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Is Urban Vertical Farming a Feasible Alternative to Traditional Agriculture in the City of Los Angeles?

by Olivia Olson

While the fields of lettuce, wheat, or soy encountered on a road trip may appear vast, the world’s arable land is indeed finite, with climate change’s specter further threatening to reduce an already taxed resource. A 2016 report by the FAO additionally demonstrates the impacts of population growth on agriculture, given that “80% of the total arable is currently being utilized across the globe” and that “arable land per person is projected to decrease by 2050 to one-third of the amount available in 1970.” Moreover, traditional agricultural techniques have not only failed to ensure global food security, they are prominent contributors to deforestation, greenhouse emissions, soil degradation, and water overuse. Weather fluctuations and pests frequently disrupt agricultural productivity at enormous costs both to agribusiness corporations and to the individual consumer. Finally, the pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers necessary to sufficiently augment yield and combat infestation are cited with a myriad of deleterious health and environmental impacts. 

Despite this bleak reality, the future of agriculture need not be so grim. While we stand at a critical juncture, several nascent technologies promise to address the environmental implications of traditional methods, all while using a fraction of the land and increasing the yield, safety, and salubrity of produce. This emerging field, known as vertical farming, capitalizes on a combination of aeroponics, aquaculture, and hydroponics to bring farm-fresh produce from within the walls of skyscrapers. Usually in soilless conditions that both improve plant growth and reduce the amount of water required, crops are stacked in layers within these buildings. Currently, agritech startups across the globe have begun producing a variety of crops?lettuce, strawberries, tomatoes?capitalizing on these technologies. 

The potential benefits of vertical farming are enormous: increased yield and productivity, reduced emissions, an ability to repurpose agricultural land, more efficient water use, generation of year-round employment, diminished transportation costs, and “greater control of food safety and biosecurity.” However, the implementation of vertical farming faces serious barriers, explaining why these technologies’ applications have thus far been limited. Most concerningly, land rent and infrastructure costs may be prohibitively high in urban centers, with space availability prohibitively low. Furthermore, there are currently limitations on types of crops that can be efficiently grown in such conditions, in addition to concerns and unknowns regarding cost variables and energy consumption at scale. While vertical farming appears currently infeasible in certain cities (this article focuses on the City of Los Angeles), climate and population trends indicate that traditional agricultural methods may soon no longer satisfy global demand and contribute too greatly to emissions. Moreover, regions that are less agriculturally productive due to their climate or economic factors may benefit earlier from the implementation of vertical farming techniques. A careful study of the potential for agricultural technologies and the conditions under which they could be widely implemented should inform future policies and private and public investment. 

As of now, vertical farming, implemented in the ways that have currently been theorized, is not a viable replacement for traditional agriculture in the City of Los Angeles. In addition to high construction and urban land rent costs, particularly in such an agriculturally productive state that benefits from relative abundance of inexpensive rural arable land and farming subsidies, the physical space required for these farms would disrupt the current cityscape. This article will explore the barriers to vertical farming in Los Angeles as well as consider the future feasibility of such practices under different locational, political, and climatic conditions. I will use the model vertical farm in Banerjee et al.’s “Up, Up and Away! The Economics of Vertical Farming” to evaluate Los Angeles’ agricultural potential, focusing on the growth of lettuce crops traditionally and vertically. 

According to the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA), the 2020 total value of California produced lettuce was 2.28 billion. In 2019, for lettuce crops alone, 188,700 acres were harvested and 2,934,100 tons were produced in the state of California. Of those 188,700 acres, 31,696.27 were organic, a metric that may help future policymakers and economists better gauge demand for vertically farmed lettuce (which is not only organic, but fresher, with additional positive environmental impacts). UC Davis’ Agriculture and Natural Resources Cooperative Extension and Agricultural Issues Center outline the land pricing guidelines I will be using in their 2019 “Sample Costs to Produce and Harvest Romaine Hearts”: “Land rents range from a low of $850 to a high of $3,800 per acre per year in the area [Monterey County produces 61.9% of state’s total lettuce, with Imperial County accounting for another 12.5%].”

Moreover, according to Bloomberg CityLab, in 2017 Los Angeles’ average land value per acre was $2.6 million, with central land per acre (defined as land within 10 miles of city hall) a whopping $16 million. Typical skyscraper buildings can be constructed on quarter acre lots, thus a $650,000 per quarter acre outside the city center and $4,000,000 per quarter acre within the center city can be determined. Although the Los Angeles Municipal Code would currently limit the potential for vertical farming building height, economizing on horizontal footprint and building high is likely more efficient given the relative costs of construction versus land pricing. However, while I consider this tactic the most efficient way to bring vertical farming into the City of Los Angeles given the high price of land, I will for now apply the findings of “Up, Up and Away” to Los Angeles to assess their feasibility therein. Banerjee et al. hypothesize a farm built on .93 ha of land, the equivalent of approximately 2.30 acres. Thus 2.30 acres at $16 million an acre totals $36.8 million. I will use Banerjee et al.’s equipment pricing but will use an estimate of $600 million in construction cost*, yielding a concerningly high total of $636,800,000.  

At the above point of my analysis, I consulted the California Agricultural Statistics Review 2019-2020. In 2019, 188,700 acres of lettuce were harvested. Assuming the most expensive given land rent of $3,900, fixed costs associated with the State of California’s entire lettuce harvest is $735,930,000. However, instead of producing approximately 3,573 tons of edible biomass, as I predicted applying Banerjee et al.’s study, the state of California produced 3,286,220 tons of edible biomass of lettuce. Although the proposed vertical farm has significantly higher yield per acre, the state of California has grown 920 times as much produce at a fraction of the cost of vertical farming. Thus, in agriculturally productive states such as California, where it is relatively expensive to produce on agriculturally productive land, vertical farming is not economically feasible, especially when the inexpensive nature of traditional farming is coupled with high land rents in cities. 

While proponents of vertical farming frequently cite the advantages of lower transportation costs and emissions due to the farms’ central location, research on the relative advantages of the location of vertical farms should inform policy decisions regarding implementation. I see great potential for their situation in rural areas. Vertical farming would still provide the benefit of improved yield, reduced greenhouse gas emissions, and more efficient resource use compared to traditional methods even if it remained more decentralized from the city (where land rents would be lower and land previously dedicated to agriculture could simply be rendered more efficient). Since vertical farms are more productive, land previously dedicated to traditional monoculture could even be rewilded in addition to use in more agriculturally productive ways. While transportation costs and emissions may still be present, if vertical farming were more widespread, the transportation could remain localized as more cities and counties would be self-sufficient. A further consideration of rural vertical farming would be employment. Vertical farming generates jobs in “engineering, biochemistry, biotechnology, construction, maintenance, and research and development opportunities for improving the technology.” However, professionals in such fields are likely to prefer living and working in consumer cities, rather than in rural agricultural areas. 

Finally, while this article is centered in Los Angeles, further potential exists in regions such as South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa, where subsistence farming remains largely the norm and agricultural technology has the potential to promote increased wealth, quality of life, educational attainment, et cetera. Agricultural innovation in such regions could usher in the transition from agrarian to manufacturing economies, while furthering global economic development and increasing labor productivity. Furthermore, such agricultural developments could combat global hunger, bring nutritious produce to underserved areas, and address climate issues related to land overuse and industrial monoculture.

* A conservative estimate based on a price range for comparably sized buildings in Los Angeles.

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