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Isn't It Time to Dig Vertical Farming

by Chris Bradford

Food Shortages on the Horizon

Half of the world’s population may face serious food shortages by 2100 reports the recent study “Historical Warnings of Future Food Insecurity with Unprecedented Seasonal Heat” issued by Stanford University’s Program on Food Security and the Environment. The study found that “rapidly warming climates may alter crop yields in the tropics and subtropics by the end of this century and, without adaptation, leave half of the world’s population facing serious food shortages.”

VertiCrop vertical farming trays.
The VertiCrop vertical farming system
may be 20 times more productive yet
use only five percent of the water of
conventional farming.

Photograph courtesy Valcent Products.

“This is a compelling reason for us to invest in adaptation,” says study co-author Rosmon Naylor, “because it is clear that this is the direction we are going in terms of temperature, and it will take decades to develop new food crop varieties that can better withstand a warmer climate. We are taking the worst of what we’ve seen historically and saying that in the future it is going to be a lot worse unless there is some kind of adaptation.”

In the coming decades, as agriculture faces the prospect of our changing climate and the challenge of feeding a global population that is growing annually at about 1.3 percent and projected to double its present level of 6.5 billion by 2063, we clearly need to invest in research and infrastructure solutions that provide food to regions vulnerable to food deficits. The world population is growing, food supply is shrinking, water supplies are becoming more limited, and food production is competing for land with housing and the production of fuel crops. Global balance between demand and supply of food is likewise sensitive to fuel demands and investment in research and infrastructure.  We have to make better use of available land.

The Vertical Farming Solution

Vertical farming offers a way to conduct large-scale agriculture using recycled resources and hydroponics. It is the practice of growing plants without soil in vertical environments, allowing for the production of fruit and vegetables in spaces outside of traditional farms. 

The agricultural approach is no longer a pie-in-the-sky concept. While the practice of vertical farming is still in its infancy, its future is truly green. We have entered a new era of urban agriculture where we can deliver locally grown crops that provide a nutritional product that may be healthier for the people and animals they serve than traditional farming.

Paignton Zoo curator of plants and
Paignton Zoo curator of plants and
gardens Kevin Frediani checks the
initial crop of lettuce.

Photograph courtesy Valcent Products.

At Valcent Products, for example, a vertical farming technology was developed at its El Paso, Texas, research facility and then further refined in Europe. The result is VertiCrop™, a commercial, high-density vertical growing system employed in a controlled environment such as a greenhouse, polytunnel, or warehouse. The approach increases production volume for field crops as much as 20 times over traditional horizontal farming, yet requires as little as five percent of the water supply. It is a non-genetically modified solution to food shortage problems, using trays on a looped dynamic conveyor belt and automatic feeding stations to grow plants efficiently. VertiCrop can be adapted to the needs of vegetable, herb, fruit, and flower producers.  And under proper management, the need for pesticides can be eliminated. 

Through VertiCrop, plants are grown in a vertical plane in specially designed trays suspended from an overhead track. This allows the trays to rotate on a closed-loop conveyor and pass through a feeding station that provides water and nutrients. An even airflow over the plants with equal exposure to light is achieved; water and nutrient run-off from the feeding station is captured and recycled, reducing consumption to as little as five percent of the uptake in conventional systems.

Success at the Paignton Zoo Environmental Park

The Paignton Zoo Environmental Park in Devon, England, sought a healthy, lower cost solution to feeding the park’s animals. Valcent Products made high-tech horticultural history with the installation and operation of VertiCrop, the first of a new generation of innovative plant growing systems that was officially launched September 30, 2009. The launch celebrated the successful continuous operation of the zoo’s vertical farming system for 60 days, validating both operating savings and yields.

Feeding elephant.
Feeding animals from onsite crop production
saves money while reducing energy used for
transporting tons of produce annually.

Photograph courtesy Valcent Products.

The VertiCrop sustainable hydroponics installation is the first of its kind in Europe and the first in a zoo or botanic garden anywhere in the world. Paignton Zoo curator of plants and gardens Kevin Frediani said, “Installing VertiCrop at Paignton Zoo means we can grow more plants in less room using less water and energy. It will help to reduce food miles and bring down our annual bill for animal feed, which currently exceeds £200,000 a year.”

Paignton Zoo plans to grow a range of herbs such as parsley and oregano, leaf vegetables like lettuce and spinach, and a range of fruits including cherry tomatoes and strawberries.

Reptiles, birds, and most of the mammal collection—including primates and big cats—will benefit from the production of year-round fresh food. The animals crunch their way through about 800 carrots a day and over $11,000 worth of fruit per month. Herbs are used as enrichment for many species. Environmental and economic savings are immediate.

VertiCrop trays with produce
Crops ranging from herbs to
vegetables and fruits to flowers
can be grown in vertical farming
setups such as this VertiCrop
installation in Devon, England.

Photograph courtesy Valcent Products.

Digging the Future

Vertical farming approaches such as VertiCrop are the latest in plant growing technology, with the potential to meet the needs of human populations (in addition to the animals of our zoos and wildlife parks) while reducing the pressure to clear natural habitats for crops. The technology could usher in a new era of urban horticulture. A zoo may seem like an unlikely location for a groundbreaking project, but zoo directors understood the benefits of promoting vertical farming technology to the public as well as to growers. As a botanical garden, Paignton Zoo is keen to educate people about all aspects of horticulture, particularly new, environmentally friendly implementations such as this.

Limitations on the availability of agricultural land, increasing food costs, concerns over food security and bioterrorism, and environmental challenges surrounding food transport and water consumption increasingly focus the public’s attention on the sources, horticulture, and nutritional value of crops. Vertical farming solutions can address these needs, especially for vulnerable populations where a reliable food supply is not available due to geographic, political, or economic circumstances. Isn’t it time to dig vertical farming?


Chris Bradford is CEO of Valcent Products and Valcent EU, based in Launceston, U.K., where he oversees the company's vertical farming initiatives. Prior to joining Valcent in 2007, he was a business development advisor for the U.K. government's Business Link. Immigrating to Canada in 1977, Chris worked at senior management level for three leading Canadian farm supply businesses, eventually setting up his own consulting business specializing in project management for start-up companies in North America. Bradford began his career with Bradford & Sons, where he managed the company's Crop Services Division, supplying agricultural and horticultural markets in southwest England.
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"Growing Skyscrapers: The Rise of Vertical Farms," Scientific American Article Preview

An Off-Grid Vertical Farm for Seattle, EcoGeek

Program on Food Security and the Environment, Stanford University

Valcent Products

The Vertical Farm Project

Vertical Farming: The 50 Best Inventions of 2009, Time Magazine

Vertical Farming, The Encyclopedia of Earth


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