Throughout the course of history, advances in technology have been used to improve our quality of life and enable the sustainability of the human race. Starting with the invention of the wheel, to the light bulb and everything in between, innovation has made people’s lives and the world better. Along the way, however, there have been some by-products of these technological wonders that have caused issues for humanity. Pollution from the internal combustion engine (ICE) and the sapping of natural resources needed for farming by urban sprawl, climate change and others.
Over the last quarter to half century, there has been more than a passing concern if there will be enough farming space to satisfy the food demands of the future.
Through the use of science and inventive technology, the future of agriculture and food production is finally looking up. When I say looking up, I literally mean, looking up. The answer just might be controlled environment agriculture or “vertical farming” to assist in solving potential future food shortages and as a means to re-invent the food industry as a whole.
What is Vertical Farming?
Vertical farming is the practice of growing crops vertically. The goal is to optimize plant growth, use soilless farming techniques, hydroponics and others to grow plants vertically in stacked layers, in controlled structures, to take advantage of space that is available upward. This is different from the traditional horizontal farms which are limited to arable land in areas where weather and terrain is suited for growing crops.
There are a number of choices to use as the locations for this technology such as buildings, old warehouses, shipping containers, tunnels, abandoned mine shafts, etc. They could also be utilized in low rise buildings, but a huge benefit of this technology is that it can be applied to be used in tall buildings. It takes the concept of the traditional greenhouse to new heights (no pun intended).
What are the Benefits and Impacts of Vertical Farming?
The benefits could provide solutions to many disruptive forces currently impacting agriculture, farming and food manufacturing. It could quite possibly be to the food industry what the electronic vehicle is to the automotive industry; a game changer. Vertical farming can impact a variety of areas and address a number of issues that include sustainability, agriculture and farming. Two critical industries or areas that can be transformed by this technology are food manufacturing and the supply chain. Let us take a look at a few examples.
This technology/industry is still evolving and growing (that pun was intended), so we still do not know what the total impact will be. We do know of some immediate benefits that can help the food manufacturing industry.
Ingredients Sourced Closer to Manufacturers and Consumers
One of the biggest disruptions that food manufacturers face in their processes of producing food is the availability of the ingredients needed for those products. There are a variety of issues, but one is that the agricultural crops are grown quite a distance from the processing plants where they are turned into processed food products. In addition, those facilities are typically not located near many of the markets where the finished products are ultimately purchased.
In today’s “I want it now, shop online, same-day delivery” mentality, those distances can mean wasted time and lost sales. Vertical farming takes up far less space than the traditional farm and with growing products upward in structures; these can be located in close proximity to the actual processing facility. It could open up possibilities for food manufacturers to actually source many of their own ingredients locally at the actual manufacturing facility. This would greatly cut the time it takes to deliver the raw materials, reduce costs and thus increase profits.
Reduced Overall Total Transportation Costs and Time
Expanding on the closeness of ingredient sourcing is the fact that producing products closer to the consumers will seriously improve delivery time, reduce the number of trucks needed for transport and reduce CO2 emissions. Less transit times and closer distances mean that products can be delivered with freshness goals maintained and less chances for quality and safety breaches because there can be less “touches” to the products and less lag time from manufacturing to delivery to the consumer.
Reduced Manufacturing Lead Times
Sourcing the ingredients closer to the production facility and potentially managed growing facilities by the manufacturers themselves allow for reduced manufacturing lead times. In addition, due to the technology used to grow these crops, they can be grown year-round and essentially eliminate seasonality.
Consistent Year-Round Production
One major problem food manufacturers face is that the availability of many of the ingredients and agricultural products needed are only available seasonally. Vertical farming essentially eliminates seasonality due to the ability to stagger growing cycles and grow most products year-round regardless of the geographical location of the facilities. This allows for more food to be produced in less time and the ability to consistently employ labor resources rather than having seasonal shifts and sporadic layoffs. This in itself has countless social benefits and a huge impact on manufacturing profits.
Improved Food Quality and Traceability
Food quality and safety is the first priority of any food manufacturer. Vertical farming allows for better quality food to be grown with the elimination of insect contamination, less need for pesticides and the ability for advanced technology food tracing processes to maintain traceability throughout the supply chain. Every movement of a product can be traced from seed right to the consumer with the use of today’s expanding technologies. Food safety, quality and compliance to both government and consumer food guidelines and regulations will now be easier than ever.
Is Vertical Farming the Next Revolution in the Food Industry?
Vertical farming has the potential to revolutionize the entire agriculture industry and food supply chain. From the where, when and how agriculture products are grown, to how they are processed and then ultimately delivered to consumers will be transformed with this technology. Food manufacturing businesses will be transformed.
There will be some growing pains along the way and almost every player in the industry and throughout the agriculture and food supply chain will need to adapt to changes, new processes and embrace a bit of a technical revolution to compete. The benefits, however, could be mind boggling, and the entire concept of farming and producing food could be altered forever. Manufacturers, transporters and logistic providers will need to adjust their processes and systems to be able to adapt to gathering data, as well as processing information and tangible products quicker than ever before. Again, this could be revolutionary. The sky’s the limit on the benefits this technology can deliver to the food industry and to the world.