by Dr William Stiles: Farming Connect Knowledge Exchange Hub, IBERS, Aberystwyth UniversityCoNTRoLLED environment agriculture (CEA), more commonly known as Vertical Farming, is the process of growing food or other agricultural products within factory-style situations, without the typical natural resources associated with plant production, such as soil and sunlight.
These resources are instead provided by innovative lighting and
nutrient delivery technologies. Vertical farming is most commonly associated with urban farm production systems. However, this style of production may also have the potential to benefit general agricultural production outside of urban situations. Using controlled environments, crops can be cultivated that may otherwise be unsuited to UK climates, reducing reliance on overseas supply chains.
There are three main systems utilised for CEA: hydroponics, aeroponics and aquaponics. All three are systems for the growth of vegetation using no soil, but instead nutrient rich water solutions, which plant roots access directly.
In hydroponic systems, the nutrient solution is pumped around reservoirs which the plant roots grow directly into, whereas in aeroponic systems, the plant roots grow free and a water and nutrient solution is sprayed directly onto them. This increases the degree of aeration of the roots, which can have favourable effects in terms of plant health and growth potential.
The third option (aquaponics) is a more complex system, which operates as a combination of aquaculture (fish farming) and hydroponics. Linking these two systems means that the plants can use the fish waste as a fertiliser, whilst the hydroponic system filters the water before returning it to the fish.
This can be an effective production system when crop/fish pairings requiring similar environmental conditions are chosen, as it reduces the cost burden for fertiliser and produces an additional crop in the form of fish.
CEA can also be paired with existing farm technologies in other ways to maximise production efficiency. For instance, the waste products from anaerobic digesters (heat and Co2¬) are essential components of CEA production. sharing resources in this way could help reduce energy inputs and increase profitability.
Global food production systems need to address significant challenges in the coming decades. Finding ways to feed a growing global population whilst reducing environmental impact from agricultural activities is of critical importance.
Vertical Farming allows for faster, more controlled production, irrespective of season. one acre of vertical farming can provide the produce equivalent to between 10-20 acres of conventional production.
This system offers a model to enable greater future food security, as production through such controlled systems is not vulnerable to variability of factors such as climate or pests and pathogens.
Vertical Farming is therefore regarded as a realistic future farming system, which may offer the stable model needed for future food production, to provide for the three billion increase in population predicted by 2050.