Why are farmers slowly switching to vertical farming to address the increasing global hunger?
According to the United Nations, the current world population of 7.3 billion is expected to reach 8.5 billion by 2030 and 9.7 billion by 2050. And more humans, means more mouths to feed. But the problem is while the population continues its exponential trajectory, the agricultural lands either remain the same or are dwindling due to rapid urbanization. To feed the world by 2050, the FAO estimates that food production will have to increase by 70% from 2007 levels. In other words worldwide cereal production would need to increase from 2.1 billion tons to 3 billion by 2050. Since the reducing arable lands won’t be able to sustain us, farmers are moving to vertical farming.
Thomas Malthus, an 18th-century economist, proposed that human population increases geometrically, while food production increases only arithmetically. Vertically farming is growing crops indoors, stacked layer after layer, using UV lights in a climate-controlled building. It is a better alternative to cultivating food outside, on lands, that costs excessive water requirement. Vertical farming minimizes water use and maximize productivity by growing crops “hydroponically” in small amounts of nutrient-rich water. Moreover, vertical farming yields more crops per square meter than traditional farming or greenhouses do. In gist, this can be an answer to countering the concerns of food production, reducing arable land and global hunger.
Today, artificial intelligence technologies help farmers in yielding healthier crops, controlling pests, monitoring soil and temperature conditions via IoT sensors, organizing data for farmers, and optimizing a vast array of agriculture-related activities in the entire food supply chain. In vertical farming, artificial intelligence will also have profound implications for the higher yield and better efficiency.
For instance, San Francisco-based agtech startup Plenty is redefining farming via vertical farming. By employing artificial intelligence and robotics, this startup company is continually improving the quality of growth of the goods all the while using 95% less water and 99% less land. It achieves this through Controlled Environment Agriculture technology that relies on AI to controls the variables temperature, humidity, and gases. AI also continually optimizes itself by self-learning how to grow faster, bigger, better crops. Plenty use robots to grab large hanging racks of growing vegetables and moves them where they’re needed.
Meanwhile, LED panels serve as the sunlight, which means that food is grown 24/7 inside the vertical farms, and water lost by transpiration is recaptured and reused to avoid any wastage. Artificial intelligence also helps regulate combination of blue, red; and white light to ensure optimum growth of plants in the artificial environment.
Overall, the flagship Plenty farm is so successful that it produces 400 times more food per acre than a flat farm.
There are other vertical farming start-ups that use both concepts of artificial intelligence and automation. iFarm’s Growtune tech platform allows growers to leverage technologies like computer vision, machine learning, and huge volumes of data.
In vertical farms that use aeroponics instead of hydroponics, artificial intelligence comes handy again. In aeroponics crop plants are exposed to soil water for 99.98% of the time, but for the remaining 0.02% of the time, it is exposed to a solution (water + plant decompose) that is rich in micronutrients and minerals. This completely eliminates mechanical resistance, adds to the fertility of the plant and at the same time decreases the water and nutrient requirement of the plant by 40% and 30% respectively.
While, vertical farming is answer to land constraint, water wastage faced in agriculture today, there are concerns about it being less energy efficient. This is mainly due to LED lighting and climate control technologies used at vertical farms. An article published in Independent states that if lettuces are grown in traditionally heated greenhouses in the UK, it will require an estimated 250kWh of energy a year for every square meter of growing area. In comparison, lettuces grown in a purpose built vertical farm need an estimated 3,500kWh a year for each square meter of growing area.
Artificial intelligence has solution for this too. Through AI based IoT sensors, farmers can monitor and control the treatment of plants in vertical farms and get information via AI models on how to improve the system dramatically in the future, in terms of growth, quantity and quality. Through climatization control softwares, artificial intelligence helps in smart monitoring of CO2 emissions, enables flatter distribution of energy across any given day and fewer peaks and more. These help vertical farming startups like Vertical Future and &ever be 60% and 40% more energy efficient respectively, than their counterparts.