May 14, 2020Is indoor farming a solution? UF/IFAS scientists explain
At one time, the concept of vegetables growing inside a temperature-controlled facility where LED lights and advanced technology set the pace for year-round harvesting, promoted photosynthesis and water use efficiency, and required no pesticides, was considered a scene from the future.
Today, the concept of indoor vertical farming is increasingly becoming a reality. As an industry in early stages, experts indicate that the market has seen more start-ups fail than succeed. Nonetheless, proponents of indoor vertical farming continue to tout it as a food production method with multiple added environmental and social benefits which drives technology in favor of its existence.
In the latest EDIS publication entitled “Indoor Vertical Farming Systems for Food Security and Resource Sustainability,” UF/IFAS scientists give consumers an inside look at the current status of the industry globally.
“The publication explains what we have learned so far about indoor vertical farming, the different techniques and innovations available, as well as the benefits, limitations, and challenges with this young industry,” said Jiangxiao Qiu, Assistant Professor of landscape ecology at UF/IFAS Fort Lauderdale Research and Education Center. “As we seek ways to curb food insecurity and advance sustainability, we also look at the current state of the methods for their economic, environmental and social viability.”
Indoor vertical farming is the practice of producing food on vertically inclined surfaces. Instead of farming vegetables on a single level, such as in a field or a greenhouse, this method produces vegetables in vertical layers inside structures including skyscrapers, shipping containers, repurposed warehouses just to name a few. The method relies on artificially controlling temperature, light, humidity, and nutrients to promote the growth of food, and uses much less space. Examples of production methods include hydroponics, aeroponics, aquaponics, vegetable towers, modular container systems, and cubic production systems.
“The primary goal of indoor vertical farming is to maximize crop output of healthy organic food in a limited space such as an urban environment, while promoting water and nutrient use efficiencies, eliminating chemicals, and ultimately reducing energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions through reducing reliance on external food transports,” he said. “One of its goals is to enhance the connection of local food production to consumption.”
The other side of the message for indoor vertical farming systems is that in urban food production, it can be an important piece of the puzzle to finding solutions for global food insecurity and environmental challenges like climate change and sea-level rise, notes Qiu.
“The methods can serve to promote sustainability and community resilience in the face of situations like COVID-19, hurricanes, and environmental crisis,” he adds.
Now that consumers have experienced first-hand the vulnerability of a supply chain when confronted by natural and man-made disasters like hurricanes and COVID-19, Jiangxiao noted, consumers are starting to ask about the potentials of this method. Meanwhile, UF/IFAS Extension office statewide report an increase in consumer requests for information, webinars, and videos on how to set up indoor gardens.
Contributing scientists to the publication provide some insight on the constraints and challenges that vertical indoor farming currently experience. For example, production methods limit the range of crops suitable for growing in vertical indoor farms. Those crops include lettuce, tomato, strawberries, peppers and microgreens. Staple crops, such as corn, soybean, and rice, at least with the current technology, are not ideal for indoor production at present. Costs related to start-up along with a lack of pervasive incentive or policy initiatives, and technical training for workforce development that can facilitate the adoption of vertical indoor farming at the large scale are also barriers to promoting success in the industry.
However, for residents interested in learning about vertical indoor farming, a series of Sustainable Urban Agriculture Workshops is in the works for August at the Fort Lauderdale Research and Education Center. The program, now in its second year, is organized by Qiu, in partnership with UF/IFAS Extensions in Broward and Collier counties. The series covers a variety of sustainable practices through informational and hands-on training on how to establish indoor farming on a small-scale. More information will be forthcoming in the next few weeks as executive orders continue to lift facility lockdowns throughout the state.
Meanwhile, the publication cites environmental and social benefits. For example, indoor farming serves as an enterprise that can create jobs, it can also create a sense of community by providing a variety of urban environments with local places to obtain healthy food.
“This reduces the social inequality among communities targeting food desserts. Having a farm in an urban center revives some of the less developed and neglected neighbors by transforming abandoned warehouses, buildings and vacant lots into a source of food production and while creating jobs and revenues,” added Qiu. “Ultimately, if the industry gains momentum it will eventually create jobs in sectors of engineering, biotechnology construction and research and development.”