The trend toward indoor vertical farming holds promise for growing more vegetables per square foot safely, potentially without using insecticides or worrying about animals fouling the plants, as it’s easier to control temperature, humidity, and other conditions.
Vertical farms also offer year-round food produced locally and with higher yields because growing cycles can be shortened by controlling lighting and other conditions. Some experts even suggest they may one day help play at least a small role in relieving food shortages.
To Ed Harwood, PhD, chief scientific officer at vertical farming company AeroFarms, Newark, N.J., the air quality and pest control inherent in the method he developed and that is used by the company help to improve food safety.
“Food safety is much more easily accessible,” he says. “The processes are predictable and repeatable.” The company can control temperature, relative humidity, and lighting. He adds that since the growing cycle of the plants can be controlled to be 16-18 days compared to the typical 30-45 days in outdoor soil farming, the plants are harvested before the reproduction cycle of most pests is completed. The company also tests its plants and uses current Good Manufacturing Practices.
Marc W. van Iersel, PhD, professor of plant nutrition and physiology at the University of Georgia in Athens, says a well-trained workforce is key for food safety. “The biggest food safety issue is humans,” he adds.
Costs Still High
But others question how widely such gardening can spread given the current high costs of the energy for indoor LED lighting and air conditioning. Dr. Harwood says his company has developed a more efficient lighting process that cuts electricity costs to 40-50 percent of overall production costs. Other savings come from being able to grow about 37 times as many plants per square foot as traditional soil farming. AeroFarm grows its six different small, leafy plants in cloth in 12 layers of vertical trays topping 30 feet in height. Nutrients are sprayed on, and the plants are not touched by humans from planting through harvesting and packing.
About Lori Valigra
Lori Valigra writes about science, technology, and business for general and specialty news outlets in the U.S., Europe, and Asia, including coverage of the "farm to fork" movement and food safety. She’s been involved in several media startups, and had articles published by The Boston Globe, Reuters, Science magazine, and others. She holds an MS in science journalism from Boston University and a BS in medical writing from University of Pittsburgh. She won numerous journalism fellowships and awards, including the Knight Science Journalism Fellowship at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Lori enjoys bicycling, snowshoeing, gardening, and traveling. She lives in the western mountains of Maine. Reach her at email@example.com.