Vertical farming consists of growing vegetables indoors, on stacked shelves using artificial lights (LED technology), and controlling temperature and moisture to maximize plant growth.
Vertical farming is believed to respond to current global challenges such as growing population, resource scarcity (especially water), and supply chain security.
However, due to several shortcomings, vertical farming’s popularity is only growing in countries with the required technology and capital to invest in such structures (mainly North America, Asia, Europe, and the Middle East).
By Zo Hasina Mbolatiana Alison Raharinarivonirina, Graduate Student in International Public Management at Sciences Po Paris, in exchange at The George Washington University (ESIA), and Courtney Wheeler, MPH, Graduate Student in Sustainable Urban Planning, The George Washington University
The COVID-19 pandemic hit the world’s health, economic, and social system, as many people were pushed back into poverty. Cities hit the hardest by the virus account for 95 percent of positive cases. Currently, over half of the world’s population lives in urban areas, and by 2050, cities will be home to two-thirds of the global population, yet the urban food system, distribution, and retail were disrupted during the COVID-19 pandemic. With up to 70 percent of the global food supply intended for urban consumption, most countries experienced temporary shortages in basic foods regardless of the income level. These developments directly challenge the achievement of SDG 11, which focuses on cities being inclusive, safe, resilient, and sustainable. SDG target 11.5, which focuses on protecting the poor and people in vulnerable situations, has been particularly hard hit by the pandemic’s impacts, which exposed weaknesses in the food system.
Despite the general slowdown of the economic system and human activities, the pandemic changed the narrative for vertical farming, often considered too futuristic. Vertical farming consists of growing vegetables indoors, on stacked shelves using artificial lights (LED technology), and controlling temperature and moisture to maximize plant growth. There are undeniable advantages to this practice. It reduces water needs by 95 percent, the conditions of indoor settings allow for no use of pesticides, and it also reduces agricultural land use allowing agricultural growth without expansion, while making it possible to cultivate year-round independently of weather conditions.
One of the key benefits of vertical farming, highlighted during the pandemic, is shortening the supply chain. Vertical farming is believed to respond to current global challenges such as growing population, resource scarcity (especially water), and supply chain security. However, vertical farming still comes at the cost of negative environmental impacts and fails to address SDG 2 on Zero Hunger, and the inclusiveness and sustainability mentioned in SDG 11. This practice is more energy-intensive than other methods of food production which also makes it more dependent on electricity prices. There are also not enough crop varieties that can be grown economically (currently, vertical farming mainly grows leafy greens and herbs due to their rapid growth cycle), which poses a problem for building nutritious diets due to the small calorie density of the crops. Finally, due to major entry barriers –initial high financial investment, prior investment in research, and access to energy– it is not an accessible solution where it is most needed. Vertical farming’s popularity is only growing in countries with the required technology and capital to invest in such structures (mainly North America, Asia, Europe, and the Middle East).
Considering these shortcomings, other low-tech vertical farming options can boost urban farming more universally. In Africa, people found innovative solutions using locally available resources. The NGO Ideas for Uganda, for example, came up with “Vertical and Micro-gardening” to respond to the loss of arable lands caused by severe drought and erosion. Instead of high-cost advanced technologies, accessible resources like wood, water bottles, or worms are used. For example, farm units are made of wood, vermicomposting is used, and water bottles collect rainwater. The water is filtered by pipes, which allow for continuous and controlled irrigation. The results are efficient: a farmer can grow the equivalent of what would grow on three square meters on 1 square meter. Moreover, these techniques use 70 percent less water than standard farms. The accessibility of such practice can help African cities strengthen their resilience and urban food systems.
Food systems should benefit the population nutritionally, environmentally, financially, and socially. Therefore, cities must ensure an adequate and healthy food supply that can adapt to public health threats, climate change, population growth, economic crisis, and a host of other stressors that can disrupt the system. Moving forward, urban farming should play a more critical role in the global food system, and the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted its necessity. Investments in alternative farming methods such as vertical farming are needed as we continue to witness population growth, climate change, and emerging infectious diseases. When financing and promoting urban farming, low-tech innovations should not be overlooked. Practices developed in the Global South are accessible to a greater share of the global population due to the minimal inputs required. These practices can help shape urban agriculture and the food system in general.
 Resilient Cities Network. “Prioritizing Equity on the Path to a Resilient COVID-19 Recovery.” Accessed 10 December 2021. https://resilientcitiesnetwork.org/urban_resiliences/covid-recovery/
 FAO. “Make Cities Inclusive, Safe, Resilient and Sustainable.” p. 2. Accessed 10 December 2021 https://www.fao.org/sustainable-development-goals/goals/goal-11/en/
 FAO. 2020. “Cities and Local Governments at the Forefront in Building Inclusive and Resilient Food Systems.” Accessed 10 December 2021. https://www.fao.org/3/cb0407en/CB0407EN.pdf
 Ibid. p.7
 Vertical Farm Institute. “What Is Vertical Farming?” Accessed 10 December 2021. https://verticalfarminstitute.org/vertical-farming/
 Jenkins, A. 2018. “Food Security: Vertical Farming Sounds Fantastic Until You Consider Its Energy Use.” The Conversation. Accessed 10 December 2021. https://theconversation.com/food-security-vertical-farming-sounds-fantastic-until-you-consider-its-energy-use-102657
 Vertical Farming Planet. “Countries Using Vertical Farming.” Accessed December 10 2021. https://verticalfarmingplanet.com/countries-using-vertical-farming/
 Ndumi Ngumbi, E. 2017. “Africa Needs Its Own Version of the Vertical Farm to Feed Growing Cities.” The Conversation. Accessed 10 December 2021. https://theconversation.com/africa-needs-its-own-version-of-the-vertical-farm-to-feed-growing-cities-74929
 Capron, A. 2016. “Ugandans Try ‘Stack Farming’ as Arable Land Disappears.” The Observers France 24. Accessed 10 December 2021. https://observers.france24.com/en/20160803-arable-land-uganda-vertical-farm