Vertical farming: Why it is relevant for cities like Kathmandu and elsewhere

This article was originally published in Nepallivetoday on 20 December 2022 by Niyati Shrestha. Niyati Shrestha is a researcher at Samriddhi Foundation. Views expressed in this article are the author’s own, and do not reflect the views of the organization. She can be reached at [email protected]

Time and again, we have seen old pictures of Kathmandu Valley–a clean Bagmati river, large and open paddy fields, sparsely-built houses, and so on–as they surface all over the internet. Kathmandu today is very different from Kathmandu back then. Open fields have been used for housing settlements and other infrastructures, transforming them into a concrete jungle. If one were to consider the economic opportunities, the better prospect of health and education services, and the availability of amenities in the valley, this transformation of Kathmandu into the largest urban agglomeration seems nothing but natural.

For most part, this explains citizens from outside the valley coming in, looking for better opportunities and services. This has led to the requirement for more houses to accommodate the increasing population in the city which means there is very little land left for agricultural purposes. The consequence of increasing population is evident in the agricultural productivity of the valley. The land of Kathmandu, which was self-sufficient in producing cereal crops, especially rice, cannot even produce enough vegetables and other fruits to fulfill the demands of people living here.

As a result, Kathmandu today brings in food from neighboring districts and the ultimate consequence of all of this falls on our plate of food with increasing food prices. At present, the valley’s requirement of vegetables is fulfilled by surrounding districts like Nuwakot, Dhading, Kavre, Makawanpur among others apart from the imports from India and China. Food travels a long distance before landing into our plates and since our access to transportation is limited to road transportation, the price of our food is directly dependent on the cost of fuel and distance.

A report published by the World Food Programme has identified fuel price as one of the largest contributors to rising food prices. As a result of continuous increase in fuel prices, the consumer price index (CPI) of the food and beverage group had increased by 7.43 percent as of June, 2022. The same report has shown that almost 99 percent of traders in Bagmati province have experienced an increase in fuel price that has ultimately increased the prices of commodities in the city.

Why vertical farming?

Now, the traditional labor intensive farming system in land and water-scarce Kathmandu definitely cannot fulfill the growing demands of the densely populated Kathmandu. Thus, switching to a modern system and adopting innovative techniques of vertical farming might help in producing food locally and bringing down the soaring food prices in the city.

Vertical farming is a novel type of farming in a controlled environment, usually indoors, where solar radiation is replaced with artificial lighting. Crops are grown in an indoor setting with controlled temperature, light and humidity that eliminate an inevitable component of traditional farming which is soil, and even uses less water. No weather or other natural factors can stop food productions in such farms making it a promising alternative for traditional farming techniques.

Due to its economic, social and environmental benefits vertical farming can be the best sustainable approach to food production in general and particularly in urban cities.

Some methods under the vertical farming system are Hydroponics, Aeroponics and Aquaponics. Hydroponics is a system that uses water rich in nutrients as a growing medium for soilless crop production whereas Aeroponics is a replica of hydroponics in which plants’ roots are sprayed with nutrient-rich mist making it use even less water than hydroponics. Aquaponics, on other hand, is a system combined with hydroponics that creates mutually beneficial relationships among plants and fish by using fish tanks to fertilize the hydroponic production.

One of the benefits of vertical integration of plants is that farmers can maximize the total space usage of their farm area, making it possible for them to reduce their land use by up to 90-99 percent while increasing productivity at the same time. Vertical racks that are stacked on top of each other allow farmers to grow three to ten times more crops in the same amount of space as conventional farms depending on the precise design.

Also, hydroponics uses 90 percent less water whereas aeroponics uses even less water– 95 percent less compared to conventional farming systems where the same water can be processed and reused. Since the system can be installed on the rooftops of buildings and abandoned warehouses and uses very little water, this system is more relevant in urban setting like Kathmandu which has limited space and scarce water resources. Growing food locally will ultimately reduce the transportation cost of bringing food from farmlands to the consumer markets and this system in particular also reduces the water consumption cost and crop processing cost. Ultimately the food produced becomes very pocket friendly for consumers.

Some other benefits of vertical farming include its health and environmental benefits. Vertical indoor farming also gives security against harmful pests. Since crops are grown in a controlled environment, toxic pesticides can be reduced or completely eliminated. This allows consumers to get access to relatively healthier food instead of foods infused with harmful chemicals that have been linked to breast cancer in humans. It also completely eliminates the need for mechanical plough and other equipment that rely on fossil fuels and this eventually reduces air pollution and carbon emission in the atmosphere. Moreover, vertical urban farming allows for more urban activities including more people, services and amenities.

When lands otherwise used for farms are replaced by other infrastructures like hospitals or schools, it will help to reduce the longer commutes that will ultimately reduce fuel consumption by vehicles. All of this makes it an environmentally friendly alternative to conventional farming. Due to its economic, social and environmental benefits this can be the best sustainable approach to food production in general and particularly in urban cities.

A win-win for all

In Nepal there are companies like Hydroponics Nepal and Aero roots that are dedicated to producing organic agro-products in Kathmandu. However, these startups in the country may face some challenges as vertical farming does have some weaknesses. Since it is heavily reliant on modern technology, it comes with a very heavy start-up cost and highly skilled manpower is required for the precision monitoring of the plants. Failure of any components of the vertical farming system might lead to the early death of plants risking investors’ hard earned money.

So, the high start-up cost and risk of failure might discourage new start-up companies from entering into the market which is detrimental to consumers’ benefits. In such a case, the government’s minimal intervention might be of great help to such entrepreneurs.

The reduction in unnecessary import tax on equipment and hassle-free procedures for company registration are some ways the government can intervene which will encourage private investors more and even make a good use of barren lands. Their entry will aid in the optimization of our finite resources, create employment opportunities and consumers end up with relatively healthier and cheaper food all while keeping the environment safe which will ultimately create a win-win situation.