Vertical farming technologies allow for collecting the humidity produced by plants. With recirculating and recycling techniques, hydroponic and aquaponic systems can reuse 98% of water, which makes vertical farms feasible in deserts.

Vertical Farming: Turning Deserts into Fresh Food Hubs

Dmytro Lennyi | Intellias

Deserts and arid lands are commonly perceived as worthless. Because of this image of the world’s drylands, agricultural investments and development initiatives pass these regions by. Moreover, with the new NASA food challenge, it seems like AgriTech enthusiasts would rather attempt to cultivate plants in space than in desert environments on their native planet.

Taking up 41% of our planet’s landmass, arid zones have always been seen as marginal for agriculture. But thanks to technological advancements, they can produce fresh food and compete on the global market. How? By adopting next-generation technologies like vertical farming.


How vertical farming enables agriculture in deserts  

The most fascinating thing about vertical farming technology is that it brings food production to regions with no arable land. Crops grow indoors, stacked in layers under LED lights. Most vertical farms rely on hydroponic, aeroponic, or aquaponic methods, as they don’t require soil. Anything “hydro” and “aqua” may seem inappropriate for arid lands, but these methods are extremely water efficient. 

And here’s what thrills me a lot: While most barren lands suffer from aridity, agriculturally developed regions waste tons of water. Even though modern smart irrigation systems do help reduce water use on traditional farms, water is still lost because of wind and evaporation. On the contrary, vertical farming technologies allow for collecting the humidity produced by plants. With recirculating and recycling techniques, hydroponic and aquaponic systems can reuse 98% of water, which makes vertical farms feasible in deserts.



Vertical farms ensure plants have exactly what they need

The ultimate goal of vertical farming technology is to get the highest possible yield by precisely meeting plants’ needs. One can believe me or not, but it works like magic. 

After the vertical farming facility is built and all equipment is installed, a complex network of IoT and analog sensors comes to life. They measure gases and nutrients, humidity, light, and temperature inside and outside the farm. Additionally, the monitoring system takes photos and videos of plant growth. Then, all this data is transferred to secure cloud storage via edge gateways.

This provides a huge volume of raw data that can be integrated into AI-based software and analytics platforms. Built-in machine learning algorithms can match plant images against a huge database and learn to recognize plant types as well as deviations in their growth. The analytical algorithms can process plants’ growth data and correlate it with microclimate measurements to find the perfect combination of environmental factors for particular crops.

The final flourish is data visualization. User-friendly dashboards present calculations, analytics, and prediction results in meaningful histograms and neat reports. Having vertical farming software installed on any device, owners can get real-time insights into farm health and make data-driven decisions. 

Basically, a vertical farm is a premium luxury ultra-all-inclusive spa resort for plants. 


The vertical farming market has huge potential

An ever-changing climate along with the depletion of soil nutrients and groundwater have accelerated the adoption of vertical farming technology. The coronavirus pandemic has also contributed. The risk of supply chain disruptions has underscored the need to locate vertical farms near distribution routes and intended markets.

With many drivers igniting the industry, the global vertical farming market will reach USD 11.71 billion by 2027, growing at a CAGR of 20.1% according to Emergen Research. But we’re only at the advent of vertical farming in terms of technology. Innovative advancements are expected to reduce costs and improve the efficiency of plant growth in vertical farms, giving us high hopes for the future.  


Desert reality: vertical farming or nothing

Some skeptics may consider vertical farming advantages controversial. But with temperatures reaching +40 degrees Celsius (over 100 degrees Fahrenheit), just a few days of rain a year, and barren sands, deserts don’t seem like suitable places for any other agricultural practices. In addition, climate change promises to make these lands even drier, hotter, and less valuable. Being land-agnostic and capable of conserving water, vertical farming is a reasonable option for arid lands. This ingenious method of producing food in deserts might be a springboard to economic development of arid regions


Boosts the local economy 

Local economies have attracted a lot of attention recently. And guess what I consider to be a remarkable contribution to developing local economies? Right, vertical farms near desert cities. The more often and the faster a dollar circulates in a region, the more income it creates. Studies also show that the most prosperous communities gain and sustain their wealth because they have the highest percentage of jobs in local businesses. Such communities still engage in global trade, but they import only things they can’t supply themselves.


Reinforces food security

The coronavirus pandemic has spotlighted local food production, making it more of a necessity than a luxury. Countries that heavily rely on food imports are now striving to achieve food security and resilience more than ever. And the risk of food supply chain disruptions is less imminent with several vertical farms near megalopolises. Because indoor environments are independent of outside weather conditions, vertical farms ensure reliable harvests to meet delivery schedules and supply contracts.


Decreases prices for fresh food

Besides ending dependence on imported food, vertical farming in close proximity to cities lowers the cost of products. Since food prices are linked to oil prices, delivery distance is an influential factor in food costs. The shorter the distance food travels, the less it costs. Additionally, local produce is fresher, as it isn’t stored in fridges for long during delivery. On top of that, vertically farmed crops are healthier than field-grown crops and are naturally flavorful, as strict biosecurity procedures in indoor farms eliminate plant diseases and the need for pesticides. 


Creates new jobs

Among other vertical farming advantages are the job opportunities the technology provides. Yes, an indoor farm doesn’t require much manual labor due to automated growing systems and robotics. Nevertheless, it creates a lot of new jobs in farm construction and management, plant cultivation, technology development and support, distribution control, and personnel management. 


Uses energy sustainably

Although a 30-story vertical farm needs 26 million kWh of electricity, it can generate 56 million kWh through biogas digesters and solar panels. The excess energy can be transferred back to the grid and bring additional income.

Given the technical opportunities, market potential, and benefits for communities, I struggle to find a rational explanation as to why large desert areas still lie unused. Fortunately, some early adopters have already recognized the potential of arid lands. 


The challengers who have already succeeded

However challenging the idea of growing crops in hostile climates may seem, some daring companies are already leveraging high-tech techniques of vertical agriculture and running successful businesses, boosting food production in their countries. 

The Al-Badia market garden farm is among these pioneers. The daily harvest of the Middle East’s first commercial vertical farm is two hundred boxes of greens, including radishes, kale, mustard, basil, and arugula. The multi-story setup is on an 800-square-meter plot of land in one of Dubai’s main industrial areas. Al-Badia serves nearly 70 local caterers and restaurants, providing fresh and pesticide-free products that wouldn’t be available otherwise. 

The driest state in the USA, Nevada, has become home to a 20,000-square-meter hydroponic vertical farm built by Oasis Biotech. Besides catering to the needs of the Las Vegas restaurant industry, the company has created its first consumer-facing brand, which is currently sold through a local distributor. While most US produce travels between 1,500 and 2,500 miles before reaching the consumer, Oasis Biotech ensures its goods are delivered within an average of four miles and go from harvest to plate within 36 hours. 

In Australia — a country that is 53% deserts and drylands by landmass —vertical farming technology is also being adopted. Stacked Farm’s two locations (200 and 4000 square meters) focus on salad greens, leafy vegetables, and livestock feed. But what’s more exciting about these farms is that they’re fully automated, from planting the seeds to harvesting and packaging the produce. Nevertheless, Stacked Farm doesn’t intend to take work away from farmers but rather to support farming communities that are suffering through drought or during off seasons. 


Deserts are no longer deadlands

Vertical farming technology is certainly a game changer for regions with severely hot climates. Once a dryland gets a vertical farm, it stops being a deadland and becomes an advanced hub of fresh food. Vertical farming pioneers will be remembered as the kick-starters of thriving desert economies. The first to build a vertical farm in a desert will most likely be the first to start getting profits from desert farming and eventually become a frontrunner in the industry.

The content & opinions in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of AgriTechTomorrow

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