A new study has outlined the potential of soil-free, computer-controlled farms as climate change and soil erosion limit our ability to grow crops. This research describes the growing environmental and economic case for vertical farming methods which could see crops grown in previously unfarmable environments.
Part of a rapidly growing sector, vertical farming is set to grow by 21 per cent by 2025 according to recent forecasts1. With many environmental benefits including better use of space because vertical farms can be sited in urban locations, such as disused tunnels or unsuitable brownfield urban areas, fewer food miles, isolation from pathogens, reduction in soil degradation and nutrient and water recapturing and recycling. Vertical farms also help product consistency, price stabilisation, and cultivation at latitudes incompatible with certain crops such as the desert or arctic.
The interdisciplinary study combining biology and engineering identifies future research areas needed to increase the sustainable growth of vertical farming using precision agriculture, including aeroponic cultivation methods which uses nutrient-enriched aerosols in place of soil that are applied directly to the roots. This method is believed to resolve many of the physiological constraints that occur using hydroponic systems, such as improved aeration around the roots, meaning yields of up to 70 per cent greater can be achieved. However, the systems need extensive farm infrastructure and control technology.
Bethany Eldridge, a researcher at the University of Bristol studying root-environment interactions and lead author of the study, explains: “Given that 80 per cent of agricultural land worldwide is reported to have moderate or severe erosion, the ability to grow crops in a soil-free system with minimal fertilisers and pesticides is advantageous because it provides an opportunity to grow crops in areas facing soil erosion or other environmental issues such as algal blooms in local water bodies that may have been driven by traditional, soil-based, agriculture.”
Paper: ‘Getting to the roots of aeroponic indoor farming’ by Bethany M. Eldridge, Lillian R. Manzoni, Calum A. Graham, Billy Rodgers, Jack R. Farmer and Antony N. Dodd. in New Phytologist.
- The industry is set to grow annually by 21 per cent by 2025 according to one commercial forecast (Grand View Research, 2019).