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Vertical farming : a future perspective or a mere conceptual idea? A Comprehensive Life Cycle Analysis on the environmental impact of a vertical farm compared to rural agriculture in the US

Wildeman, R. (2020) Vertical farming : a future perspective or a mere conceptual idea? A Comprehensive Life Cycle Analysis on the environmental impact of a vertical farm compared to rural agriculture in the US.

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Abstract:It is expected that the population of the earth will keep rising in the coming decades, surpassing 9 billion in 2050. This rise in population causes pressure on agricultural land and food production, as well as global warming and resource depletion. In order to mitigate all these problems, food production per unit area has to be maximized and be as efficient and non-polluting as possible. Revolutionary techniques such as technological advancements in rural agriculture, greenhouses and urban agriculture are being studied to find possible solutions to the major problems at hand. One of these techniques in urban agriculture is called Vertical Farming (VF) - the urban farming of eatable crops inside a building with an ideal climate regulated by (semi) closed loop systems – and is believed to be the perfect solution to both the agricultural food problems and the climate change and resource depletion problems. To test this theory, this study creates and analyzes a fictive vertical farm in the state of Oklahoma USA, based on the local climate characteristics and peer-reviewed sources on vertical farming systems. With the use of a Life Cycle Analysis (LCA), the environmental impacts of the lettuce production in this farm are calculated and the results are compared to the rural agriculture of the same crop (located in California USA). This study shows that most of the claims made on the technique of vertical farming are in fact true. A vertical farm has a higher yield than rural agriculture, with more than 80 times the yield of open field agriculture, due to multiple harvests a year and a higher plant density, has a lower water footprint, with 18 times less water used, due to the semi-closed loop water system, has a lower freshwater pollution rate, with a eutrophication reduction of 70-90%, due to minor use of excessive fertilizers and has a major decrease in transport distance and thus a decrease CO2 emissions during transport. However, due to the large electricity demand to keep all high-end systems running in a VF, the CO2 emissions of a vertical farm are actually higher than that of rural agriculture. In fact, this high electricity use causes a lot of spikes in the graphs of almost all impact category, especially in the Terrestrial Acidification and the Land Footprint. Contrary to many beliefs, stating that the Land Footprint is only linked to the surface area in relation to plant density ratio, the Vertical Farm actually has a massive Land Footprint, due to the fact that electricity production and other production steps in the LCA also require a lot of land use. The results demonstrate that a Vertical Farm, just like any other agriculture technique, has its positives and negatives. Even though, it can help solve problems such as large food shortages and minimal water use, it has negative impacts elsewhere, in this case on land footprint, acidification of the ground and climate change. This study highlights the whole framework of a vertical farm and its characteristics, the positives and negatives of vertical farming and the importance of analyzing every step in a life cycle of a product or system. The thesis concludes by addressing the possibility of more efficient crop lay-outs and sustainable systems as well as the vertical farm’s potential in other fields of study such as extreme climates and aerospace.
Item Type:Essay (Master)
Faculty:ET: Engineering Technology
Programme:Civil Engineering and Management MSc (60026)
Link to this item:http://purl.utwente.nl/essays/83529
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