Until recently, vertical farms were an exception in the market, but now this high-tech agricultural sector is rapidly gaining ground in urban centers of Asia, North America and Western Europe. However, their economic viability and agronomic interest, compared to field crops or greenhouses, are far from established. Why, then, do some investors choose to follow this path of innovation? What, exactly, are the technical solutions required to produce in confined buildings, without natural sunlight? And, does this business model have future prospects?
The French Centre for Studies and Strategic Foresight, part of the Ministry of Agriculture and Food General Secretariat, published an analysis on the market.
Urban agriculture is now promoted as a vector of sustainable food, quality of life and community engagement. Most often, though, it consists of small-scale home and leisure activities: shared neighborhood gardens, potted crops on balconies or green
rooftops, etc. These “initiatives” are confined to a niche by the lack of land and the intermittence of citizen involvement. The artificial
environment of the city, with its soil and air pollution, building shadows, and impermeable pavement, hinders any large-scale deployment of urban gardens. Thus, their contribution to the populations’ food supply seems doomed to remain marginal.
On the opposite side of the social and market spectrum is urban agriculture for industrial and production purposes, and more specifically on vertical farms. With advancements in LED lamps, robotics and information technology, multi-level indoor production units with reduced footprints are being created, dedicated to the intensive cultivation of plants and vegetables, mostly salads. Contrary to greenhouses, these high-tech farms do away with natural light and cut all dependance to their outside environment. This version of urban agriculture has strong ambitions: mass production of quality food products, at any time, under any climate, close to consumers, and without the use of pesticides, all at market prices.