SQU students grow fruits, vegetables in vertical farming

Muscat: While the paucity of space is resulting in high-rises springing up across the world, another concept is gaining acceptance for an entirely different reason. Vertical farming or growing crops within skyscrapers or vertical and inclined surfaces is becoming popular, thanks to shortage of water resources or the rise in soil/water salinity. Students of the Department of Crop Sciences, College of Agricultural & Marine Sciences at Sultan Qaboos University (SQU) have successfully grown lettuce, strawberries and few other low stature vegetable crops using vertical farming methods.
The latest crop production technology helps grow crops in homes as well as gardening on an industrial scale. Dr M Mumtaz Khan, Associate Professor in the Department of Crop Sciences, said that vertical farming is a way of growing various food crops, largely horticultural crops, within skyscrapers, abandoned warehouses, shipping containers, and vertical/ inclined surfaces.
While vertical farming started gaining attention in the beginning of the 20th century, the modern concept of vertical farming is achieved through controlled environmental conditions. However, the prime concern is to ensure the production is economically and environmentally sustainable. According to Dr Khan, the increase in global population and shrinking of land mass around the planet has forced stakeholders to think quite seriously on the issue of increasing global food supply with less area available. “The idea is produce higher yields on a per unit available area.” Vertical farming requires specialised architecture such as small and large structures equipped with controlled environment, hydroponic facilities (a method of growing plants without soil) and efficient recycling of unused nutrient-rich water.
Greenhouse gardening technology systems developed and paved the way forward for the modern concept of vertical farming. This type of farming is acclaimed by communities and entrepreneurs throughout the developed and economically advanced countries.
Vertical farming protects crops from weather calamities. Crops being grown outdoors in traditional rural areas often suffer from perils like temperature, rainfall, hail, storms, floods, forest fires and severe drought, etc. In vertical farming, crops are protected from extreme climatic conditions. It saves fossil fuels used in agricultural machinery. Less fossil fuel burning reduces global warming due to lower greenhouse gas emissions.
In a controlled environment, there are fewer pests and disease invasion and they are easy to control. It is useful for producing chemical-free food products through minimal use of insecticides or fungicides.
The extinction of useful insects or small animals due to extensive chemical use in open fields is lessened in protected agriculture.
In vertical farming, food production is increased significantly without disturbing the ecological system. It can also generate employment in urban areas and guarantee uninterrupted supply of food to urban societies.
Dr Khan further said there is criticism about such production systems. It needs more energy for heating/cooling and lighting of the production systems, which will increase the cost of production and consequently the product cost.
The system installation and skyrocketing prices of real estate in urban areas will make it a more expensive enterprise, which ultimately increases the cost of production. In vertical farming, a continuous supply of water is required.
However, Dr Khan concluded the future prospects of vertical farming look promising particularly in the wake of ever-growing population.
It is estimated the percentage of urban population will increase from 50.46 per cent in 2010 to 68.70 per cent in 2050.
It is expected that world population will continue to increase. World population growth and the need for food security, a healthy ecology and climate, human health and nutrition and other similar factors make vertical farming technology a valuable future farming technology.