The following is the established format for referencing this article:Glaros, A., R. Newell, A. Benyam, S. Pizzirani, and L. L. Newman. 2024. Vertical agriculture’s potential implications for food system resilience: outcomes of focus groups in the Fraser Valley, British Columbia. Ecology and Society 29(1):12.
Food systems are vulnerable to socioeconomic and environmental changes, and increasing food system resilience has emerged as a key public policy priority. Vertical agriculture is one potential strategy to contribute to food system resilience. To date, the literature exploring this technology has focused on consumer perceptions, with less examination of broader social-ecological system considerations or on-the-ground implications for vulnerable food system actors. This study explores local food system stakeholders’ account of vertical agriculture’s potential contributions to food system resilience, and specifically to food system decentralization, increasing stakeholder decision-making autonomy and diversifying food systems. The results of an exploratory focus group with 16 participants, including local government officials and members of community food organizations, are presented. Participants discussed how vertical agriculture can contribute to food system decentralization by operating across a variety of scales and in public institutions, although local land-use zoning barriers, competing land use priorities, and lack of community acceptance may hinder its widespread implementation. Further, vertical agriculture may contribute to food system diversification by increasing the amount of regionally available produce in the face of future supply disruptions. The potential implications of vertical agriculture for increasing decision-making autonomy will vary, depending on whether it is governed at more or less accessible scales and forms. It is recommended that further research consider diverse scenarios and engage with wider stakeholder and community groups for vertical agriculture’s planning and implementation, particularly in less explored land use contexts, such as in agricultural regions or in public institutions.
It is increasingly recognized that our food systems are vulnerable to social, economic, and environmental change (FAO et al. 2023). A complex variety of factors make food systems more or less vulnerable to disturbances or shocks (Ericksen 2008). At a local or regional level, individuals having few options or strategies to access food and there being a low diversity of regionally grown crops have historically increased food system vulnerability (Fraser 2007). At a global level, the food system is ever more tightly interconnected through water, energy, transportation, and political systems, thereby increasing the potential for “synchronous failure” where the impacts of regional shocks (e.g., severe weather events) propagate over time and space (Homer-Dixon et al. 2015). Other factors, such as mounting global oligopoly of food producers, distributors, and retailers, have similarly exacerbated the vulnerability of the food system (Clapp 2023). Intensive monoculture practices and concomitant declines in agricultural biodiversity have increased the susceptibility of crops to pests, weeds, and disease (Altieri et al. 2015). Major events, such as the COVID-19 pandemic and war in Ukraine, have highlighted these dynamics in stark ways, where cross-border closures and supply disruptions have made food access and distribution challenging, exacerbating the risk of hunger worldwide (Carey et al. 2021). Such concerns and the comprehensive effects of interacting food systems have spurred a large body of literature exploring ways to increase food system resilience. Developing resilience in food systems can therefore be a lever of change for addressing food insecurity and vulnerability (Townsend et al. 2021). Resilience is a measure of a system’s ability to adapt and transform in response to disturbance (Walker et al. 2004).
One such effort to build food system resilience is vertical agriculture. Vertical agriculture refers to a suite of tools and technologies for growing food “upward,” not “outward,” thereby sparing land for conservation (Despommier 2010). Often (but not exclusively) using hydroponic, aeroponic, or aquaponic nutrient circulation systems alongside stacked grow-beds, vertical agriculture is highly water-, nutrient-, and land-efficient (Kozai et al. 2019, Halgamuge et al. 2021). Vertical agriculture promises, from a food system resilience standpoint, to safeguard food production from the impacts of climate change, such as adverse weather or pests and disease (Henry 2020). Similarly, it promises to contribute to developing more decentralized food systems, growing fresh vegetables locally and year-round. As currently practiced, however, vertical agriculture is relatively niche (in scale), not widespread, and limited to a few crops of moderate nutritional value (Goodman and Minner 2019).
The social scientific literature exploring vertical agriculture has only recently emerged. According to one recent systematic literature review, the socioeconomic literature regarding controlled environment agriculture comprises less than 10% of the current body of research, leading authors to argue that “socio-economic research...still lags behind biological or technical research” (Dsouza et al. 2023:8). Our research contributes to addressing this gap. Further, social scientific literature has largely focused on consumer perceptions of vertical agriculture, and specifically if consumers are willing to buy or try vertical agriculture products. Research has found positive perceptions of vertical agriculture’s contribution to fresh local food availability and utilization of vacant or small spaces, as well as skepticism regarding its “naturalness,” health aspects, nutrition, and impact on conventional food systems (Specht et al. 2019, Broad et al. 2022).
To date, literature has yet to explore civil society perspectives for vertical agriculture’s potential contribution to food system resilience, specifically in the North American context. In particular, few studies (with some exceptions: see Carolan 2020), have explored vertical agriculture from a planning perspective, asking where vertical agriculture fits in local and regional food systems. Doing so can elucidate key gaps and concerns that civil society stakeholders have as vertical agriculture is being considered as a potentially feasible strategy to build food system resilience in cities or regions. It is crucial to gather public views of vertical agriculture and identify existential and perceived barriers or potential hindrances to achieving its most widespread benefits. In particular, it is important to understand the perspectives of members of civil society who are actively involved in governing and shaping local food systems, such as local government, food system organizations, farmers, and retailers. Doing so can help to identify tensions and synergies in terms of new food production technology implementation and their potential implications for food system resilience. We note here and in the conclusion that vertical agriculture is but one strategy to bolster local food systems and, like all emerging technologies for food production, has tradeoffs (see Glaros et al. 2022). Thus, we suggest that vertical agriculture should be considered among a variety of strategies and approaches to increase food system resilience (Newman et al. 2023).
This study is the first stage of a broader research portfolio, working with consumers, local government, industry, and planners to develop scenarios for the implementation of vertical agriculture in British Columbia. In this initial research, we sought to understand and unpack the prospects of vertical agriculture’s contribution to food system resilience. We focus on exploring various civil society stakeholder accounts from the Lower Mainland of British Columbia, Canada, as it is a highly agricultural region of Canada that continues to experience severe impacts of climate change. We begin by defining food system resilience and how we used it as a theoretical framework to analyze our data. We shift to highlighting key opportunities and barriers that these stakeholders emphasized for vertical agriculture’s contribution to food system resilience, including deductively examined data as well as themes that emerged from focus group discussions.
Multiple definitions for and interpretations of resilience exist in the literature, and the term itself has evolved over the past several decades. Earlier definitions of resilience refer to a system’s ability to resist disturbance: to stay the same (Pimm 1984). Literature from the discipline of ecology instead defined resilience as a system’s capacity to maintain its function over time (Gunderson and Holling 2001). Notions of adaptation and transformation were subsequently introduced, recognizing the existence of system tipping points and the potential for reorganizing and designing new systems altogether (Walker et al. 2004). Resilience has also been applied to examine social systems, wherein it has been defined as the ability of a community or group to cope with external stresses (Adger 2000).
Resilience is often explored within the context of food systems, being defined as the “capacity over time of a food system and its units at multiple levels, to provide sufficient, appropriate and accessible food to all, in the face of various and even unforeseen disturbances” (Tendall et al. 2015:18). However, specific metrics for or definitions of food system resilience are ill defined, particularly regarding the following questions: resilience of what, to what? Resilience for whom? Resilience for how long? (Cretney 2014, Meerow and Newell 2019, Zurek et al. 2022). For the purpose of this study, we view a resilient food system as one that maintains the systems’ wide preconditions so as to ensure food security in response to social, economic, and environmental uncertainties, similar to Hodbod and Eakin (2015).
Several factors reduce food system resilience, including lack of on-farm diversity, exposure and vulnerability to disturbances through hyper-connectivity, and lack of farmer decision-making autonomy (Rotz and Fraser 2015). Studies also define targeted areas for building food system resilience and link sustainability dimensions directly to resilience considerations, such as those that recognize that social factors affect a person’s or community’s capacity to respond to food insecurity (Kaiser 2019). Other examples include research that indicates intensive monocultures provide little ecological value (Onaindia et al. 2013) while being extremely vulnerable to pests and disease, and literature that highlights how food import-dependency can result in economic vulnerability (Schipanski et al. 2015).
Recognizing these conceptual ambiguities, we distilled from the literature a few key principles for increasing food system resilience and used these to deductively shape our thematic analysis of focus group data (Hendrickson 2015, Rotz and Fraser 2015, van Wassanaer et al. 2021). These three principles are as follows:
- Decentralizing food production operations;
- Increasing the agency and capacity of actors throughout the supply chain to exercise choice, particularly for those most vulnerable (e.g., low-income groups, temporary agricultural workers); and
- Increasing diversity within the food system, especially across the following three areas: number of crop species grown, places in which crops are grown, and places where people can access food.
Below, we describe each of these principles in further detail, including literature relevant to food systems and food system resilience. We acknowledge that definitions of resilience are contested, especially as related to how to measure, indicate, or otherwise increase/decrease resilience. However, our purpose in this paper is not so much to define resilience per se as to better understand if and how vertical agriculture can contribute to this normative goal. Although others may or may not agree with our characterization of resilience, we nevertheless consider the following principles as key components of a potentially more comprehensive definition. We recognize that these principles are likely to have inherent tradeoffs and are not ubiquitous in all vertical farming contexts. Our case study, however, illustrates how we captured some of the critical aspects of resilience relevant to vertical agriculture in the Fraser Valley region of British Columbia. As a result, the principles guided our exploration and evaluation of vertical agriculture benefits as well as adoption barriers in a more practical manner.
Food systems have become increasingly concentrated and consolidated within the private sector (Clapp 2023). Concentration of food systems increases their opacity, where it becomes difficult to trace commodity flows, actor networks, or other important information across the global value chain (Clapp 2014). This has implications for consumer trust (knowing where and how food was produced), responding to disease and pest outbreaks, or assigning responsibility to malpractice and “rule breaking” as it occurs (Tian 2016, Iost Filho et al. 2019). Highly centralized, consolidated food systems are vulnerable because they have decreased capacity to adapt or transform in the face of disturbance (Hendrickson 2015). Decreasing concentration is an important food system development strategy because it helps to increase supply chain transparency and prevent widespread disruptions resulting from synchronous failure between tightly interconnected systems (Homer-Dixon et al. 2015). Decentralizing food systems would involve increasing the number of food system actors, from production through consumption and waste, operating at small and medium scales for local/regional distribution.
Agency and choice
Where actors within food systems have fewer opportunities to make decisions and choices (i.e., exercise agency) in response to changes or disturbances, a system can be said to lack resilience. This is acute for small and medium scales of farmers, where external factors, such as sectoral concentration (Rotz and Fraser 2015) and climate change (Higgins et al. 2017), can disincentivize the adoption of new tools, crops, technologies, production practices, or regulatory requirements. Farmers having the ability to respond to disturbance, both as an adaptation and/or as a way of transformation in the face of disturbance, is crucial from a food system resilience lens. These challenges are also acute for consumers, in particular for vulnerable members of the public who may lack food security or the knowledge and resources for accessing food in the wake of adversities. Having diverse options to procure food (from the market, shared between neighbors, grown at home, etc.) is important to maintain individual food security (Sen 1983, Fraser 2007). Agency and choice are also imperative for small-scale producers specializing in local distribution. These producers often are in tune with consumer preferences but are at a competitive disadvantage compared to large-scale businesses (producers-retailers-distributors) better positioned (by virtue of economies of scale) to influence food policy decisions. When a small number of large-scale producers have the most power to affect change in the food system, opportunities for small and medium-scale producers to advocate for themselves and respond to disturbance is reduced (Rotz and Fraser 2015).
Systems can be described as more resilient if they have a high level of diversity and what some term functional redundancy: a concept from ecology for when more than one component of a system performs a similar role. As one example, if there are many producers growing diverse crops, a food system might be considered to have high functional redundancy, compared to one where a single producer is growing one or two crops. Food systems are more susceptible to pests, disease, and other disturbances that can easily transmit throughout a system when there is less crop and genetic diversity (Rotz and Fraser 2015). Diversity also translates to socioeconomic factors, including the function of food systems. For example, Hodbod and Eakin (2015) find that singular prioritization of a food system function (e.g., profit maximization) can precipitate vulnerabilities. Hertel et al. (2021) state that any attempt to integrate diversification of food production will need to transcend soil-based farming and encompass other subsectors, such as vertical and urban farming.
This research was conducted in collaboration with three industry partners: QuantoTech Solutions, i-Open Technologies, and Direct Food Store. QuantoTech Solutions develops and operates vertical farms; i-Open Technologies Group designed and developed Agrilyze, a map-based platform for storing, displaying, and analyzing food systems-related data; and Direct Food Store is an e-commerce and food distribution platform. The collaboration with industry partners was based on efforts to model and illustrate the potential benefits and drawbacks of developing the vertical agriculture industry in the Fraser Valley region, British Columbia (Fig. 1). This region hosts a strong and diverse agricultural sector, comprising a significant portion of the overall agricultural activity (39% of gross farm receipts in 2015) in British Columbia (Fraser Valley Regional District 2017). Further, the region was subject to major flooding events in November 2021, making this region an important case study in the context of integrated planning for resilience to climate change (Newell et al. 2022).
Focus groups are a widely accepted and undertaken research activity to engage stakeholders and solicit their opinion on a given research topic (Nyumba et al. 2018). The protocol for this method typically involves a researcher delivering a set of semi-structured questions to a group of individuals (usually around 10), discussing the questions as a group, and qualitatively analyzing the resulting transcripts for themes. Prior to the focus group, researchers attended public virtual meetings with community food networks and organizations in the region. Members of these networks were invited to the focus group discussion, given their active and on-going practical planning, engagement, and program implementation experience related to food systems in the region of study. The researchers sent invitation letters to individuals within the community network and organization members as well as via these networks and organizations. The invitation was also sent to community members and food systems professionals/stakeholders with whom the researchers had previously engaged in other research efforts.
In total, 16 participants ultimately attended the focus group (Table 1). Research has found an optimal size for focus groups to be between seven and 10 individuals to ensure all voices have a better chance of being heard. As such, three breakout groups were created in order to undertake discussions in a more efficient and effective manner. Overall, the study participants represented a broad cross-section of community food system actors, including local governments, non-governmental organizations, industry stakeholders, and food retailers.
This focus group was exploratory and structured to gauge general themes and potential avenues for further research and study with stakeholders in the Fraser Valley region. The focus group ran for two hours in February 2022, and was conducted via Zoom and CoLabS, a web-based platform for interactive engagement and collaboration (see Jost et al. 2021 for similar use of this platform). Following full group discussion, two small groups (8 participants in each) were formed in Zoom breakout sessions. The focus group questions were categorized into three respective themes: “vertical farms and communities” (i.e., opportunities and barriers for vertical farm integration into local communities); “vertical farms and products/crops” (i.e., perspectives on vertically grown products); and “vertical farms and consumers” (i.e., about willingness to try vertical agriculture products). Questions within each theme focused on the potential contribution of vertical agriculture to food system resilience and sustainability. The first few minutes of each session began with participants posting comments related to the questions of the theme in CoLabS. Researchers then facilitated discussion using these comments.
To deductively examine our qualitative data we adopted three following principles of food system resilience: how vertical agriculture development may decentralize food systems, increase individual agency and capacity to respond to disturbances, and diversify food systems. A combination of deductive analysis (using the three principles for food system resilience defined above) and inductive approaches (cataloguing additional and emergent themes outside the three principles) were used to thematically code the focus group data (see Tables 2 and 3). Combining deductive with inductive approaches to data analysis is a strategy to ensure that a holistic account of all that was said during the focus group is captured (Azungah 2018). Focus group transcripts and chat files were coded by using the software NVivo 12. The food system resilience framework (previously defined) was used to deduce in what ways participants thought vertical agriculture might contribute to food system resilience. Additional emergent themes were sorted from the transcripts and are described below.
Opportunities for decentralizing food systems
Focus group stakeholders discussed decentralization as both a key strategy for food system development and a potentially achievable goal for the vertical farming industry. The participants highlighted that a more decentralized food system is empowering to the public and a strategy to instill public trust in food growing technologies. Participants viewed the opportunity to grow food locally through vertical agriculture as a method to increase trust and transparency in urban food systems, providing the public with opportunities to be more closely involved in food growing. Some stakeholders were hopeful that vertical agriculture could contribute to decentralization:
...[B]ut maybe there’s a way to distribute the [vertical] growing, not so industrialized in one location, but decentralize it and have local growers...I mean, I wish everybody grew their own food, really. But if there was a way to distribute the food like I said more locally and also by local people, and that...and it was trusted (RS4).
A theme that was shared by multiple participants was that vertical growing technologies are adaptable for a variety of scales and places, including places not typically associated with food growing. Not only can vertical agriculture facilities be highly industrialized in large-scale production facilities, but they can operate in shipping containers, within building lobbies, or even in small-scale home units. A specific avenue for vertical agriculture to contribute to food system decentralization was through setting up facilities within public institutions, such as hospitals and schools. One participant argued that in such places of high food consumption, vertical agriculture could reduce the need for challenging and large-scale procurement logistics: “So then in areas where you do have like a lot of consumption, say again, cafeterias, hospitals, whatever that would even take sort of the drop off logistics out of the equation as well” (RS1).
Considerations for decentralizing food systems
Stakeholders also identified several potential barriers to vertical agriculture contributing to food system decentralization. Chief among those barriers were challenges related to competing land use priorities as well as prohibitive local zoning laws. At this time in the local study area of the Fraser Valley, British Columbia, warehousing and industrial buildings are expensive to rent and difficult to come by (Western Investor 2022). In this context of competitive land use priorities and competitive commercial real-estate markets, vertical agriculture facilities have to compete with other potential industrial sectors. Thus, as one participant describes, despite the appeal for repurposing industrial buildings for agricultural production, there are severe supply issues that make it challenging: “So the...land costs [for vertical agriculture] may end up being a bit less than if you’re trying to find a location within an industrial area. But there’s been a shortage for many years and it’s just becoming more and more extreme” (RS2).
On top of market-based challenges for finding suitable growing spaces, there are local government and regulatory-related difficulties, as well. Vertical agriculture’s ability to operate anywhere, although theoretically able to decentralize agricultural production, makes it difficult from a planning perspective to know where these facilities “belong.” As one participant described, there is not yet flexible zoning for vertical agricultural production that could occur on industrial or residential land:
And then the other side too is you could put it on car-parks or in a warehouse, but it doesn’t allow from the land use and the zoning side. So there was a lot of, you know, where do they fit? So that’s from me professionally was trying to say, yes, you know, this is a growing sector, but where do we put these type of farms...? (AS2).
Agency and choice
Opportunities for increasing agency and choice for food systems actors
Participants discussed how vertical agriculture might reconnect the public and consumers with agriculture. The hope expressed by several participants was for vertical agriculture to involve diverse segments of the population, and particularly those who are more vulnerable or at risk of food insecurity, although whether this was likely or possible was uncertain to participants. Such potential for reconnection through vertical agriculture could be done through public-facing displays of food growing and food production education. Further, one participant highlighted how vertical agriculture is more intuitive and scientifically accessible to the general public compared to other emerging technologies, such as cellular agriculture. This is because of vertical agriculture’s technological similarities (its indoor, year-round aspects) to greenhouse growing: “I think it’s probably compared to the greenhouse industry. So I think there’s already precedence [for vertical agriculture]...So I think we’re used to it unlike, say, cellular [agriculture]...which we don’t quite understand” (RS4).
Another opportunity for vertical agriculture to contribute to agency and choice, like opportunities described in the section on decentralization, is by increasing participation within food systems. If vertical agriculture is developed in a decentralized manner, there will possibly be more opportunities for public engagement in food growing and care. Including a wider array of actors in food production possibly decreases reliance on large-scale producers, a key component of increasing agency and choice.
Considerations for increasing agency and choice for food systems actors
Focus group stakeholders highlighted a few concerns over the social implications (i.e., agency and choice) relating to vertical agriculture technologies. A key theme that emerged was a concern that vertical agriculture would not be accessible to vulnerable groups in society. Participants highlighted how vertical agriculture could be governed in a variety of ways, catering to diverse markets and consumer groups. As one participant noted, there ought to be a decision for whom vertical agriculture will be developed and marketed: “who ultimately would want to buy that and who is your target audience? Is it for food sustainability or food security within a local city? Or is it for high-end people who can afford it?” (RS4). If vertical agriculture products or technologies are inaccessible to vulnerable groups, those groups are unable to exercise choice related to their participation (or lack thereof) in this emerging approach to food production.
Overall, several participants saw these technologies as transparent for the general public and as able to reconnect the general public with food systems. These outcomes are precursors for increased trust and greater marketplace choice. As another participant described, such transparency is important for the public to be able to make their own decisions about vertical agriculture: “...letting people make their own decisions about how they feel about vertical farming” (AS3).
Opportunities for diversifying food systems
Focus group participants discussed diversifying food systems (in particular, increasing the amount of locally grown food) as a key goal for food systems development. Participants highlighted the increasing occurrence of extreme weather events in the region as a key motivation for diversifying the number of local places producing multiple crops. As one participant described while reflecting on flooding events in the Fraser Valley during November: “I think, you know, in light of what was going on over the last few months where communities were isolated for five days or more, having that opportunity to have at least some produce and smaller grown and smaller communities, I think would be a benefit [for vertical agriculture]” (RS2).
Vertical agriculture was discussed as a method to achieve this diversification. One key strategy to diversify food supply discussed in focus groups was through integrating vertical agriculture within public and emergency food programming. One participant representing a food bank and community food program described the challenges of accessing fresh vegetables, and the potential for vertical agriculture to augment their food hamper program:
...[M]aybe we can find a warehouse or a building that’s not being utilized or some landlord will give us the building and we can invest in growing some nutritionally dense, high-quality food to add to those food hampers. I think we'd need to do more than just lettuce, but that’s the possibility that I see that really excites me. It's not something that's easy for a food bank to acquire, fresh vegetables. (RS1).
Considerations for diversifying food systems
Although participants expressed optimism regarding the potential for vertical agriculture to diversify food supply chains, they described challenges in terms of crop diversification. Participants noted how leafy greens like lettuce, the main crops currently emphasized in vertical production, are not nutritionally dense and may have limited food security outcomes. For vertical agriculture to be successful and achieve broader goals, it ought to be able to accommodate a variety of crops.
Engineered resilience for consistent crop production
An additional theme that emerged during focus groups was vertical agriculture’s potential to safeguard production from weather-related disturbance. Participants highlighted how vertical agriculture can contribute to making food systems more resistant to undesired changes, particularly with respect to the impacts of climate change. Even so, focus group participants expressed concern over the implications of vertical agriculture technologies for farmers whose livelihoods this emerging technology may disrupt. In this vein, participants noted the importance of framing vertical agriculture’s potential transformation from producers’ perspectives. For example, is this going to be something that interrupts conventional farming systems or adds onto existing production practices?
Consumer preferences: barriers for adoption of vertical agriculture
Much discussion within each focus group was toward the marketability of vertical agriculture and vertically-produced crops. Participants discussed how, socially, there are barriers to vertical agriculture adoption and widespread consideration. Factors such as perceived (un)naturalness, lack of familiarity with the technology or openness to alternative growing methods, and lack of transparency around growing production processes were considered as barriers. For example, regardless of vertical agriculture’s purported benefits, these benefits would have to be weighed on an individual, consumer-by-consumer basis. In other words, in the current market-based food systems context, consumers would ultimately dictate the adoption of vertical agriculture as an adaptation for more resilient food systems.
These challenges were advanced by several participants who noted that a variety of factors, including the types of crops that are grown, opportunities for organic certification, and nutritional properties, will dictate vertical agriculture’s widespread adoption. Overall, focus group participants highlighted how vertical agriculture’s acceptance within current market-based food systems will shape its potential for increasing food system resilience. Potential consumer concerns for vertically grown produce that focus group participants discussed included fears about the perceived naturalness of indoor growing as well as its nutritional value compared to organic or conventional produce. Table 3 summarizes the deductive and inductive themes described above.
This study sought to better understand the dynamics of vertical agriculture’s potential contributions to food system resilience, leveraging insights from focus groups with civil society stakeholders who play an active role in local food systems in the Fraser Valley, British Columbia. Focus group participants identified a variety of opportunities and also considerations for vertical agriculture to contribute to the following key food system resilience principles: decentralizing food systems; increasing decision-making capability for food systems’ actors; as well as diversifying the places in which food is grown, accessed, and what species/cultivars of crop are grown.
We acknowledge that the results presented here did not include the wider community (i.e., the resident, household, and food service provider) and their accounts of vertical agriculture’s potential contribution to food system resilience. The focus group represented a sample of stakeholders whose perspectives were explored based on their present involvement in local economic development and food systems, experiences in urban agriculture, as well as their views on the prospects of developing farms in their local community. Future research is required to account for broader considerations from community members that are not directly involved in local food system governance or management. In addition, vertical agriculture is not currently widely practiced in the Fraser Valley region. Re-engagement with study participants following the future implementation of vertical agriculture technologies may shed light on actual observations of this technology’s impact on the ground. The study was limited by the use of a cross-sectional design focused on the Lower Mainland of British Columbia, i.e., the Fraser Valley region. This may limit the interpretation and transferability of the findings to the wider or adjacent municipalities where vulnerability through extreme weather events is not as recurrent and land sparing potential through vertical farming is not necessarily viewed as a viable option to safeguard food system resilience.
Key recommendations for vertical agriculture to contribute to food system resilience are illustrated in Figure 2. The recommendations in the outer ring all contribute, to some extent, to each of the three dimensions of food system resilience in the center. However, each recommendation’s relative placement corresponds with the dimension to which it most closely contributes (e.g., increasing local food assets corresponded most closely in focus group discussions with decentralization and diversification).
Promoting distributed vertical production
There is much interest in popular and academic discussions regarding the potential for vertical agriculture to decentralize and localize food systems (e.g., Despommiers 2010, 2013). Our results confirm that of other studies that have found a positive public perception of this technology as a means to localize food production, distribution, and consumption (see Broad et al. 2022). In this research, we spoke to stakeholders currently working across food systems to better understand how decentralization might occur in practice. Focus group participants expressed optimism that vertical agriculture could contribute to the decentralization of food production and distribution. They discussed how vertical agriculture maintains the ability to operate across multiple scales, from home kitchens to large public institutions, such as hospitals. Further, participants indicated that rather than relying on large-scale production and distribution systems to provide fresh food to consumers, vertical agriculture could potentially operate in a decentralized manner where food value chain processes are hyper-localized.
In this vein, a key priority for vertical agriculture to maximally contribute to food system decentralization is through incentives for highly productive, small-scale, distributed production systems (home, neighborhood, or municipality-focused). A key focus here is on the scale of the technology and access points where individuals and consumers can grow or obtain vertically grown produce. As such, an industrial-sized vertical farm producing vegetables and fruits that are aggregated and subsequently distributed to large-scale retailers to sell to consumers would do less for food system decentralization than smaller-scale units that supply fresh produce outside conventional distribution models (e.g., students procuring vegetables grown vertically in their school, or apartment dwellers procuring vegetables grown in their building’s basement). Such diversity of production and decentralized retailing systems enable direct interactions between consumers and producers, allowing for efficiency and transparency in value chains and therefore increased agency and choice in food systems (MacPherson et al. 2022).
Another key set of considerations that emerged from focus group discussions was as follows: how do land use regulations and competing land use priorities determine where and at what scale vertical agriculture happens? Much of the literature considers the potential for vertical agriculture to occur within industrial areas, rooftops, parking lot, bunkers, abandoned buildings or other underutilized spaces in urban and peri-urban regions (Armanda et al. 2019, Specht et al. 2019). Leveraging underutilized (and urban) spaces to produce food is crucial for countries heavily reliant on food imports (Hardy et. 2021). Yet, vertical agriculture may also be implemented within agricultural regions.
The region of study makes this consideration particularly important given the lack of available commercial and industrial real estate in urban regions, as well as recent amendments to agricultural land use zoning (the Agriculture Land Reserve) that would allow for the incorporation of vertical agriculture into agriculturally zoned regions of British Columbia, Canada (BC Agriculture Council 2020). This amendment to the Agriculture Land Reserve (ALR) Act could allow for both distributed as well centralized vertical agriculture industry development. On one hand, landowners can repurpose existing buildings (e.g., barns) on ALR land to produce more food. On the other hand, highly productive grow structures can possibly be developed on fallow agricultural land and integrated within existing supply chains, catering to a more centralized model of development. Allowing for the incorporation of vertical agriculture in a variety of contexts (urban, rural, in households, public institutions, etc.) could increase vertical agriculture’s potential to decentralize food systems and thus contribute to food system resilience. However, if vertical agriculture were to scale and integrate within conventional supply chains (in rural or urban areas), this would potentially do less for food system decentralization. Answering these questions requires spatial analysis to determine where vertical agriculture could happen, at what scales, and with what potential implications for food system resilience.
Increasing technology and product accessibility
Scholars document a variety of accessibility concerns related to vertical agriculture (see, e.g., Broad et al. 2020, Carolan 2022). Production costs are high due to capital requirements, real estate prices, and ongoing energy costs, and much focus has been placed upon the production of high-end, quick turnover crops, such as leafy greens (Al-Kodmany 2018). Thus, some suggest that the potential food security benefits of this technology are limited and relegated to higher income individuals who can afford to access growing facilities and vertically grown produce (Goodman and Minner 2019). Our results echo some of these concerns. Participants discussed how, without allowing for broader market-based participation (in access to both vertical growing technologies or the products themselves), vertical farming could risk limiting itself as a boutique, high-end product. It is important to note, however, that high-income households may not necessarily constitute most consumers, as facility location and other socio-demographic and preference-related factors may negatively influence their willingness to pay for vertically grown crops. Related to food system resilience, there would be higher public participation (and thus agency and choice) where there is opportunity for individuals or communities to set up their own vertical farming systems or where product costs are more accessible. On a broader level, some scholars advance concerns that vertical agriculture may contribute to gentrification in urban areas and are often prioritized over other more accessible forms of urban agriculture, such as soil-based growing methods (Carolan 2020). These concerns were not advanced during focus group discussion and would require further research and discussion in this geographic context.
Several participants suggested that vertical agriculture could contribute to increasing agency and choice in the food system (and thereby resilience) in other ways. For example, stakeholders noted that vertical growing is more intuitive and understandable to the public than other novel food technologies (like cellular agriculture), given its similarities with greenhouse growing. Thus, participants were optimistic about the potential for vertical agriculture to reconnect the public with agriculture. For example, where vertical agriculture is developed for home-scale use, in public institutions, or is incorporated into educational materials and experiences, there is opportunity for greater public say over how and in what ways these technologies are developed and used. In these scenarios, an individual can be both a producer as well as a consumer of food (see, e.g., Fonte 2013 for a similar discussion with respect to buying clubs).
This discussion is particularly relevant for instances where vertical agriculture can be utilized in community food programming, paving the way for those most disconnected from the food system (including those most food insecure) to take part in vertical growing. Participants noted that the broadest social benefits for vertical farming were likely to come from its institutionalization in schools and hospitals, echoing the recommendations of Goodman and Minner (2019). These considerations advance scholarship that explores questions such as: resilience for whom (Meerow and Newell 2019)? As discussed above, how vertical agriculture is governed and put in place can make it more or less accessible to diverse members of the public, such as vulnerable populations experiencing food insecurity or farmers and agricultural workers.
Overall, much of the literature that explores decision-making autonomy as components of food system resilience considers farmers, specifically, and if and how they are forced to grow specific crops or engage in specific practices because of market pressures (e.g., Rotz and Fraser 2015). From this focus group research, it is clear that a broader definition of “the public” is important to consider when identifying food system resilience opportunities and considerations.
Increasing local food assets
Focus group participants discussed how vertical agriculture could contribute to diversifying and augmenting local food assets. In the context of regional flooding events and other observed climate change impacts the Fraser Valley, vertical agriculture was perceived as a highly desirable approach to food production alongside other approaches to bolstering local food. In this vein, vertical agriculture could contribute to the “multi-functionality” of food systems (Hodbod and Eakin 2015) by developing distribution chains for regional markets in the Fraser Valley rather than for export.
It is important to note that the potential contributions of vertical agriculture to food system resilience are not guaranteed and will vary place to place as well as depend upon the scale of operations (van Delden et al. 2021). Although no peer-reviewed yield estimates are currently available within British Columbia, other regions have been explored. For example, Goodman and Minner (2019) argued that production quality and volumes from vertical agriculture in New York city were, at the time of writing, insufficient to contribute much in the way of food security; however, under optimistic land use scenarios (i.e., where vertical agriculture production were to occur on 484 rooftops suitable for commercial production), this method of production alone could meet and possibly exceed city needs for dark greens. In Singapore, for instance, where food security is a priority because of land scarcity and a commitment to enhancing domestic food supply, vertical farming already produces 10% of leafy green vegetables indoors (Benke and Tomkins 2017). Thus, the scale at which vertical agriculture operates and the types of crops that are grown will influence its potential contributions to food system resilience.
An important consideration for vertical agriculture is its limitation to leafy greens. Although grow systems are experimenting with diverse cultivars of greens or berries, they are nevertheless currently limited to higher value, quick turnover crops (Shubha et al. 2019). From a resilience perspective, crop diversification within vertical production is crucial to achieve more widespread benefits. As food prices continue to inflate, both availability and affordability of local or imported vegetables continue to be a challenge. This predicament may present an opportune scenario for vertical farming, beyond filling gaps in public and emergency food programming, to form a strong presence in domestic production and consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables in Canada. British Columbia, in particular, is uniquely positioned for research and development into diverse vertically grown crops because of its high cultural and demographic diversity (Statistics Canada 2012). In that regard, vertical agriculture presents the potential to experiment or even integrate the production of nutritionally dense vegetable, herbs, or fruit varieties of tropical-climate or high farmgate values that would otherwise be difficult to produce in soil-based farms year-round. This may not only diversify crop variety and build local food assets but reduce dependence on importing such crops.
Transformation for resilience - policy and governance considerations
Food policies aimed at addressing food system resilience issues are often formulated at an international or national level (Bellows and Hamm 2003). In the events of localized, extreme weather conditions however, disaster recovery is often stifled by top-down power dynamics that affects (vulnerable) communities who have little control to respond. The application of agriculture 4.0 technologies, such as vertical agriculture, in decentralized and local food systems can possibly achieve region- and site-specific food system needs (MacPherson et al. 2022). To that effect, vertical agriculture could be leveraged as a preventive (proactive/precautionary) policy option to safeguard food systems in vulnerable communities and their microclimates. Compared to a top-down approach to food system governance, efficient resource use and management is more likely through a decentralized approach where, typically, government responsibilities are delegated to local authorities and the autonomy of local food system actors is recognized. In this vein, there is a need for more local levels of government designation of the appropriate zoning and regulatory niche into which vertical agriculture fits and optimally operates in the agri-food sector.
This exploration of vertical agriculture offers different insights for considerations within and across various dimensions of food system resilience, and although these insights are provided in separate sections, there are clear commonalities among them. In particular, the degree of food systems’ change that will be observed upon the introduction of vertical agriculture depends upon how this technology is adopted and implemented in practice, supported or hindered via public policy, and, broadly, how it is governed. Some scholars examine these questions through a degree of change framework (e.g., Moore et al. 2018), considering more or less “transformative” scenarios for the implementation of new food technologies (see, e.g., Newell and Glaros 2023). This framing stimulates thinking around possible futures for vertical agriculture. Will it primarily develop through fewer facilities located near urban centers catering boutique, higher end food commodities (i.e., incremental change); or will more significant progress toward resilient food systems be achieved through decentralized industry growth and integration into multiple economic paradigms with multiple forms of publicly supported, community- and market-based governance (i.e., transformative change)? The latter would offer economic development, local resilience, and food security benefits to a wider range of communities, from large urban centers to rural and remote towns.
This type of analysis leads to the question: how can transitions to more resilient vertical agriculture development scenarios be steered, shaped, or otherwise incentivized? Tensions between the “likely and realistic” and the “idealistic and desirable,” respectively, are often seen in incremental versus transformative development path changes (Kish and Quilley 2017). The nature of this tension is such that it can be easy to engage in realism and discount the idealistic scenarios; however, when examining possible futures and “steps to get there,” it is important to open space for the possibility of the desirable, even if it is not realistic. Taking such a perspective allows for long-term planning and strategizing, that is, incremental change may be what is experienced in the near term, but programs and policies could be implemented to guide vertical agriculture toward a transformative trajectory. As such, incentives for commercial farming at different scales for vertical agriculture could support incremental transformation for food system resilience in the short term (Armanda et al. 2019), while providing a foundation for resource mobilization to support more transformative visions in the longer term. In this regard, public-private partnerships to galvanize and mobilize vertical agriculture of all scales would serve as a first line of potential policy. Early research indicates that financing an estimated annual incremental investment of US$1.97 billion into agricultural research and development is a cost-effective way to support climate change adaptation and offset its impacts (Sulser et al. 2021). Public-private partnerships with vertical agriculture technology developers and local actors (i.e., growers, distributors, retailers, community food organizations) could contribute to food system resilience and addressing local and regional food insecurity in a climate-uncertain future. Although policy change at a variety of levels could support more transformative scenarios for vertical agriculture development, the local municipal or regional scale may be the most concrete for observing and directing change (see Carolan 2020). Funding agreements, partnerships, and policy analysis between industry, academia, not-for-profits, and local government could stimulate the form of place-based action necessary for distributed, accessible, and scaled out vertical agricultural development.
Many scholars argue that planning for resilience and sustainability requires integrated approaches that recognize the linkages among environmental, economic, and social factors (Ling et al. 2009, Newell and Dale 2021). In support of this argument, this paper highlights how vertical agriculture will only contribute to transitions to resilient food systems outcomes if it is implemented with supporting policies and programs at the local level that advance decentralization, diversification, and decision-making autonomy for vulnerable food system actors. In the context of our study, achievements in vertical farming development and its resulting contribution to food systems resilience depends on wide-ranging factors, including local availability of resources (e.g., land and site suitability), coordination with local agricultural practices, and the willingness of food systems actors to adopt advanced techniques that vertical farming operation duly requires. Critical challenges in this system include high startup costs, operating energy costs, and specialized skills needed to run the farms. Our exploratory study also revealed that future development and adoptions of vertical farms must consider their environmental impact in various contexts, as well as socio-demographic, socioeconomic, consumer food preference, and overall food market dynamics of the locality where they are envisaged to be developed.
In particular, programs and policies that incentivize the growth of vertical agriculture (and other indoor agriculture systems) in places not often thought of as sites of food production, such as public institutions or within homes, are required to ensure accessibility and effective contributions to food system resilience objectives. We reaffirm here, however, that given the regional specificity of our research, our findings may only be generalizable to similar geographic contexts. Further work is therefore necessary to understand where and how emerging technologies such as vertical agriculture may fit into local food systems. Integrated approaches to policy-making also contribute to addressing potential tradeoffs across multiple sustainability dimensions, recognizing “blind spots,” developing more robust systems of sustainability indicators, and facilitating tradeoff analysis (Kanter et al. 2018). There are no policy mechanisms for vertical agriculture that will avoid all trade-offs and impacts to every food systems actor within the global food system; however, it is still important to recognize who may benefit and/or be impacted more when following a particular approach. Such recognition can support thinking and approaches for ensuring the most affected are supported during disruptive, yet necessary, transitions toward new and more sustainable and resilient food systems.
RESPONSES TO THIS ARTICLE
Responses to this article are invited. If accepted for publication, your response will be hyperlinked to the article. To submit a response, follow this link. To read responses already accepted, follow this link.
We grateful acknowledge the funding provided through the Mitacs Accelerate program that supported this work.
The data that support the findings of this study are available on request from the corresponding author, [AG]. None of the data are publicly available because they contain information that could compromise the privacy of research participants. Ethical approval for this research study was granted by the University of the Fraser Valley Human Research Ethics Board (100998).
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Table 1. Summary of focus group participants.
|Civil society stakeholder group
|Number of participants
|Community food organization
|Food growers (homesteaders and small businesses)
Table 2. Overview of deductive themes.
|Potential opportunity: vertical agriculture is adaptable to a variety of scales. Public institutions, such as schools and hospitals, can leverage vertical farming technologies.
|“And so, thinking about it more on the smaller scale in terms of, you know, a shipping container in every parking lot or whatever. I know there are like indoor home kits that you can get and put in your kitchen. There could be one in every school, in every vestibule of every school” (RS2).
|Concerns: local zoning regulations that prevent agricultural production, and competing land use priorities and demand for commercial real estate. Cost-prohibitive technology as a market-entry barrier to vertical farming.
|“I am finding that there is an awful shortage of suitable commercial space [for vertical agriculture]” (RS4).
|Agency and choice
|Potential opportunity: reconnecting individuals who are disconnected from the food system. Vertical agriculture is an easily understandable and communicable technology.
|“But I think what I see is that there is so much potential for vertical agriculture to become a solution to many different food security problems and hopefully to involve segments of the population who have become disconnected from agriculture” (RS2).
|Concerns: marketing vertical agriculture as a boutique, high-end commodity.
|“It would be interesting to know how...vertical farms would be communicated. Would it be known as supporting local or would it be affordable for people who have food insecurity issues who need to access fresh fruits?” (AS2).
|Potential opportunity: increasing the number of places in which food is grown and where retailers and/or consumers can access food.
|“I've done a few tours and seeing the success of...vertical farming...I can just see it coming in surplus within the city, the assets and just, you know, residential, commercial and industrial need for vertical farming” (AS3).
|Concerns: few crops able to be grown using this technology.
|“So I think if there are more varieties, not just lettuce, it just gives the consumer more opportunities” (RS4).
Table 3. Overview of inductive themes.
|Potential opportunity: consistent crop production, year-round, safeguarded from climate change impacts and adverse weather.
|“As a farmer, any time you can take weather out of the equation, that’s a good thing. So, you know, as our weather, I mean, this past year, we just had pretty much every disaster you could have. And it showed in our yield. So I’m on board for vertical farming” (RS4).
|Concerns: disruption of long-standing practices of and related social and economic values from traditional/soil-based food production system.
|“...is vertical farming going to be something that takes over, that replaces conventional farming? Or is the hope for vertical farming to be something that is in addition to conventional farming?” (RS2).
|Potential opportunity: value proposition aimed at safeguarding food security as a key avenue to substantiate vertical agriculture benefits.
|“But again, I think it still comes down to the value proposition for the consumer. So clean and nutritious, obviously, taste trumps everything. So you just got to meet those hurdles...” (RS5).
|Concerns: market-based and perceived barriers for adoption of vertical agriculture technologies.
|“Yeah, I think we’re talking about lettuce right now, but I know some of the farms are right now doing research on strawberries, even asparagus. So different products. And I think that’s where the consumers will decide, becomes availability, the cost, what is its nutritional value, and what’s organic” (AS2).