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MPhil in Engineering for Sustainable Development

global challenges, engineering solutions

Studying at Cambridge

 

Caroline Still

The sustainability of vertical farming: Managing the uncertainties of a nascent industry

Agricultural innovation is being driven by detrimental climate change, the unsustainability of traditional agriculture and the urbanisation of growing populations. Vertical Farming (VF) – the indoor three-dimensional production of plants using Controlled Environment Agricultural methods – is one of many innovations that could help provide a sustainable food source to expanding urban areas. However, the complexity of the multi-disciplinary VF industry has led to numerous uncertainties, slowing industry progression. Therefore, this dissertation focused on investigating VF’s sustainability, identifying the main criteria of, and barriers to, investment and standardising the decision-making processes.

The qualitative research conducted – academic literature, semi-structured interviews and field work – indicated that the advantages VF has over traditional agriculture include significantly reduced resource requirements and increased system resiliency and yields. However, VF is bound by economics: its major costs have prevented it from scaling up and being effectively incorporated into urban environments. These market entry barriers are exacerbated by numerous uncertainties and the context specific nature of VFs, deterring the investment needed to fund explorative research.

Therefore, the qualitative research conducted was then used to develop a standardised decision-making model that mapped VF’s unknown variables and outlined the heuristics needed to determine preliminary feasibility. It was framed from the perspective of different hydroponic growing technologies to structure and distil the information efficiently.

The model showed that VF is highly context specific, with factors like market demand, capital funding and the costs of labour and electricity all strongly influencing the VF decision-making processes. Generally, financially constrained farmers in uncertain markets should use robust and established technologies like Nutrient Film Technique (NFT) or Ebb & Flow. Conversely, farmers with appropriate funding can pursue complex and less established technologies, such as Aeroponics (highest yield) or Aquaponics (mimics symbiosis of natural ecosystems).

This dissertation highlighted that – although VF has impressive sustainability potential – if industry barriers are to be overcome and VF is to be widely implemented, comparative research is needed. This dissertation acts as a first step in addressing this lack of standardisation by mapping the industry’s main drivers and modelling the system’s interdependencies. Only when collaborative research is embraced can VF begin to help urban environments become more self-sustaining (industrial ecology), mitigate environmental damage and meaningfully address food security.