Jordi Casamitjana, the author of the book “Ethical Vegan”, investigates whether Veganic Vertical Farming could be the best way to produce vegan crops without the wildlife deaths associated with them.
It still bothers me.
Although I grow some vegetables in my yard in the veganic way, and only buy organic produce now —as it uses fewer pesticides designed to kill sentient beings — it still bothers me that I cannot eliminate completely animal deaths occurring during the farming of some of the food I eat. I have often written about it. In 2022, I wrote an article titled “The Vegan Problem of Crop Deaths” in the Plant-Powered Planet Magazine. Toward the end, I wrote this:
“In the same way any vegan had decided becoming vegetarian was not enough (better, but not enough), ethical vegans still consuming plant-based food grown in non-veganic ways should not assume they “have arrived” to where they should morally be. They still need to get more veganised. They just happen to be further along in the veganisation process than a vegetarian or a dietary vegan, but they still need to progress more.
Knowing that, despite being ethical vegans, we are still contributing to animal exploitation and deaths, is not an excuse to stop being vegan and forget the whole thing, as vegan-deniers want us to do. But it should tell us we still have some way to go — personally, and socially — to get to the vegan ideal veganism aspires to — which is not utopic, as it is perfectly reachable. It should make us look for better alternatives all the time and not just settle for those that are more convenient. It should encourage us to start new projects that make it easier to replace animal agriculture with regenerative veganic agriculture (like the Vegan Land Movement founded by Gina Bates in Scotland) and to move from plant-based, to organic, to veganic, and finally to zero-kill veganic.”
In the spirit to improve on my veganism, I have been trying to find a source of veganic vegetables in London, where I live, as my yard is not big enough to cover all my needs — and I live too far from the countryside where veganic farms are. I haven’t found any yet. However, a few months ago, when walking through my neighbourhood, I saw several big metal containers (the ones you see in ports to transport goods) with images of leaves painted on their side with the text “Crate to Plate”. When I checked this name on the internet, I discovered it was an upcoming project to grow some vegetables via hydroponics inside the containers. This is a type of what is known as “vertical farming”, which has become popular, especially in bigger cities and urban areas. I thought that perhaps this was one of those “better alternatives” we should be looking for I wrote in my article. Perhaps this could be a good example of “non-kill veganic”. Perhaps the solution to growing vegetables without killing any animal — even accidentally, such as worms killed when picking up root vegetables — could be Veganic Vertical Farming.
I googled it and nothing came up. Searching it without inverted commas, a few websites appeared, but when I read them, they were not about what I was looking for. In 2023, you would expect that “Veganic Vertical Farming” would be a very well-developed concept, but it does not seem to be the case — at least using these terms.
I found a lot of stuff about veganic farming (I have written about it before), the type of organic farming that aims to reduce even further its blood footprint by not using any pesticide at all, and not using fertilisers that contain animal products. I found a lot about vertical farming too, which happens indoors without using soil, but feeding the plants mineral nutrient salts dissolved in water (which is called hydroponics) or air with a nutrient-dense mist (which is called aeroponics). But it does not seem to be much about “veganic Vertical Farming”. Why is that? At first sight, both concepts do not seem incompatible to me, and people interested in either are likely to be interested in the other as well. Is there anything I am missing here?
Perhaps I should look into this a bit deeper because, as I see it, this particular form of farming could be the solution to the problem of accidental crops deaths linked to the diets vegans have — which causes fewer deaths than any other modern diet, but one animal killed is one too many for me to ignore. I am not talking about insects and molluscs deliberately killed in standard farming via pesticides but about the insects, worms, and other invertebrates who may be accidentally killed during the ploughing or harvesting of most crops (even veganic ones). Perhaps the perfect vegan solution may be vertical veganic farming, where, theoretically, no animal of any type would be killed, even accidentally, as it happens indoors in controlled environments where animals (even those farmers consider to be pests) have no access to.
What is Vertical Farming?
Dickson Despommier, a professor of microbiology and Public Health at Columbia University, was one of the first people who popularised the concept of vertical farming. He asked his students to devise an agricultural plan that would produce enough food for Manhattan’s residents through just rooftop agriculture and came up with the idea of moving indoors with plants growing on multiple levels. He developed the concept further with his students over the next ten years. In 2010 he published the book “The Vertical Farm: Feeding the World in the 21st Century”. According to Despommier, vertical farms will allow us to:
- Grow food 24 hours a day, 365 days a year
- Protect crops from unpredictable and harmful weather
- Re-use water collected from the indoor environment
- Provide jobs for residents
- Eliminate the use of pesticides, fertilizers, or herbicides
- Drastically reduce dependence on fossil fuels
- Prevent crop loss due to shipping or storage
- Stop agricultural runoff
Designer Chris Jacobs and eco-architect Gordon Graff from the University of Waterloo’s School of Architecture continued developing this concept, and today we can see vertical farms all over the world. The global market of vertical farming is expected to reach over $12 billion by 2026.
As vertical farming uses much less land compared to traditional farming and avoids using soil, it can easily be developed in urban areas. It is especially suitable for growing crops in regions where they are difficult to grow due to harsh weather. Desert areas could be a good example. For instance, Abu Dhabi has invested $100 Million in indoor farming as a part of a $272 million program supporting the development of ag-tech projects in the United Arab Emirates.
Depending on the crop, vertical farming requires 70% to 95% less water usage than traditional farming. California has been suffering droughts for many years now, so vertical farming can help. It is now estimated there are more than 2,300 vertical farms in the United States, and it’s expected to become a $30 billion industry by 2030. North America accounts for about 35% of the vertical farming market.
A meta-analysis of urban farming found lettuces, kale, and broccoli were particularly suited to vertical farming. However, many other vegetables and fruits have been successfully grown with it, especially strawberries, spinach, chard, cabbage, microgreens, peppers, aubergines, and herbs (most commonly basil, mint, chives, and parsley). About 57% of indoor farms produce leafy greens because they grow quickly and reliably, and there is a lot of demand. Mushrooms can also be grown in vertical farming.
There are limitations to what can be grown, though. Any crop reliant on insect pollination (like many fruits and berries) would not be economically feasible yet in vertical farming (as an expensive method would need to be devised to replace the insects). Also, very heavy crops (such as pumpkins or melons), crops grown in trees (like nuts), or crops that require a large amount of space to produce significant yields (like grains), are not suitable for this kind of farming yet.
One of the major problems of vertical farming is the reliance on electricity to provide light for the growing plants. Unless the vertical farm has its own source of renewable power (such as solar or wind), a considerable cost of the production would go to the electricity bill. If, as it happened in 2022, the global cost of energy rises considerably, it may no longer be viable to run a vertical farm as a profitable business. Another problem is that it may still have a relatively high carbon footprint compared with other plant-based farming — although it would be lower than any animal-based farming — not just because of the building of infrastructure or electricity used, but because the nutrients fed to the plants would need to be extracted from raw materials and transported to the vertical farm.
What is Veganic Farming
The term Veganic Farming first appeared in the 1960s. Geoffrey L. Rudd joined the words vegetable and organic to create “veganic”, and we can already see this term written in a 1960 Vegan Society’s magazine issue in Rosa Dalziel O’Brien’s column about gardening. She and her brother Kenneth practised a method of animal-free cultivation that was a response to the fashion of organic farming of the time (an agricultural method that uses fertilisers of organic origin such as compost manure, created as a response to the new inorganic fertilisers massively used in the 1950s that were polluting the environment). Although using fewer pesticides, organic farming still used animal manure as fertiliser, so it was not good enough for ethical vegans like them. Therefore, veganic farming was created, being the organic cultivation of plants and crops with a minimal amount of exploitation or harm to any animal. Veganic farmers try to produce the fertility of their crops from vegetal sources directly on the farm and use crop rotation and polyculture.
Later, different terms to label veganic farming were used in different parts of the world leading to different commercial standards. Biocyclic Vegan Agriculture (BVA) was pioneered in Germany by Adolf Hoops in the 1950s and renamed by Dr ag. Johannes Eisenbach in the 1980s. Like any veganic farming, it is plant-based organic farming that excludes any inputs of animal origin, but it especially promotes biodiversity, healthy soil life, the closure of organic cycles and systematic build-up of humus (the organic component of soil, formed by the decomposition of leaves and other plant material by soil microorganisms).
In the UK, the Vegan Organic Network was created in 1996, and with it the Certified Stockfree-Organic standards. The Soil Association is responsible for managing these standards — as well as the general organic standards. Those farmers certified under these standards grow crops organically with only plant-based fertilisers, encouraging functional biodiversity. Among its many rules, no pesticides, no herbicides, no GMOs and no animal by-products are permitted in any part of the chain. Also, these farmers cannot keep animals for food production or commercial gain on the registered holding. Stock-free farms also minimise their reliance on off-farm inputs and non-renewable resources, use physical barriers to deal with competing species, and they do not intentionally kill any animals on their holdings.
We also have Veganic Permaculture. Permaculture is a philosophical approach to land management adopting arrangements observed in stable natural ecosystems. It was pioneered in the 1930s by the American Joseph Russell Smith and the Japanese Toyohiko Kagawa, and later further developed by the Australian P. A. Yeomans and the Tasmanian Bill Mollison in the 1960s. When you remove the animal components of it, it becomes veganic permaculture.
The limitations regarding the types of crops that can be grown with veganic farming are basically the geographical and whether limitations of what can be grown in each location at any given time.
The main problem with veganic farming is that it requires agricultural land to grow crops (and it may require more land than conventional crop farming to produce the same amount of food), and most arable land is owned by landowners and farmers who are not interested in trying this method. They may think that it produces lower yields, it’s too labour-consuming, or simply don’t trust that it can work. Most farmers seem too obsessed with pesticides and animal-based fertilisers so the idea of growing crops without either seems preposterous to them. This has had the effect of having very few veganic farms scattered in the countryside, often far away from the metropolitan centres where most ethical vegans who would buy their products live. In consequence, veganic produce is still expensive, rare, and mostly unknown by the population and even governments (so, little chance of receiving any subsidies for research and development that frees it from its fringe status).
The other problem is that, unless it is a type of no-till veganic farming with no ploughing, invertebrates (especially worms) are likely to be accidentally killed in the crops. Although “pests” in veganic farming are normally controlled by welcoming their natural predators in the area (and this seems to work well so no pesticides are needed) accidental deaths during ploughing and harvesting are likely to occur in veganic crops too (especially those in commercial farms). This problem could be minimised by not ploughing at all (no-till crops, which are better for the environment anyway as they damage the soil less) and being very careful during harvesting (in the future perhaps robots could be used to relocate insects before harvesting), but this may not always be practical — I can do that in my small yard but I would not expect a big farm to do it as I do — and may not be possible for some types of produce.
Can Vertical Farming be Veganic?
Would it not be great if the popularity, high investments, and universality of locations of vertical farming could be combined with the sustainability, versatility, and naturality of veganic farming, so we could get the best of both worlds? Would it not be great that we could have many veganic farms in urban areas and areas with a harsh climate, and that we could grow many more types of produce in vertical farming in a more natural, ecological, and holistic way? It would, but the problem seems to be that, for now, this is the stuff of science fiction only.
In part, this is because of the issue of “organic” certification. Veganic farming has always been defined as a type of organic farming, and this has been linked to the concept of “healthy” soil. If you remove the soil from the equation, it seems that you cannot use the term “organic” to describe your crops…and if you cannot use the term organic you cannot use the term veganic either.
I contacted those promoting the Stockfree Organic certification asking if vertical farming could be veganic, and Tamara Șchiopu replied stating the following: “Stockfree Organic Standard is promoting soil-based farming practices, where plants grow in soil and make part of natural ecosystems, with limited use of energy inputs, less land and a lower foot-print. By this, stockfree organic not only eliminates animal cruelty and exploitation, but enhances biodiversity and supplies nutritious and biologically balanced plants for human consumption and for a healthier future.”
I also contacted the people running the Biocyclic Vegan Standards asking the same question, and Dr agr. Johannes Eisenbach replied the following: “vertical farming is not compatible with the existing organic certification schemes with the exemption of plants grown in pots that are sold in pots. Even under the Biocyclic Vegan Standard, vertical farming is not certifiable. We are working both on an international level as well as internally to change that, considering that Biocyclic Humus Soil used as substrate makes it possible to grow plants on a totally natural base compatible with all requirements set for biocyclic vegan certification even in a vertical production scheme which we consider – like urban farming – one of the future ways to produce high-quality fruits and vegetables in densely populated areas of this world.”
I posted the same question on the Vegan Organic Network Facebook page. One person replied, “So long as there are no animal inputs I don’t see why not. Indoor vertical farms can arguably be more vegan since it would be easier to avoid harming insects and bugs than it might in an open field.” Another person replied, “I have seen a variety of vertical planters that use soil/compost, i.e. smaller footptints, small scale, permaculture style by small groups and individuals but can’t see how it could be done on farm scale commercially. Pallet constructions and planters up walls/creating fences, drums with holes cut in the sides with composting tubes down the centre attracting worms, suspended hanging pipes with strawberries/herbs/salads.”
But then, Iain Tolhurst, a pioneer of the Stockfree Organic Standard who runs the biggest veganic farm in the UK (Tolhurts Organic), replied the following: “Stockfree organic rules are clear, crops need to be grown in soil. Vertical farms are hugely carbon consumptive not just in production but especially so in the infrastructure needed in their establishment. They will never be able to grow staple crops such as cereals and bulky vegetables. Crops grown in these systems are devoid of the soil bacteria and fungi needed to feed the gut biome. As yet there are no known examples that have been shown to be economically viable. They may appeal to those who like the idea of sterile food.”
The “Organic” Problem of Vertical Farming
The issue of whether vertical farming can be certified as organic has now been settled in the US, but not without controversy. On March 2021, the United States District Court for the Northern District issued a ruling allowing soil-less hydroponic operations to be certified organic by exempting them from the requirement that certified organic crop producers build soil fertility. This was the result of a lawsuit challenging the US Department of Agriculture’s decision to allow organic certification for vertical farming crops. The decision of the judge was based on the fact the Organic Foods Production Act did not specifically prohibit hydroponic operations. The lawsuit, filed by the longest-standing organic farms in the United States, claimed that hydroponic operations violated organic standards for failing to build healthy soils.
When I contacted the Soil Association in the UK (the organisation that certifies organic farms and products) they directed me to two of the points of their standards. This is what these points say:
“2.4.2 Hydroponics. Hydroponic production is prohibited….
2.7.10 Soil-based production
1. Plants must be grown in soil in connection with the subsoil and bedrock.
2. The following are excluded from this requirement:
a) plant propagation
b) aquatic plant production
c) plants in pots or containers (including salad cress) sold direct to consumers still in their pots, which are not intended to be grown on or harvested before they are sold
d) sprouted seeds as long as they are produced only with the addition of water.
3. Plants in pots or containers falling under category 2c may be called organic if:
a) the substrate is made of at least 51% (by fresh weight of the end product) of materials from organic farming origin
b) no more than 49% of the substrate is made up of nonorganic manure and compost which meets standard 2.5.2
c) the substrate provides more than 50% of their nutrient needs, until the point of sale
d) you make sure the substrate is biologically active
e) you meet all other relevant standards
f) the entire plant and the pot are sold together
g) you do not use peat or slaughterhouse wastes, and
h) you do not use soil from organic farms.
Production in the soil is a fundamental principle of organic production, so where crops are grown, harvested and sold as organic they must be grown in the soil. In some instances a stage of production of an organic plant has to be out of the soil, but this should be limited only to plant propagation. However, where potted plants are sold direct to final consumers as organic they may not be planted into the soil to grow on further. In these cases, each potted plant should meet requirements to ensure organic integrity up to this point. In the absence of organic regulation, we have produced this set of standards for the production of organic potted plants, with agreed guidance from the competent authority.”
Therefore, it seems that vertical farming grown by either hydroponics, aeroponics, or by any other method where the soil is not connected with the subsoil and bedrock cannot be classed as organic in the UK, and in consequence, cannot be classed as Stockfree Organic either (the most common UK veganic standard). However, it seems that in the US, despite disagreements with the organic producers, some vertical farming can be certified as organic, but not as veganic under the Biocyclic Vegan Standards certification yet — although it seems that efforts are being made to change that.
All this explains why I could not find any links when I search for “Veganic Vertical Farming”, because, technically, it does not exist yet — but it could in the future.
If Not “Veganic”, Perhaps “Vegan-Friendly”
The issue of certification is an issue of labelling. If vertical farming cannot get the label of “veganic” for not being able to get the label of “organic”, does this mean that it cannot be vegan-friendly? No, it does not. If the avoidance of animal exploitation and animal products is what led to the creation of veganic farming from organic farming, what about applying the same principle but bypassing the organic “middle person”? If we devise a method of farming that does not use pesticides or animal products but uses fertilisers that may not be organic, this method may not be able to receive the organic label, but it could be vegan-friendly.
Perhaps this is what some types of vertical farming could be. We know they do not use pesticides, but do they use any animal product in the hydroponic system they “feed” their plants with? If they do, we know it would neither be organic nor vegan-friendly, but if they don’t, it may be vegan-friendly even if it is not organic (and it may be more than just vegan-friendly if it is run by vegans).
I decided to ask the vertical farmers about this directly. On 12th March 2023, I emailed 22 different vertical farms and hydroponics designers (15 from the US, seven from the UK, and the rest from other countries) the following:
“I am a freelance journalist from the UK writing an article about vertical farming. I am contacting several vertical farms in the world to learn more about the type of products they produce. I would be grateful if you could reply to these two simple questions:
- Does your vertical farming operation qualify as an organic farming operation?
- Does your vertical farming operation work under principles of veganic farming (which means not only no pesticides but also no products derived from animals in any part of the process, including in fertilisers and feeds)?”
The company V Farm from the UK replied straight away. In several emails, they told me the following: “We design and manufacture farming equipment for indoor farms, we don’t have our own farms. Regarding Organic, I believe the soil association owns the rights to this and therefore items grown in most CEA (not using soil) cannot claim to be organic….I don’t see any reason why you could not have a vertical farm that does not use animal products. As always with indoor farming, what nutrients you need to put onto the crop depends on many factors starting with what you intend to grow. We can and have grown in our systems using just tap water, seeds and nothing more… I can confirm that none of our nutrient products have any animal base materials in them, so technically I see no reason why you could not have a totally animal product free farm. On talking to our product development team, they did however mention that we cannot label our nutrients as vegan because we would need to obtain vegan status via registration with a vegan organisation.”
Well, it seems that a vertical farm managed to get this certification. Metropolis Farms in Philadelphia claims to be the first vegan-certified vertical farm in America, and it has been building a solar-powered plant, so it is on its way to reducing its carbon footprint compared with the average vertical farm.
On 21st March 2023, the US farm Plenty replied to my questions with the following: “We grow clean produce — all of our leafy greens are pesticide-free — in a controlled, indoor environment. The organic standard focuses on outdoor elements, such as soil health, that are not applicable or relevant to Plenty’s grow processes. Plenty does not use any animal-derived products, nor do we use any animal byproducts to grow our leafy greens.”
No other farm replied as of 26th March, perhaps because the answers would have been “no” to both questions (and they would prefer people don’t know), or they may not be run by vegans and perhaps would not like to be associated with the vegan philosophy. But the few answers I got confirm that at least some vertical farms are vegan-friendly, and if they do not deliberately kill animals who enter their farms (as opposed to preventing them to get in the first place), and if they are run by vegans, they could be even vegan-friendlier than some veganic farms that till the soil (although not necessarily more environmentally friendly due to their carbon footprint).
There is Never a Single Magical Solution
Veganic Vertical Farming could technically be free from animal inputs, but it may still be an inefficient way to feed plants. Healthy soil contains all the nutrients and biome needed for plants to feed humans, and using it has a lower footprint than vertical farming. In this regard, for eco-vegans, and perhaps for some health vegans very attached to the concept of “organic food”, it will not be the ultimate solution for food production in a post-animal-agriculture world. On the other side, for animal rights ethical vegans very concerned about invertebrate wildlife (liker myself), the fact that you could theoretically design a vertical farm operation where no animals are killed whatsoever may give this type of farming the upper hand — if they do not prefer food produced in precision fermentation tanks from bacteria, fungi, or algae as a scalable animal-free alternative. And certainly, for locations where the geography and climate do not allow to grow crops in open fields, veganic vertical farming may be a better option than importing veganic produce from a long distance away.
In his book “Regenesis” looking at the different solutions to the global food crisis, journalist George Mombiot concluded the following:
“This movement should ask itself three fundamental questions when considering any new system: ‘Does this deliver more food with less farming?”, “Who owns and controls it?’ and ‘Is the food it produces healthy, cheap and accessible? A new movement, informed by these questions, needs a manifesto. It might look something like this: ‘To allow human beings and the rest of life on Earth to flourish, we should: become food-numerate; change the stories we tell ourselves; limit the land area we use to feed the world; minimize our use of water and farm chemicals; launch an Earth Rover Programme to finely map the world’s soils; enhance fertility with the smallest possible organic interventions; research and develop a high-yield agroecology; stop farming animals; replace the protein and fat from animals with precision fermentation; break global corporations’ grip on the food chain; diversify the global food system; use our understanding of complex systems to trigger cascading change; rewild the land released from farming.’”
Veganic Vertical Farming (better named Vegan-Friendly Vertical Farming) could be another food innovative production system that could go a long way to contribute to the development of this manifesto, and ultimately help to build the vegan world. However, it is not perfect. It may still need to be more veganised and recognised, and it may still need to improve its environmental footprint and its offer range.
It turns out that, on its own, it may not be the ultimate vegan solution I was hoping for, but combined with other methods it definitively could help us to move away from animal agriculture and feed the world.
I will keep looking.