Vertical farming has taken cities by storm, enabling urbanites to grow produce within their own homes and entrepreneurs to meet the growing demand for fresher and higher quantities of locally-grown produce.
We often hear about vertical farms using water sustainably, 95% less than traditional open field harvesting, to provide superior tasting crops.
But, how is this soilless farming technique impacting human health?
#1: Harvesting On Demand At Peak Freshness
With the power to farm vertically within one’s own home, consumers can now harvest their crops only moments before consumption, resulting in a higher nutritional value, better-tasting greens, and significantly less food waste.
&ever’s Grow Box is a one-stop-shop system for leafy greens and can even be operated by untrained staff, according to &ever. The proprietary technology of the climate cell creates a steady microenvironment to allow plants to grow independently of weather, seasons, and pests, plus the use of “dryponics” helps keep the plants alive until the consumer is ready to harvest.
The key here is the freshness of the crops. Produce no longer has to travel miles and miles through countries or states to get to your kitchen table. This time saved in travel is also nutritional value preserved in the crops. Another benefit is that no artificial preservatives, like wax coatings, are needed to keep the produce consumer-ready.
#2: Growing Under Perfect Conditions
Vertical farms generally use hydroponics or aeroponics to grow their plants in nutrient-enriched water that can be carefully monitored through digital sensors. This degree of control over plant nutrient supply means that the fertilization strategies are designed to match the plant needs for all 14 essential plant nutrients throughout the growth period.
Control mechanisms are also utilized to balance temperature, humidity, and carbon dioxide levels in the grow facility and deliver the optimal combination of these factors for the specific crop or crops being grown. With climatic conditions playing no part in the crop’s success, growers have reliable year-round production of greater quantity and the highest quality.
In this sense, vertical farms are able to spend more time enhancing nutritional value and less time worrying about the success of their harvest. The SKY HIGH program led by Dr. Leo Marcelis of Wageningen University in the Netherlands, is one such program exploring factors that increase crop nutrients.
#3: Tailoring The Development Of Genetic Varieties
Vindara argues that the difference is in the seeds.
By designing seeds specifically for indoor vertical farms – “entirely through analytics, not gene-editing or GMOs” – this company claims to amplify crop yield, appearance, nutrition, and flavor.
Their seed-design system takes a data-driven approach to deliver any kind of genetic variety, tailored to each customer’s needs. According to Vindara, each property is individually editable.
Today’s seeds are still being bred for resistance to disease and pests, designed for long storage and transportation that isn’t as relevant for indoor vertical farming operations. This results in genetic tradeoffs that reduce nutritional value. Vindara removes these limitations that traditional seeds impose by delivering nutrient-dense seeds to growers.
#4: Growing Foods Adapted To Dietary Needs
Alongside fresh and flavorful food, there has been a growing demand and need for foods adapted to specific dietary needs.
Prime Delica, for example, has conducted research with Tamagawa University, CCS, and Signify to determine the optimal light recipe to increase the vitamin levels and nutritional value of lettuce. Dr. Céline Nicole from the Philips Lighting Research team has similarly studied the effects of the daily light integral (DLI) and light quality on the nitrate levels of arugula and spinach, alongside the vitamin C levels of arugula and tomatoes.
Through vertical farming, the Korea Institute of Science and Technology (KIST) has also successfully produced low potassium kale with increased glucosinolate content as a novel dietary option for renal dysfunction patients.
Growing foods with adapted dietary needs could thus make a world of difference in ensuring that we receive greater control over our diets, and allow us to design food-as-medicine alternatives to conventional produce.
#5: Food Safety
In using controlled growing environments, vertical farms are intrinsically free of harmful pesticides. Because of implementing biological controls, there is no need to contaminate crops with potentially toxic chemicals.
According to the CEA Food Safety Coalition, “traditional food safety risk profiles associated with conventional farming include examining the physical hazards and microbial hazards from water use, herbicide, and pesticide use, and impact from animals and animal byproducts. These do not impact CEA growers in the same way, if at all.” Even though the risk of contamination isn’t zero within CEA facilities (as seen in this recent news), CEA-grown produce has a reduced risk of such occurrences.
Compared to traditional field-grown crops, we find that the EPA regulates pesticides individually and not collectively, meaning that the pesticides can have a cumulative toxic loading effect on human health.
Studies have shown that pesticides most impact farmworkers and pesticide applicators with symptoms like nausea, abdominal cramps, diarrhea, dizziness, anxiety, and confusion. This long list of side effects tells us that pesticides are not to be taken lightly. As a result, it’s best to avoid them at all costs. Fortunately, vertical farms help us do precisely this.