You can grow strawberries in Rajasthan and lettuce in a land stained by nuclear residue.
You can harvest enough fresh produce to sell to 20 million people, in a farm of 30,000 sq ft spread over multiple storeys.
You can grow organic lettuces so tasty that they sell for thrice the price of field-grown lettuces.
You can prevent farmer suicides.
The time is ripe for tech-enabled vertical farming in India.
Vertical farming is not an entirely new concept. Concepts like hydroponics and aeroponics have existed for quite some time now. Hydroponics is basically the art and science of growing crops in nutrient-enriched water, doing away with the need for soil. The water is recycled and used over and over again. Aeroponics is a more advanced type of hydroponics where the nutrients are supplied to the plants through mist or water vapour. Vertical farming builds on these technologies to grow crops indoors, in urban areas, in multi-storey buildings. Several trays or tanks of crops can be grown, arranged next to each other or stacked vertically. The enriched water or mist provides the crop with all the required nutrients to grow well and grow fast to give excellent yields.
When you add technology to the vertical farming formula, it becomes possible to grow healthy and safe crops all year round in any part of the world, unmindful of the weather there. This is called controlled-environment farming (CEF). Basically, an indoor space is made ideal for a crop by controlling everything from lighting to humidity using technologies like light-emitting diode (LED) lighting, air-conditioning, smart control software, and so on.
Vertical farming is very relevant in today’s world, because more and more rural lands are getting engulfed by the cities. It is a pity that we often buy fruit and vegetables grown miles away, and pay through our noses for organic produce. Vertical farming can change all this! Take for example Green Sense, a tech-enabled vertical farm near Chicago. In a farm that spans 30,000 square feet, they can grow fresh produce that can be distributed within 100 miles to 20 million people.
Although India was one of the earliest pioneers of vertical farming (the 1950s book Hydroponics: The Bengal System remains a popular handbook on the subject!), it is sad that the full potential of vertical farming is yet to be discovered here. We can say that vertical farming was a technology that came before its time in India… but its time has come now! Not only is the need for vertical farming very deeply felt by urban dwellers today, the technologies that can make vertical farming more effective have also come of age.
CEF is predictable: Crops grown under such controlled environments produce high yields and quick turnaround. The crop is more or less predictable, reducing the risk of losses due to the vagaries of nature, which is one of the main reasons for farmer suicides in our country. Vagaries in natural conditions like temperature, water availability and photo-intensity affect crops badly. In controlled-environment faming, all this is under the farmer’s control.
Profitable: Although it initially seems like the cost is high, due to investment in building infrastructure, technology, ongoing consumption of electricity, and so on, some experts feel that it will be economical in the long run because vertical farming requires less labour and does away with investments like buying tractors, seed dispersers, sprinklers and other farming equipment. Moreover, the crop – and hence the returns – are predictable.
According to Aerofarms, the world’s largest indoor vertical farm, their aeroponic system is a closed loop system that uses 95 per cent less water than field farming, 40 per cent less than hydroponics and zero pesticides. By controlling the environment and supplying apt micro-nutrients to the crops, they claim that given the same seed, they can grow it in half the time as a traditional field farmer, and achieve 75 times more productivity per square foot than a commercial field farm.
Safe: Indoor farming is clean and hygienic. The sterile environment keeps pests away, and it also keeps unclean farming practices at bay. Dr. Despommier explains in a ThinkProgress report: “It’s a disturbing fact, but nonetheless true, that half the world can’t afford fertilisers and so they use human faeces. It’s the best way to transfer parasites from one person to the next. Of course, indoor farming wouldn’t allow that to happen. E. coli 0157, which is from animal sources, is another big threat. That’s from cow manure. Cow manure is a favourite for fertilisers. And if you’re spraying that on your plants, it’s very hard to get rid of. So it just makes sense to try to avoid these things before you’ve got them.”