At this point there are over 7.3 billion people in the world. As expected the world population will increase to over 10 billion people in 30 to 40 years. The current farmland that is needed to provide the world population with food –the agricultural footprint– has the size of South America. When indeed the world population will reach those 10 billion people the agricultural footprint will be the size of Brazil in addition. But there is not that much farmland available in the world. Thereby, a vast proportion of the world population lives (or will live in the future) in cities.
Thus, the problem is that the world population is growing combined with increasing urbanisation, which causes too little farmland and thus too little food to provide the whole population with food. Thereby, the food chain is paired with water spill, soil erosion, and the transport of food. To ensure that an emerging global food crisis will not take place and to become more sustainable something has to change. A potential solution is changing traditional farming and replacing it –partly– with vertical farming.
Vertical farming and AI
Vertical farms are built or established in vacant buildings around or at the edge of the city, which contain an environment where vegetables, fruit and other non-edible plants can vertically grow indoors, which means that the crops are stacked vertically.
An example of a vertical farm
Now, I hear you thinking; what does vertical farming exactly has to do with digital technology? Well, a hell of a lot! Vertical farming uses automation, machine learning, and vision systems to monitor the crops. The farm also uses LED and hydroponic technology. The farm has a completely controlled environment that is monitored by its operating system. It also draws in data from the network of sensors across the indoor farm. These sensors measure a variety of data points that has impact on the growth of the crops. In this way, growing crops will happen in a smarter and more efficient way. This means that the water use will be decreased, pesticides are no longer needed and used, and the flavour of the crop can be adjusted by the amount of light and the temperature. These sensors also contain cameras and computer vision to detect changes in the crops. When correlating these images with other variables measured by the sensors (e.g., as temperature and humidity), the software can determine what causes changes in the health of the crops, the quality, and the taste. Thereby, it is possible to automate the system to make necessary changes to the environment in which the crop is growing. So, one could say that vertical farming uses artificial intelligence to streamline the growing process of food.
Researchers see vertical farming as a way to provide everyone in 2040 with sustainable food. Vertical farming ensures that fresh products can grow locally, which causes on the one hand that food contains its flavour and nutritional values, and on the other hand reduced transport distance (and thus lower transport costs) and fewer CO2 emissions. Thereby, less water will be spilled, less space to grow crops is needed, no pesticides will be used and flavours can be changed for consumers individually. Also, indoor farming is independent of weather condition, which causes that food can grow during the whole year. There are many more benefits such as less risk for crop loss due to microbial plant pathogens (fungi, bacteria, and viruses), and invasion by noxious arthropod species thanks to barrier systems. To mention one last benefit; when vertical farming will cause that farmland outside will be unnecessary for growing crops, this land could be used to restore the disturbed ecosystem by, for instance, growing new trees.
There are already a few vertical farms initiatives over the world, such as AeroFarms in Newark (New Jersey), currently the largest vertical farm in the world; Square Roots in Manhattan that grows food in containers, and GrowX a Dutch start-up in Amsterdam. But also at other countries in the world people are experimenting with vertical farming, such as China, Japan and Dubai.
The big question now is what vertical farming will promise for the future and how our cities will look like in 2040? And will it indeed help to prevent an emerging global food crisis?
For the Dutch speaking readers watch this interesting documentary from Tegenlicht.