January 3, 2023

Sustainable agriculture: is vertical farming the answer?

Sustainable farming isn't just about maximising profits; it also focuses on the thoughtful and effective use of non-renewable resources throughout the farming process. By prioritising sustainability, farmers can produce nutritious, healthy food while improving their own standard of living and reducing their impacts on climate change. ‍

Written by
Andrew Lloyd
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Sustainable agriculture: is vertical farming the answer?

As the world population continues to grow, the need for sustainable food systems has become more pressing than ever. Sustainable agriculture aims to strike a balance between economic viability, environmental responsibility, and public health. In this blog, we will explore the benefits of sustainable farming and the potential future of sustainable production systems.

What is sustainable farming?

Sustainable farming, or more broadly sustainable agriculture, involves farming practices that consider the ecological cycles, the relationships between microorganisms, and the environment. This approach promotes methods and practices that are not only economically viable but environmentally responsible whilst protecting public health.

Sustainable farming isn't just about maximising profits; it also focuses on the thoughtful and effective use of non-renewable resources throughout the farming process. By prioritising sustainability, farmers can produce nutritious, healthy food while improving their own standard of living and reducing their impacts on climate change.

What do sustainable agriculture practices include?

A sustainable farming system has many different agricultural practices. It's a system that advocates for the social and economic equity of the future generations of farmers, including fair treatment of workers, fair and just treatment of all races, access to healthy food for everyone, and prioritisation of people and communities over corporate interests. By undertaking sustainable farming methods and working with nature instead of working against it, farms can maintain high levels of productivity and profitability without causing negative environmental impacts.

In general, sustainable food systems include:

  • Creating resilience to extreme weather
  • Increased biodiversity
  • Reduce soil degradation and replenish soil fertility
  • Reducing water and air pollution
  • Sustainable water management

Why is sustainable food production important?

By utilising sustainable practices, we can stop or even reverse environmental degradation that leads to issues such as disease, hunger, displacement, and conflict. Ensuring the long-term health and productivity of farmland and safeguarding natural resources such as fresh water and clean air helps to guarantee the global food system and the well-being of both rural and urban communities.

What's the problem with traditional farming?

Our food undergoes multiple stages of production, storage, processing, packaging, transportation, preparation, and serving. Each step contributes to the release of a large number of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Agriculture, in particular, emits significant amounts of methane and nitrous oxide, making up 10% of the EU's total greenhouse-gas emissions in 2012.1

Traditional farming practices have a big environmental impact because of a variety of factors, including land usage, heavy application of pesticides and chemical fertilisers, animal waste, long supply chains, and crop production. Farmland is a limited resource, and there are concerns about the potential impact on the environment of the land area for food, including deforestation and ecosystem destruction.

Despite this, a better future is possible. The EU reduced its agricultural emissions by 24% between 1990 and 2012 by decreasing livestock numbers, improving fertiliser application efficiency, and enhancing manure management. Unfortunately, agriculture in the rest of the world is heading in the opposite direction. Global emissions from crop and livestock production grew by 14% between 2001 and 2011.1

So, what actions can be taken to address the issue of unsustainable agriculture?

What are the best sustainable farming practices?

Sustainable agriculture can be achieved through the following practices, which are most effective when used in combination:

Managing entire systems and landscapes

Sustainable agriculture can help to manage entire systems and landscapes by treating uncultivated or less intensively cultivated areas as integral to the farm. Natural vegetation alongside streams or strips of prairie plants can control soil erosion, reduce nutrient runoff, and support biodiversity.

Incorporating crop rotation and plant diversity

Planting a variety of crops can enhance soil health and improve pest control, including inter-cropping and multi-year crop rotation.

Making use of cover crops and perennials

Planting cover crops like clover or rye during off-seasons and using perennial crops to maintain soil coverage year-round can protect and nourish soil, minimise weed growth, and reduce the need for fertilisers and herbicides.

Introducing agroforestry practices

Incorporating natural forest ecosystems such as trees and shrubs into farming areas can offer additional income from fruit or nut crops whilst also protecting soil, crops, and animals from the elements.

Livestock and crop integration

The integration of crops and livestock can improve the soil and enhance plant growth by making use of the abundant manure for fertilisers and reducing transportation costs, increasing efficiency and profitability.

Reduced or no-tillage

Traditional tilling practices can cause soil loss, but no-till or reduced-till methods can decrease erosion and promote soil health.

Vertical farming

Vertical farming involves growing crops like leafy greens and herbs indoors, where they are stacked vertically in layers rather than grown horizontally in the ground like traditional farming practices. This innovative approach to food production makes use of advanced technologies such as LED lighting, closed-loop water recycling, and precise climate control to maximise crop production.

How sustainable is vertical farming?

When it comes to its environmental impact, vertical farming offers many advantages over traditional farming. This method uses less land and employs innovative crop production techniques all of which contribute to lower greenhouse gas emissions.  

Vertical farming also eliminates the need for harmful pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides.  

What is the best sustainable food system?

There is no one best option for sustainable agriculture. Agricultural systems that are diverse and complex, much like nature itself, tend to be the most sustainable and productive.

It's clear that agriculture needs to develop in order to ensure sustainable production in the future. The great news is that we have readily available solutions, such as vertical farming, ready to be integrated into our current food systems.

Vertical farming isn't designed to replace traditional farmers or existing agricultural technologies like greenhouses. Instead, it's meant to complement them, bringing out the best of each approach. Our philosophy at IGS is to work with people where they are now. By collaborating with traditional farming methods, vertical farming can contribute to creating a more sustainable future for production.

Who is IGS?

IGS's vertical farming technology takes controlled environment agriculture (CEA) to the next level with total controlled environment agriculture (TCEA). While glasshouses and low-tech indoor systems are also categorised as CEA, they lack full control over the growing environment, resulting in unpredictable and inconsistent yields. TCEA technology, however, eliminates all external factors to create a predictable and repeatable microclimate.

Vertical farming in an IGS Growth Tower allows for the cultivation of preferred crops in desired volumes all year round. The clean, bio-secure environment ensures that no harsh chemicals such as pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides are used, which increases productivity and profitability for farmers of all sizes.

Sustainable agriculture is crucial for the future of our planet and its inhabitants. The agricultural system that is most sustainable and productive will be one that integrates a range of practices, including crop rotation, agroforestry, livestock integration, and vertical farming.

Vertical farming has the potential to revolutionize the way we grow and distribute food. With its innovative techniques and controlled environments, it offers a sustainable alternative to traditional farming. While it's not a one-size-fits-all solution, it can complement existing farming technologies to make food production more sustainable. As we continue to look for ways to address the challenges of climate change and food insecurity, vertical farming could be a critical piece of the puzzle.

Want to understand how vertical farming can work for your business? Watch our webinar "The future of vertical farming" or get in touch today.

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