How Vertical Farming Can Save Water
Many might know Earth as "the blue planet." If you see it from space, it's obvious why — scientists estimate over 70 percent of the Earth is water. However, only 3 percent of that is usable by humans and it's not just sitting there for the taking. People have to go looking for it in icecaps and under the ground.
Global water shortages will continue to worsen as the population increases. A study conducted by the United Nations in 2022 states an estimated 2.3 billion people lack usable water. So how can people cut back on water usage globally?
Water and Agriculture
One of the best places to start is the agricultural industry. Farms consume 70 percent of usable water worldwide to produce crops. Of course, therein lies a different kind of problem. Asking farms to cut back on water usage means less food — something else humans need to survive.
The solution is to develop new methods of farming that produce the same or a greater amount of food with less impact on the environment. These include using solar and wind energy to reduce farms' carbon footprint. However, there is a new way of farming that is revolutionizing the agriculture sector and making a significant impact on the water shortage problem.
The Advantages of Vertical Farms
Vertical farming is a relatively recent development that’s becoming more common in the 21st century. It solves two of the most common problems in agriculture: the need for space and water consumption.
Instead of the vast fields and land needed to grow crops traditionally, vertical farming uses the indoors to grow crops on walls, shelves and vertical mounts. This makes it far more economical when it comes to space — you can set up a vertical farm in any building large enough. Unused buildings such as warehouses and factories can convert into vertical farms to produce food in the city.
Vertical farms are also unaffected by the weather, which means you can grow crops in any season and environment. Dubai built the world's largest vertical farm in 2022, code-named ECO1. The facility is 30,000 square meters and can produce over 900 tons of food.
Vertical Farming vs. Traditional Farming
With all this talk about hydrosystems and technology, it might be hard to see how vertical farming uses less water than traditional farming. Vertical farming has many distinct advantages over conventional farming regarding water consumption.
Traditional farming wastes water because of evaporation. An estimated 40 percent of the water goes back into the air rather than being absorbed by the plants. A vertical farm reduces that number to almost zero because all the growing is done indoors, independent of environmental changes.
Easier To Recycle Water
In addition, water is much easier to recycle in a vertical farm facility. Water that plants don't absorb does not evaporate — it cycles back into the system to be used again. Vertical farms also promote the concept of water reuse, which is one of the only sustainable uses of fresh water.
Soil-Less Method Is More Efficient
It might be hard to picture, but the lack of soil can benefit plants. Along with evaporation, much of the water used in traditional farming absorbs into the ground. Because of this, plants have to struggle to find nutrient-rich water throughout the soil. In a vertical farm, the nutrient-rich water is fed directly to the roots, meaning plants don't have to waste energy and are free to grow as strong as they like.
How Much Water Do Vertical Farms Consume?
Vertical agriculture's real value lies in its water consumption. Researchers estimate vertical farms can use up to 99 percent less water than traditional farms depending on what system they use. There are three kinds of water systems currently in vertical farms.
Hydroponics is the most commonly used growing system. It develops plants in nutrient-rich solutions instead of soil. The plant's roots are submerged in this nutrient solution allowing it to grow the same way it would naturally. This nutrient solution circulates to maintain its chemical balance.
Aquaponics is an offshoot of hydroponics. On top of a hydroponic system, aquaponics uses the natural waste and bacteria produced from fish instead of a chemical solution to feed plants. Water from the fish tank cycles into the plants' tank, where the plants will purify the water of waste and bacteria. The remaining water is then cycled back into the fish tank. This system allows farms to cultivate both plants and fish.
This system was the brainchild of NASA in the 1990s. NASA was interested in developing a way to grow plants in environments where soil and water were scarce, such as in space or another planet. Aeroponic systems use no soil and 90 percent less water than hydroponics.
An aeroponic system allows the roots of plants to hang freely while farmers periodically spray them with a mist of water-based chemical solutions. The mist solution will enable plants to absorb nutrients and oxygen more quickly than plants grown in soil or through hydroponics. The results are healthier plants grown with less water consumption.
How Vertical Farming Helps the Water Crisis
Vertical farm technology is still improving, as there’s always room for better methods to grow sustainable and water-efficient food. As this technology becomes more widespread, humans get closer to solving one of the most significant challenges in the modern world.