by Joel L. Cuello, Ph.D.

The observance of Earth Day 2016 is a propitious occasion to reflect on the rising profile and potential of the Vertical Farming industry as a coalesing force of innovation that could very well contribute significantly to meeting the grand challenge of feeding the planet’s 9.5 bilion people by the middle of the century.

The Vertical Farming industry is at the threshold of what promises to be its exponential growth phase, riding the rising tide of AgTech which since 2014 has quiety yet decisively supplanted CleanTech as the world’s preeminent green-technology investment sector.

Indeed the Vertical Farming industry is poised to take off, thanks to the confluence through the last 35 years of key enabling innovative technologies and stategies — including the controlled-environment, electric-lit crop production systems independently demonstrated by NASA and the Soviet Space Agency beginnig in the late 1970s; the large-scale vertically-stacked, LED-lit and semi-automated crop production systems in warehouses (a.k.a. plant factories) developed in Japan beginning in the 1980s; Dickson Despommier’s creative concept of skyscraper Vertical Farms in 2008; plus the continuing improvements in pertinent enabling technologies, including those for crop lighting, crop nutrition management, electronic monitoring and control, robotics, etc.

This article brings into focus a set of twin strategies that are designed to help the Vertical Farming indusry attain sector sustainability — economic, social and environmental — during the next five to 10 years.

1) Applying the SANE Test for Economic and Social Sustainability of Vertical Farms

Each Vertical Farming enterprise must satisfy the SANE Test to achieve economic and social sustainability:

  • S – Safety of Fresh Food
  • A – Access to Fresh Food
  • N – Neighborhood Building and Strengthening
  • E – Equity Generation and Growth

S – Safety of Fresh Food. A major factor that has been enabling Vertical Farm enterprises to make rapid and successful inroads into China’s numerous big cities is the series of high-profile food contamination cases that have scandalized China’s citizens in recent years, fueling the demand in cities all over China not only for fresh produce, but also for scalable crop production systems that are demonstrably safe. Vertical farming operations must continuously maintain and preserve their ability to satisfy the all-importaint demand for safety and quality of fresh produce.

A – Access to Fresh Food. Vertical farms in and around cities should not only collapse the distance that fresh crops travel from the farm to the dinner table — which in the United States is typically from 1,500 miles to within 100 miles — but should also help make possible the elimination of myriads of food deserts, defined as urban areas in which it is difficult to buy affordable, nutritious and good-quality fresh crops owing to the lack of grocery stores, farmers’ markets and healthy food providers. Vertical farms should improve access to fresh crops in urban areas in terms of both geographic access and economic access.

N – Neighborhood Building and Strengthening. Vertical farms should foster community building and strengthening by encouraging community participation and involvement in its production operations, promoting food and environmental education among the community’s residents and students, etc. Each Vertical Farm should not only become an integral part of its community, but each Vertical Farm should deliberatley make the community it belongs in an integrated ecosystem unto itself — economically, socially and environmentally.

E – Equity Generation and Growth. Certainly not the least important, Vertical Fams must generate and grow financial equity to its owners, investors, employees and the whole community.

2) Implementing Cuello’s Law (Analog of Moore’s Law) to Improve Resource Productivity of Vertical Farms

Moore’s Law is the observation that the number of transistors in a dense integrated circuit doubles approximately every two years. More than a mere observation, Moore’s Law also became a projected goal for the semiconductor industry that led to the design of ever more powerful integrated circuits that have made today’s electronic and internet technologies possible and ubiquitous.

There is a crucial need for an analog of Moore’s Law applied to the Vertical Farming industry to help propel the industry into achieving further significant improvements in its resource productivity.

With the prodigious pressure on the planet to double crop production by 2050 to meet the enormous food demand of 9.5 billion people then — when today almost half of the planet’s land area is already being used for agriculture, two-thirds of the Earth’s available fresh water is already being used for food production, and as much as 30 percent of the world’s energy expenditure is devoted to agriculture and the food supply chain — producing food with less land, less water, less nutrients, less energy and greater yield has become a pressing global imperative. Fortunately, the ultimate potential of Vertical Farms is that they can produce fresh crops with less land, less water, less nutrients, less energy and greater yields.

With myself taking responsibility for enacting the analog of Moore’s Law as applied to Vertical Farms, I hereby ratify Cuello’s Law as the projected goal that crop productivity with respect to resource use in a tech-dense indoor farm (including Vertical Farm) should double every four to five years.

This means that at least every half a decade in the next 10 years, tech-dense Vertical Farms should achieve a doubling of crop productivity per unit land area, per drop of water, per pound of nutrients and/or per kiloWatt of energy.

Certain Vertical Farms are already attaining impressive resource productivity levels. Mirai Company in Japan, for instance, is reportedly producing 10,000 heads of lettuce per day over an area of 25,000 ft2 with 99 percent less water and 40 percent less power than outdoor fields. A doubling of its current resource productivity level must be possible to be successfully engineered within the next half decade.

Cuello’s Law simply articulates the great need of which most in the Vertical Farming industry are already keenly aware. Cuello’s Law aims to serve as a unifying clarion call and a challenge to the Vertical Farming industry to further innovate and help meet this century’s massive food demand while securing resource sustainability.

The potential for the nascent Vertical Farming industry to attain robust sector sustainability globally in the next five to ten years has never looked stronger.


Dr. Joel L. Cuello is a Professor of Biosystems Engineering at The University of Arizona. He is currently working on a book on Vertical Farming scheduled for release in 2017.

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