As access to cultivatable land becomes increasingly constrained due to overpopulation and urbanization, new technologies are positioning indoor agriculture as a viable and sustainable way to produce food now and into the future. Indoor agriculture is a fitting solution to scale up food production in developed and developing countries alike and, considering input, promises to be the most productive agricultural system available to today’s farmers.
So what is indoor agriculture?
Indoor agriculture is marked by these characteristics: efficient use of vertical space, intensive production, and control of plant environment through precision application of nutrient solution and irrigation. Indoor farms are generally soilless systems that thrive in a highly controlled environment and thus perform very well indoors.
There are two types of soilless systems, hydroponics and a subtype of hydroponics, aeroponics that have been adapted and modified into vertical towers of layered growing. So let’s take a moment to define each of these systems.
Hydroponics is a soilless cultivation technique that feeds plants with a nutrient rich water solution. In a hydroponic system the roots of a plant will be supported by a medium such as sand, gravel, perlite, coarse vermiculite or rock wool.
Aeroponics is a version of hydroponics in which the plants roots are suspended and misted with a nutrient rich solution. Aeroponic systems are usually towers with growing pockets instead of stacked surfaces used in hydroponics.
There is a third system, called aquaponics that integrates the cultivation fish into a hydroponic setup. Due to the increased complexity of this system, this post will not cover aquaponics.
In 2013, Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport became the first airport to incorporate an urban garden into one of its terminals. The garden consists of 26 aeroponic towers that in total can support over 1,100 plants that are used in several of the airport’s restaurants. The airport claims that the addition of this intensive garden is an explicit commitment to its sustainability
Nuvege, or the English translation, Green Green Earth, is a vertical farm based in Kyoto Japan that has set itself apart from competing hydroponic farms by its proprietary lighting network. The Nuvege facility is a 30,000 square foot building but claims over 57,000 square feet of vertical growing surface by stacking hydroponics.
It can be argued that indoor agriculture is highly productive, conservative of water, and protective of the environment due to its ability to trade gross application of inputs for precision management. But there are tradeoffs, of course, in the adoption of such an intensive production system. Let’s take a look at some of the pros and cons of indoor agriculture.
- Soilless systems have the potential to intensively produce food
- Year round indoor production is unaffected by seasonal limits and crops are protected from extreme elements
- Indoor farms can repurpose vacant buildings
- Produce will not be lost to uncontrollable variables and may encourage farmers to commit to intensive schedules, creating new and bolstering existing economic exchanges
- The claims to sustainability that indoor farming can make are linked to what does not have to be applied to plants or enter the environment. Because there is little risk of disease or competition with weeds, pesticides are not applied and fertilizer is applied only in precise quantities
- Elimination of large farm equipment such as tractors significantly reduces the use of fossil fuels to provide energy needs.
- Soilless techniques are neither effected by or contribute to deforestation or soil erosion
- An indoor system can easily be linked to renewable sources of energy such as solar energy or make use of excess heat exhaust from nearby buildings
- Workers who manage and harvest produce are not exposed to hazards of extreme weather or long hours spent in bent over positions while harvesting. Indoor agriculture has the potential to provide high quality jobs
- Right now the most viable crops to grow in indoor soilless systems, herbs and microgreens, will not be able to meaningfully contribute to anyone’s caloric needs
- Intensive indoor systems require expertise in plant science, agriculture, and engineering
- The amount of capital required upfront to produce a vertical farming system may be cost prohibitive
- Because indoor controlled environments depend on artificial lighting, a large volume of energy is required to power lighting and other environmental controls
- Because of the high degree of automation associated with vertical farming, the system as a whole can be threatened by failure to irrigation or lighting components
Here are some additional sources about indoor agriculture: