In the last few months, as the COVID-19 pandemic swiftly circled the globe and lockdowns had us all at home most of the time, the one thing people everywhere were still going out for was to buy food. As the pandemic built, many areas of the world saw empty grocery store shelves and a rush on panic buying, making it nearly impossible for supply chains to keep up with the unprecedented spike in demand. In other areas, warehouses full of food sat undistributed. Seasonal migratory workers couldn’t get to the fields and fresh spring produce was left to rot, highlighting just how interconnected our food supply chain is on a global scale. As Tim Benton, research director in emerging risks at Chatham House think tank in London says pointendly, “Without the food supply, societies just totally break.”
While we continue to battle the immediate effects of COVID-19, keeping people fed and healthy is the number one priority. Here at Urban Health Farms, that priority has fueled our own commitment and passion that supporting indoor vertical farming has never been more important. We can now see with our own eyes how dangerous it is to rely only on traditional agriculture, which in turn relies heavily on manual labour and complicated supply webs to keep cities from becoming food deserts. The fact is, there are many countries around the world that rely heavily on imports for the majority of their food. This reliance leaves many at risk during times of turmoil, which is broader than even the most recent crisis, as weather patterns and a changing climate continue to put a strain on traditional agriculture.
Healthier food builds stronger immune systems, making the quality and quantity of the food we eat the number one preventative measure we can take to fight off illness. With this pandemic, even the most food secure communities are thinking about food access and how it relates to our long term health and security. If eating local products was once considered trendy, eating healthy with a reliable supply of local food is now considered vital.
In the past, the benefits of the localised production of food in vertical farms were highlighted because sustainability, flavour and nutrition all improve the shorter distance food travels. But now it is clear indoor vertical farms can make local communities self-sufficient and in charge of their own health and security. Eliminating urban food deserts and granting cities independence from the environmental, social or health conditions of the outside world will allow cities to be resilient to all manner of crises.
Local solutions to global problems
As other industries have been crushed in the first part of 2020, high-tech farming is growing and many high-profile investors and groups are taking notice, from Barclays Capital to IKEA to the World Wildlife Fund who are “trying to spark an indoor farming revolution.” In a post-COVID world, it is time to transform our outdated food system to one that is locally resilient. The consumer goods analysts at Barclays Capital believe that vertical farms could have a far-reaching impact on participants throughout the fresh food value chain.
Researchers are studying how our eating and food purchasing habits have changed due to the pandemic and resultant lockdowns. Early evidence suggests that people are adopting more sustainable behaviors and are increasingly buying locally produced food. Indoor vertical farming has always produced food in a high care environment, with very few people coming into contact with the products. In a postCOVID world, that feature will be more important than ever to consumers, who are now worried about how many people have touched their food on its way to the shelves.
Other important features in a post-COVID world inherent in vertically farmed produce include:
- Local. The production of safe and fresh food can still take place within lockdown zones and produce is not kept in warehouses or processing plants awaiting transportation.
- Automated. Labour shortages will not impact harvests and can supply fresh food with minimal to no direct physical contact between workers and produce.
- Controlled environment. Infection risks to workers and crops are significantly reduced.
- Modular options. Farms can be designed into shipping containers and can be transported to neighborhoods in need, like in lockdown zones.
- Reliable. Farms consistently produce high-yield and highquality harvests, regardless of external conditions.
- Affordable. Reduced labour costs and investment in renewable energy make produce from vertical farms accessible and affordable year round.
- No pesticides or herbicides. The absence of pesticides and heavy metals makes our produce pure and healthy.
- Sustainable production. A reduced supply distribution chain gets fresh produce to people faster, increasing the shelf life of fresh foods.
- Accountable. People know and trust where their food is coming from and what processes it has been through before it reaches them.
For those investing in foodtech and agtech innovations like indoor vertical farming, the ability of individual, local, tightly controlled farms that ensure food safety are an advantageous selling point for our goods. According to industry specialists, foodtech could provide the best opportunities to entrepreneurs and investors, with both commercial success and strong social impact. Joel Cuello, Professor of Biosystems Engineering at the University of Arizona agrees. “Going forward, especially in terms of the enormous COVID-19 disruptions in the fresh produce chain, vertical farming will continue growing”, he says. “It should be economically viable, but it shouldn’t just be a growth story, but also of sustainability and resilience.” The indoor vertical farming industry, with the aid of technological advances, will play a pivotal role in increasing food security and achieving environmental sustainability in the years to come.