Is Vertical Farming an Economically Viable Solution to Feeding Our Growing Planet?
By Hannah Weiss, student in SEE-U NYC: Agro-eco and Food Systems
Vertical farming, similar to indoor farming, is commonly understood as the practice of growing food indoors by controlling all elements of its development. The only difference between vertical farming and indoor farming? Scale. Vertical farms are stacked and multi-story, typically occupying entire skyscrapers, whereas indoor farms can inhabit everything from shipping crates to large greenhouses.
This difference is essential because it means that food can potentially be produced inside city walls, ensuring that cities begin the process of becoming self-reliable and thus more sustainable. If cities are growing food inside their walls, they are less reliant on the global and nation systems that provide their food (eliminating food miles and reducing traffic in the city limits). Spoilage and food waste would be reduced because food would be sold immediately post-harvest, and less water would be wasted because vertical farms would recycle water from human waste disposal plants inside the city. These are only a few of the environmental and social benefits that vertical farms seek to provide city residents; in addition, vertical farms would eliminate agricultural runoff that harms biodiversity in our oceans, eliminate weather and climate change related crop failures, convert farmland back to nature in rural areas (restoring ecosystems), and control vermin by using restaurant waste to generate methane.
Despite these many benefits, only a few successful vertical farms have been built. Why?
The initial price tag on building vertical farms is expensive, and the cost of maintaining them afterwards only adds to the cost. The basic cost estimation for building a vertical farm is as follows:
- Sub-structure and electro-chromic glass shell – $25,000,000
- 1000 ton Geothermal HVAC – $2,500,000
- 400 ton chiller + cooling tower – $500,000
- Biogas to fuel cell cogeneration facility – $11,000,000
- 800 kWh/day tracking photovoltaic array – $500,000
- 4,500 kW water-cooled lighting system – $2,000,000
- Energy infrastructure and automation systems – $35,000,000
- Living machine-based water recycling system – $500,000
- Floating garden hydroponic system – $1,700,000
- Office and laboratory facilities – $5,000,000
In total, the cost for building a vertical farm adds up to around $83.7 million.
In addition, operating and maintaining the vertical farm may cost up to $20 million dollars each year. Many believe these farms to be worthy investments, but for an individual or group to gain enough capital to build and maintain a single farm makes it difficult for them to be built.
Many economic factors have also hindered the growth of vertical farms, primarily that many farmers close to city limits may lose their jobs to vertical farms (Dickson Despommier, author of Vertical Farming: Feeding the World in the 21st Century, argues that farmers would move to the cities, where they could knowledgably take advantage of the vertical farming system to grow crops year-round), and that the vertical farms would use approximately $6,834,917 of energy per year, depending on their size and which crops are being grown.
All of these economic factors are important to take into account when thinking of whether or not it is feasible to establish and maintain vertical farms in cities, but it is also important to think about the true cost: the cost that is not shown on the price tag of building and maintaining them. If vertical farms are truly our pathway to a sustainable future (saving the oceans and air from pollution, increasing biodiversity by allowing rural land to return to its natural state, reducing food waste and feeding a growing urban population), then an $100 million price tag seems reasonable.
 Despommier, Dickson., 2011. The Vertical Farm: Feeding the World in the 21st Century, second ed. St. Martin’s Press, New York.
 Banerjee, Chirantan, Adenaeuer, Lucie, 2014. Up, Up and Away! The Economics of Vertical Farming. Journal of Agricultural Studies. 2, 1-21.