Digital transformation in food industry has accelerated as food companies aim to become more efficient and resilient.
Agriculture is said to be the beginning of human civilization. Then, as now, food sustainability depended on scaling farming operations and technologies to meet increasing demand and consumption.
Projected to reach 9.7 billion people by 2050, the human population across the globe has never been larger. This means that the challenges to feeding people by means of traditional farming alone have never been greater.
Climate change makes crop forecasting and management more difficult, especially when anticipating heavier impact from drought, flooding, and catastrophic storms. Along with resource management and environmental impact, unequal access to enough healthy food remains a huge problem.
As agriculture reaches a tipping point in terms of sustainability, vertical farming offers hope.
What is vertical farming?What do you do when you run out of real estate to expand outward? You build upward. Just like it sounds, vertical farming makes use of structures to grow crops vertically in indoor facilities.
Growing indoors accomplishes several objectives, including a controlled environment where farmers are no longer at the mercy of the weather — which would surely be miraculous to the earliest farmers.
This controlled environment allows for more precise use of technology to achieve greater efficiency and maintain more uniform quality in food production. Vertical farms tend to use less water and fertilizer and eliminate the need for pesticides.
Vertical farms can be smaller, single-story buildings or multi-story buildings with several levels of climate-controlled space used to grow varieties of crops.
Some food safety processes in traditional farm settings can end up depleting the nutritional value of various kinds of produce. For example, washing leafy greens in a chlorine bath reduces the nutritional value of those greens. Because vertical farms grow produce indoors in climate-controlled environments, processes such as chlorine baths are not necessary, leaving more of the plant’s nutrition intact.
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Farming’s impact on the planet
Farming and agriculture require a lot of land and other resources to maintain the levels of production needed to feed the billions of people on the planet. Moreover, food production processes heavily impact the environment, from depletion of natural resources to pollution of air, land, and water.
What kind of impact does agriculture have on resources and the planet? It’s important to consider what we take from the earth:
- Food production alone creates about 30% of greenhouse gas emissions globally
- 70% of freshwater consumed goes to food production
- Pesticides and overuse of fertilizers pollute land and water, such as the runoff pollution creating algae blooms in Lake Erie, which are toxic to wildlife and humans alike
- Already, 50% of total habitable land is used for agricultural activities
Without developing alternative farming methods such as vertical farms, the increased production likely required to feed an ever-growing population can only exacerbate the current problems, and likely create more issues.
Food sustainability is critical to protect the environment and reduce world hunger. Restaurants, brands, and consumers all have roles in this growing movement.
How vertical farming boosts food sustainability
The UN’s Sustainable Development Goal 2, Zero Hunger by 2030, appears to be off track for achieving global nutrition targets. Vertical farming can help producers grow more nutritious foods without the use of pesticides and with less fertilizer, and closer to more heavily populated areas.
Food supply chains are delicate, as we’ve seen with most other supply chains since 2020. When only certain climate zones can support growing certain foods in high demand around the globe, supply chains get stretched, requiring more shipping and facilities. This leads to more carbon emissions and an overall greater carbon footprint.
Operating indoor vertical farms makes it possible to relocate carefully controlled indoor climates to almost any area of the world. Vertical farming maximizes natural resources for the greatest crop production, quality, and availability.
It also improves food equity. Healthy food choices become more accessible and affordable when healthier foods are less expensive to grow and supply chains reach historically underserved communities.
Shorter distances, fewer cleaning and preservation processes that degrade the nutritional value of foods, and ultimately lower production and shipping costs make healthier foods more affordable and accessible to communities who previously had little or no access to these food choices.
Vertical farming has gained support over the last decade from investors who see the potential to improve food sustainability and security. And as more consumers pay attention to the environmental impact of the products they buy, the more important it is for companies to respond with sustainable business models.
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Vertical farming examples
The concept of vertical farming has gone from novelty to a serious approach to solving some of the problems facing global agriculture in feeding a growing population.
Recently, retail giant Walmart and others invested in Plenty, a vertical farming company that produces leafy greens without pesticides. Walmart plans to carry Plenty’s greens in its California stores.
Another example is &ever, a vertical farming company based in Hamburg, Germany. The company is committed to producing food with less fertilizer, less water consumption, and zero pesticides. To achieve this, &ever drives innovation in food production by leveraging technologies that include the internet of things, machine learning, and cloud-based computing.
By using sensors that continuously gather real-time data from every aspect of the vertical farm, from temperature, humidity, air quality and airflow, to soil quality and water consumption, & ever optimizes yield, nutritional value, and availability of its produce.
Ultimately, achieving greater efficiency, using fewer resources such as water, and growing food closer to the people consuming it contributes to lower production and supply chain costs as well as improved freshness, nutritional value, and access to healthy foods, all while reducing environmental impact.
With so much at stake, vertical farming promises a brighter future ahead.