoor agriculture become our generation's green revolution? Well, vertical farming seems to go hand-in-hand with synthetic protein on the evangelical front and like any disruptive change, it has its detractors.

In the words of Stan Cox, a former United States Department of Agriculture biologist: ''Why, after more than a decade, does the idea of 'vertical farming' keep gathering momentum? Why hasn't it collapsed under its own weight of illogic? And why is media coverage of vertical farming almost universally positive, often enthusiastically so?''

He goes on to calculate that if we converted the 1.6% of land used to grow vegetables in the United States into vertical farming, it would demand the relative floor space of 105,000 Empire State Buildings.

Even with that much dedicated space, we haven't gone near horticulture or arable crops. He has a point - and that is without even going into the efficient use of energy. Outdoor-grown plants demonstrate a pretty stunning and sustainable capture of the sun's energy into food. In this case, nature will be hard to beat.

Vertical farming will have its place, especially in countries nowhere near self-sufficient in food production. International trade barriers are on the rise and ample food production is a card in the back-pocket of trade negotiators.

The ability to go upwards and vertically farm is a way of protecting a country's access to food. But for those who tell me vertical farming will completely disrupt arable cropping, vegetable growing and horticulture, to the point we will not need soil or farms as we know them now - mmm, not so much.

I think there will always be a place for muddy gumboots in this country. It will become a matter of how much the lab coats can really deliver.

-Anna Campbell is managing director of AbacusBio Ltd, a Dunedin based agri-technology company.

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