Ask: How does vertical farming compare to organic?

Considering cost of production, environmental impact, plus the value of natural ecosystems, soil health and rural jobs, how does organic stack up against vertical farming? You asked and we answered.

Desihristova

I have been wondering about how organic farming compares to vertical farming in terms of environmental impact and cost of production?

An important question, since vertical farming is being positioned as some kind of solution to our food system woes. And it’s true it cuts out pesticides, has a tiny water footprint and can produce things like salad closer to city consumers taking the pressure off drought-stricken areas (and big veg producers) like southern Spain. But a recent report placed a rare spotlight on the slightly exaggerated sustainability claims of vertical farming. One of the report authors said vertical farms are often relying on vague claims when it comes to the environmental impact of their operations. This is perhaps due to the high stakes involved, another author said. When vertical farms cost anywhere upwards of £10 million to produce food at scale, and when environmentally-friendly food is of such high interest to consumers, these farms can’t afford to be perceived as anything other than completely sustainable. But they’re certainly gaining attention and funding – look out for our special report on vertical farming where we look into some of these pros and cons in more detail as part of our new series on Sustainable Cities, launching in February. Cost of production is also inevitably high, given the high costs of infrastructure and energy – probably why produce grown in vertical farms is usually sold at a premium to chefs at high end city restaurants. For example, energy use can be on average 100 times more than traditional agriculture, as these farms rely completely on artificial light.

When it comes to organic, the main difference here is that organic farms are at the centre of a thriving, mixed ecosystem, often harbouring up to 50 per cent more (if not more) wildlife than non organic farms due to not using harmful chemicals. Soils are fertile, supporting abundant microorganisms, and retaining good structure, which reduces flood risk and holds moisture, not to mention storing carbon. There is also growing research into the huge benefits of healthy soil, with an interesting correlation to a healthy gut. Then there’s the social aspect – a thriving organic farm, where more workers are required due to more jobs needed on weeding over chemicals, can be part of a thriving local economy, connecting people with their food and if coupled with a good route to customers, thriving livelihoods for farmers. There is a growing movement that suggests people should be central to any vision of a sustainable food future and green transition, so this is probably one of the most distinct differences between vertical and organic farming. It’s fair to say there is merit in producing more in the UK where we can, while saving space for nature is also a valid aim. But with the huge sums of money invested in vertical farming, at the moment the sector seems more interested in lining the pockets of shareholders than finding its own place in the sustainable food landscape.

Nina Pullman, editor, Wicked Leeks

Get in touch to submit your question on social media @wickedleeksmag, or by commenting on this article. We will consider and select one question per month and put it to our team. 

11 Comments

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  1. This is a really good and timely topic to tackle as it’s starting to get a lot of positive press without much critical thought. I’d love to know: where do the nutrients come from in vertical/hydroponic farming?

    Most articles mention reduced ‘chemical input’ in these systems, but they’re only refering to pesticide & fungicide. I suspect the vast majority of vertical farms are actually using large amounts of synthetic fertilisers (derived from fossil fuels), which are a lot cheaper than organic equivalents, more widely available, and crucially, more readily dissolve in water. Is that the case?

    I’d love to know if vertical farming can ever really work without synthetic fertilisers, even using aquaponics. Can large-scale aquaponics maintain constant equilibrium between fish outputs and plant outputs without synthetic supplements?

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    1. You’re absolutely right regenagrewild, I visited a vertical farm recently and they recounted the list of no pesticides, no herbicides, no insecticides, no fungicides, but conveniently left out synthetic fertilisers.

      And yes, conventional fertilisers are much more easily absorbed by the water and thus the plants, but require more frequent application.

      I’ve seen a small-scale aquaponics system in Ecuador work in harmony with tilapia production; using the organic manure-infused water as a fertiliser for the plants. However, I believe that large scale production can often result in high rate of casualties, unfortunately. It seems large scale monocultures, whether it’s in aquaculture or agriculture are always prone to disease and pests.

      If someone served you produce grown in a vertical farm, would you be happy to eat it?

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    2. The actual saving in fertiliser usage compared to conventional production is 95% – this is because the fertiliser is recirculated with the water.

      There is no reason why the fertliser used cannot be organic.

      As for energy usage, that depends on the power source – some vertical farms are using renewable power from solar and wind.

      Produce from vertical farms probably won’t appeal to Riverford’s customer base but for competitively priced mass market production it could be a much better option than highly intensive outdoor production.

      This video is worth a look –

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Os62653rbbc&t=359s

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  2. Interesting but a critical editorial note: if you’re going to write two lengthy paragraphs on a topic it’s a good idea to define your terms. Not everyone knows what “vertical farming” is and not everyone is patient enough to deduce or research outside your piece what it actually is.

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  3. As with so many things I sense that the agenda is being driven by big business, while being seen as a panacea for future food production by many people with little or no experience of food production. My sense is also that the gains in reduced land take will be cancelled out by the scale of inputs required, the impacts of producing those inputs, and the health repercussions of growing food hydroponically rather than in good healthy organic soil. There is resonance here with the idea of lab grown meat.

    Moving humanity further from nature rather than towards it just feels like an evolutionary dead end.

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    1. I have to agree, moving further away from the natural way that plants grow and thrive is not for me. I think we have proven that moving from natural farming and food production has got us where we are today. Look after nature and it will look after us.

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    2. Hi Christopher,

      You’re spot on with the lack of experience. In this report, 41% of founders surveyed have ZERO experience of farming before getting into vertical farming.

      It feels more than anything that it’s being mainly driven by economics and the potential to generate profit. I sit on the fence on this point, on the one hand, I feel like money makes the world go round and everything needs to have solid economic foudnations. But because food is (arguably) the most important industry on the planet, should it be left to the free market and what will make companies and individuals the most money?

      Jack

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  4. There is some element here of comparing cars and trucks – they are just very different: between and within systems. We have to consider the whole context certainly to include the inputs and outputs of each. But we don’t have to fall into trying to criticise the one system over the other. Sometimes there is more to gain from asking in each case how they can beat contribute to a sustainable food future. On my small farm a vertical farm enterprise is part of a whole farm system where land is managed more sustainably because of the vertical enterprise.

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    1. Hello to you at Lightfoot’s Farm,

      I would absolutely agree with you, they are very distinct ways of growing and each has its own trade-offs and suit different contexts. Arguably better to grow lettuces in central London without pesticides that would be imported from Spain or Morocco otherwise. It’s even better suited to desert-like places where they can’t really grow fresh produce and have to import it.

      Just had a quick look at your website, on top of microgreens, what do you grow?

      I don’t think the technology is the issue here, but rather who owns it. It may not be the case for you, but high capital costs mean that it lends itself to private companies and investors more than communities and farmers.

      I think there are real parallels with the gene-editing case: there’s no doubt that both technologies could be a real asset and allow us to farm more sustainably. But in the hands of companies with scale and profit on their minds, I think it will further entrench how we produce food, justifying our consumption of anything at anytime of the year.

      They want to use gene editing to help cure respiratory illnesses in pigs, but is this not an issue brought on by intensive conditions? In the same way, does vertical farming simply justify eating out of season? It seems like it’s another symptom-treating solution rather than addressing the root cause of our problematic food system.

      Jack

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    2. Hi Jack,

      We are planting nut and other trees and grow small amounts of field veg.

      I I think you have a good point about not always what the technology is called but who and how it is implemented often being more important.

      Regarding capital I think vertical farming can be far less expensive to establish given land prices and the equipment costs in field agriculture.

      Best,

      Pete

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    3. Hi Pete,

      It would be interesting to do the calculation.

      The vertical farm I went to see in central London costed about £180k for a 40 foot container which claimed to have an acre of vertical growing space.

      If 1 acre of productive land is £10k (to make life easier for ourselves), do you think vertical farming is 18 times more productive than field agriculture?

      (Admittedly a very rough calculation)

      Thanks, Jack

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