One of the biggest questions in the food supply chain is this: Will our global food system manage to satisfy the demand of more than 9 billion people by 2050?
This article is divided into three parts. First, we talk briefly about how the food supply chain works. Secondly, we explain the challenges facing the actual food system. And finally, we introduce vertical farming and show how it can help create a sustainable and more productive food supply chain.
The Food Supply Chain
The food supply chain is a complex network of coordinated processes, activities, and entities that move food from its first state as raw material to its final state as meals on our plates.
It all starts with the food producer, which is the farmer. This is where the raw form of food (fruits, vegetables, meat, etc.) is created before being shipped to processors. The next stage of the food supply chain transforms food supplies into final products that consumers want. Then there are distributors and retailers. Distributors are the entities that move food products from producers and processors through many distribution channels to food retailers and companies in the hospitality sector such as restaurants and hotels. And finally, every supply chain exists to provide products for consumers; they are the final entity in any food supply chain.
Challenges Facing the Food Supply Chain
Innovation and improvement in infrastructures and how products are processed and transported have made globalization more or less the norm for companies. Global distribution allows food businesses to purchase food products at the best costs, reach new markets, and access fresh products all year round. But, this globalization combined with a constantly growing world population, has made the international food supply chain more complex, and puts it under greater and greater pressure to meet food demand.
The pressure is caused by issues like climate change, scarcity of water, soil degradation, and waste in the food supply chain. These issues degrade our ability to supply food while growing populations and rising living standards generate increasing demand for food.
So the big challenge is to develop innovative, intelligent, and climate-resilient food supply chains that ensure our food security. Many new business models are already implementing circular initiatives and practices in their food supply chains to minimize waste and play their part in solving these challenges. One of these practices in fruit and vegetable production is called “vertical farming”.
Vertical Farming and How it Works
What is vertical farming, and how can it improve the food supply chain?
Traditional farming produces food on a single, large, level surface outdoors. Vertical farming is the practice of producing food vertically indoors in the form of stacked layers of food growing surfaces. The main goal of vertical farming is to maximize productivity all year round in a limited space.
The practice uses what is called Controlled Environment Agriculture (CEA) technology that controls temperature, humidity, CO2, light, nutrient concentration, and nutrient pH. CEA aims to maintain good growing conditions for food crops while optimizing resource utilization, especially the use of water and soil. A vertical farming design is shown in the screenshot below.
So, how can vertical farming be beneficial from a sustainability and productivity improvement perspective? Some important characteristics and benefits of vertical farming include:
- Energy saving LED lights provide lighting specific to each type of plant
- The use of soil-less methods like aeroponic, aquaponic, or hydroponic processes to deliver nutrients to plants
- The consumption of 95% less water by using closed-loop water systems
- Consumers no longer have to wait for seasonal produce that can now be grown year around
- No washing of the vegetables is required as vertical farming is dirt and pesticide-free
- Vertical farming is not affected by climatic weather patterns
- No inadvertent run-off of fertilizers, thus less groundwater contamination
Vertical farms can be located in almost any type of confined space, and they can grow food crops literally anywhere. These might be dedicated spaces or just shipping containers. Being close to consumers is easy this way, and means that time and distances traveled from sources in a traditional global supply chain would be decreased considerably.
Time and distance in business and logistics are drivers of costs. And distance is also directly related to carbon emissions and energy consumption. Vertical farming is a great way to reduce transportation and logistics costs and related carbon footprints. It can also help reduce food waste and fuel consumption, reduce the use of trucks, trains, and planes, and increase service levels and customer satisfaction.
Vertical farming requires less space and it can result in a huge increase in food production and increase flexibility since retailers and supermarkets can turn unused space into vertical farms. The result is good quality fresh vegetables and fruits that can be put on store shelves at the right time and in the right quantity with less cost and complexity. Also, since no tractors or farm machinery are required, this reduces hydrocarbon emissions.
Like every technology, vertical farming also has its downsides, especially in the fact that it is energy-intensive. But efforts are currently being put into reducing energy waste and improving energy efficiency, so a majority of experts agree that vertical farming has a great future.
As explained earlier, the traditional farm-to-fork supply chain will not be able to satisfy future demand without major improvements. The existing food supply chain cannot and should not be entirely replaced, but it can be improved and supplemented by sustainable practices and new models such as vertical farming.
We should also keep in mind that we can make a lot of progress by just eliminating waste. If we eliminate the 30% of food currently wasted in our existing food supply chains and make infrastructure adjustments to better distribute food to those in need, we can quickly deliver significant improvements. And this buys us time to make further improvements.