Top 10 reasons why vertical farming is not eco friendly

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There’s been a lot of buzz around vertical farming lately. Its promise of year-round produce, reduced water usage, and the elimination of traditional farming’s land requirements certainly paint a picture of an environmentally friendly, sustainable future. But as we dig deeper, we uncover a more complex reality that challenges the rosy image of vertical farming. This article is here to pose an important question: why vertical farming is not eco friendly? Let’s explore the hidden environmental costs, uncover the technological dependencies, and question the sustainability of this modern agricultural revolution.

1. The Hidden Energy Consumption of Vertical Farms

It’s essential to recognize the veiled energy demands of vertical farming that are often overlooked in the optimistic narrative of this agricultural innovation. These hidden costs come to light when we delve into the operation of these farms, where everything from lighting to climate control calls for significant energy inputs.

Why LED Lights Aren’t as Green as You Think

The surprising amount of energy used by LED lights in vertical farms to stimulate plant growth.

LED lights, commonly known as a beacon of energy efficiency, show their less eco-friendly side when used extensively in vertical farms. Due to the indoor nature of these farms, natural sunlight isn’t always available. The primary solution? Rigging the interiors with LED lights that imitate the sun’s light spectrum. This artificial lighting, despite being efficient on a per-unit basis, adds up when applied on a large scale. The continuous need for light, especially for photosynthesis, demands that these LEDs remain operational for extended periods, consuming an alarming amount of energy that may outweigh the perceived environmental benefits.

Climate Control Conundrum

How maintaining the perfect temperature and humidity inside vertical farms demands constant energy.

Another unsuspected energy vampire in vertical farms is the climate control systems. Vertical farms pride themselves on creating the perfect environment for crops to flourish, no matter the weather outside. However, maintaining this Eden-like atmosphere indoors, with the right temperature and humidity, calls for a significant amount of energy. These climate control systems have to work round the clock to combat external weather fluctuations and ensure a stable internal environment, adding a substantial burden to the power grid and diluting the green image of vertical farming.

2. Water Usage Isn’t as Sustainable as Advertised

There’s more to the water story of vertical farming than meets the eye. While it’s often lauded for water efficiency, upon closer inspection, it’s clear that the system’s thirst is far from negligible.

Water Recycling Isn’t 100% Efficient

Why, despite recycling, vertical farms still consume a substantial amount of water.

Vertical farms use advanced hydroponic systems, which recycle water, giving them a seemingly water-efficient image. However, the truth is that no recycling system is 100% efficient. Some water is always lost during the process, and additional fresh water needs to be added continuously. Additionally, the cleaning and maintenance of these water recycling systems themselves require water, further adding to the overall consumption. This constant need for water supply places vertical farms in a less flattering light when viewed from an eco-friendly lens.

Hidden Water Costs of Power Generation

The immense water used indirectly through energy production for these farms.

When analyzing the water footprint of vertical farming, one must not overlook the water consumed indirectly through energy production. Every kilowatt-hour of electricity used in a vertical farm ties back to a certain amount of water used at the power plant. This ‘hidden’ water cost, combined with the actual water used in the vertical farms, can indeed make the water efficiency claim of vertical farming quite dubious. Hence, while the promise of ‘saving water’ may seem appealing, the reality is a tad more complex, making vertical farming less sustainable than portrayed.

3. Implication of Synthetic Growth Substrates

Let’s tackle another less-talked-about aspect of vertical farming, the reliance on synthetic growth substrates instead of natural soil. Though this practice aims to optimise growth conditions and efficiency, it also brings along some notable environmental concerns.

Soilless Farming – Friend or Foe?

How synthetic growing mediums may not be as eco-friendly as they seem.

While soilless farming seems like a neat, controlled way to grow crops, it primarily depends on synthetic growing mediums such as rockwool, coir, or peat moss. These mediums, while efficient, aren’t always as green as they appear. Manufacturing these synthetic substances requires a considerable amount of energy and often involves the emission of greenhouse gases. Additionally, these mediums are generally not a renewable resource and can contribute to resource depletion. Even more concerning is the fact that many of these materials are not biodegradable, contributing to the overall waste problem when they have served their purpose and are discarded.

The Downside of Disposable

The environmental cost of single-use, non-recyclable growing substrates.

Disposable substrates bring another level of environmental concern. Most of these substrates are single-use and non-recyclable. Once the crop cycle is finished, they become waste and contribute to the growing landfills. Unlike natural soil, which rejuvenates with each crop cycle, these synthetic substrates can’t be reused in the same way. Moreover, because these materials aren’t often recyclable, they contribute to long-term pollution as they linger in the environment, further complicating the ecological balance we’re striving to maintain.

4. Plastic Pollution Problem

Now, let’s shift our attention to another considerable challenge tied to vertical farming, the reliance on plastic materials. Plastic, as we’re all aware, poses a significant environmental problem, particularly when it comes to waste and pollution.

Plastic Predicament in the Plant Pots

The extensive use of plastic materials in the structure and operation of vertical farms.

From plant pots to trays and tubing, vertical farming uses a surprising amount of plastic in its operations. Each of these components, while efficient and durable, poses an environmental problem at the end of its lifecycle. These plastic elements don’t degrade naturally, and when they’re no longer usable, they contribute to our ever-increasing plastic waste issue. This extensive usage of plastic in vertical farms somewhat undermines the notion that this method of farming is an all-green alternative to traditional farming.

Single-Use Dilemma

The environmental implications of frequently discarded plastic equipment.

The problem exacerbates when we consider the frequency with which some of these plastic materials are discarded. Quite a few components in a vertical farm are single-use, designed to be used for one crop cycle and then thrown away. The resultant waste piles up quite quickly, particularly when you consider the scale of some of these vertical farming operations. Each discarded piece of plastic is a potential pollutant that could end up in our oceans or landfills, tarnishing the environmentally-friendly image that vertical farming strives to project.

5. Lack of Biodiversity in Vertical Farms

The debate around vertical farming wouldn’t be complete without discussing the biodiversity aspect. While the notion of growing fresh produce in towering skyscrapers seems fascinating, the focus on monoculture (single crop cultivation) in these setups could undermine the fundamental principles of biodiversity.

One Crop Wonder

Why vertical farms usually focus on single crop cultivation, leading to reduced biodiversity.

Vertical farming operations tend to focus on single crop cultivation, with the primary aim of maximising yield and profits. This farming strategy, while economically sound, isn’t particularly friendly towards biodiversity. When we focus on one type of crop, we unintentionally sideline hundreds of other potential varieties. This limitation means we’re essentially creating a genetic monoculture, which can have far-reaching implications on the ecosystem. The restricted genetic pool can make these crops more vulnerable to pests and diseases, necessitating more rigorous control measures that could be harmful to the environment.

Negative Impact on Local Ecosystems

How an absence of crop diversity can adversely affect surrounding ecosystems.

The lack of crop diversity in vertical farms doesn’t just affect the plants themselves, but also the surrounding ecosystems. Local insects, birds, and other animals depend on a diverse plant population for their survival. The absence of a wide variety of plants can disrupt food chains and disturb local wildlife populations. Thus, while these vertical farms might appear isolated from the natural environment due to their indoors setup, their choice of monoculture can ripple out and negatively affect the broader ecosystem.

6. Limited Crop Varieties

We now turn to the implications of limited crop varieties in vertical farming. The issue extends beyond biodiversity and enters the realms of dietary diversity and plant breeding implications.

Is Variety the Spice of Life?

The limitation of crop diversity in vertical farms and the subsequent impact on our diets.

As vertical farms often focus on high-yield, fast-growing crops like lettuce and herbs, our diet’s diversity could potentially be at stake. A diverse diet is crucial for maintaining health and wellbeing, supplying a range of different nutrients our bodies require. When the range of crops grown is limited, our access to diverse fresh produce could become restricted, potentially leading to nutrient deficiencies and other health issues. While vertical farms do a great job growing what they grow, we need to question whether they are growing enough of the right things for balanced, healthy diets.

Consequences for Plant Breeding

The potential harm to the development of diverse, resilient plant breeds.

The narrow focus on certain crops in vertical farming might also impact plant breeding adversely. Plant breeding involves developing new, resilient plant breeds, which requires genetic diversity as the raw material. If vertical farming only focuses on select crops, we might end up limiting the gene pool available for creating new, robust crop varieties. This constraint could hinder our ability to develop crops that can withstand changing climatic conditions, pests, and diseases, potentially jeopardizing food security in the long run.

7. Impacts of the Built Environment

Now let’s look at the impacts of the built environment required for vertical farming. Constructing these multi-story agricultural towers isn’t a simple task, nor is it entirely free from environmental repercussions.

Urban Farming or Urban Footprint?

The ecological footprint of constructing large vertical farming facilities.

In the zeal to make urban farming a reality, one critical aspect that often gets overlooked is the ecological footprint of the construction process itself. Erecting a vertical farm isn’t just about stacking up a bunch of planters. It involves building extensive structures, often in the heart of cities, that can sustain the needs of vertical farming. The energy and resources consumed during construction are significant and contribute to the overall environmental impact. The infrastructure needs constant maintenance and upgrades, consuming additional resources and adding to the ecological footprint.

Glass, Metal, Concrete – Oh My!

The environmental toll of the materials used to build vertical farms.

Building a vertical farm also involves extensive use of materials like glass, metal, and concrete. While these materials make for sturdy, long-lasting structures, their production isn’t exactly eco-friendly. The extraction, processing, and transportation of these construction materials all consume substantial amounts of energy and produce significant greenhouse gas emissions. When you think about the sheer amount of these materials used to construct vertical farms, the environmental toll starts to become apparent.

8. Unsustainable Labor Practices

Moving on from the materials and construction process, let’s turn our attention to the labor practices involved in vertical farming. While automation is becoming a prevalent feature of these operations, it does come with its own set of concerns.

Automation and its Discontents

The ecological implications of energy-consuming automation in vertical farming.

Automation, though a technological marvel that can significantly increase efficiency, comes with its environmental caveats. High-tech, automated systems that control irrigation, lighting, and temperature in vertical farms require a constant supply of energy to function. Despite the precision and productivity they offer, the energy consumption of these systems cannot be ignored. Over-reliance on automation in vertical farms may paradoxically end up inflating their carbon footprint.

The Hidden Cost of Cheap Labor

How reliance on low-paid work in vertical farms perpetuates unsustainable practices.

On the other hand, where human labor is still employed, it often falls into the category of low-paid work. This setup isn’t exactly a win for sustainability either. Low wages can lead to high employee turnover, meaning more resources are expended on recruitment and training. Furthermore, underpaid workers may be less inclined to follow environmentally friendly practices if these require extra time or effort. It’s a classic example of how social sustainability and environmental sustainability are closely interlinked, and how compromising on one can lead to problems in the other.

9. Overreliance on Technology

One of the key factors that differentiates vertical farming from traditional farming is its reliance on technology. While this has its advantages, it’s also worth considering the potential downsides of disconnecting agriculture from its natural roots.

Are We Forgetting Mother Nature?

The potential dangers of relying heavily on artificial growing conditions over natural processes.

Modern vertical farming is a marvel of human innovation, but it is predominantly based on artificial growing conditions. It largely bypasses the natural processes that have been fine-tuned over millennia of evolution. This shift, while appearing efficient, poses certain risks. By relying heavily on technology, we’re surrendering control to artificial systems that don’t necessarily emulate all the benefits of natural growth processes. These technological systems cannot fully replicate the complex interactions within soil ecosystems or the subtle influences of natural light and weather changes on plant development. In doing so, we risk losing the resilience inherent in natural farming systems.

Tech Breakdowns and the Environment

The eco-impact when technology in these farms fails, leading to wastage and overuse of resources.

Moreover, overreliance on technology comes with the constant threat of technical failures. Any breakdown in the carefully controlled conditions of a vertical farm can result in crop losses, leading to wasted resources and increased environmental impact. When systems fail, crops don’t just lose their growth momentum, they might even die off entirely. The water, energy, and other resources invested in these crops thus go to waste, amplifying the environmental cost of vertical farming.

10. The Problem of Transport and Distribution

While vertical farms might promise local production, the reality of distribution and transportation complicates this picture. Let’s delve into the hidden transport impacts of these futuristic farms.

Not as Local as You’d Think

The reality of food miles even in locally produced vertical farm produce.

Though vertical farms are often lauded for slashing ‘food miles’, the reality is somewhat more complicated. Even though vertical farms are typically located within urban areas, the distribution of their produce may still involve significant travel. These so-called ‘local’ veggies might traverse across town, and sometimes even across the country, to reach various retail outlets and consumers. This movement generates greenhouse gas emissions, undercutting some of the environmental benefits of growing food locally.

Cold Storage, Hot Issue

The environmental implications of maintaining a cold chain for fresh produce distribution.

Furthermore, the need to maintain a cold chain for fresh produce distribution adds to the environmental toll. Cold storage and refrigerated transport use significant energy and can contribute to greenhouse gas emissions. For vertical farms to provide fresh produce, it’s not enough to just grow the crops nearby. They need to ensure these greens remain fresh from the farm to your fork, and that process, unfortunately, has its own environmental impact. We need to be aware that while vertical farms may reduce the distance our food travels, they don’t eliminate the environmental implications of food distribution.


In conclusion, while vertical farming provides some substantial benefits such as the potential for urban agriculture and the reduction of water usage, we can’t overlook the downsides. The points discussed in this article illustrate why vertical farming is not eco friendly in many aspects. From energy consumption and water usage to plastic pollution and overreliance on technology, the true environmental cost of vertical farming is substantial. As we move towards more sustainable ways of living and feeding our growing global population, it’s crucial to critically assess all aspects of new technologies, not just the advantages. So, while vertical farming might be part of the solution, it isn’t a magic bullet. It has its role to play, but it must be one part of a broader, multifaceted approach to sustainable agriculture.

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