Vertical Farming vs Traditional Farming: What’s the Difference?

Vertical Farming vs Traditional Farming: What’s the Difference?

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Dennis Kamprad

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Farming is an important topic when it comes to sustainability. As our global population continues to grow, and cities continue to expand, how much land is used for food production and other crop growth is something to which we must set our minds. And next to traditional farming, more and more new urban adaptations, such as vertical farming, are becoming established. So we had to ask: What’s the difference between traditional and vertical farming?

Contrary to traditional (horizontal) farming, vertical farming is the agriculture of food in vertically stacked layers – often small-spaced urban areas. Well-designed vertical farming systems use less land, produce fewer greenhouse gases, use fewer resources, and protect our air, land, and waters.

By making clever use of resources, reducing the amount of land required to feed our ever-growing cities, and bringing food production right into the heart of more urban areas, vertical farming can open up opportunities for the rewilding and restoration of acres of degraded land, the restoration of ecological balance and the forging of stronger links between those who grow food and those who consume it. 

How Are Vertical Farming and Traditional Farming Defined

If you are unfamiliar with the concept of vertical farming, you should know, first of all, that it is exactly what it sounds like. Rather than spreading crop production over horizontal farm fields, vertical farming concentrates production into far more limited spaces. 

What Does the Dictionary Say About Vertical and Traditional Farming?

As our global population grows, farming is changing. Vertical farming is a response to food needs that allows high yields to be delivered from small spaces, without the use of land and resources that traditional farming requires.

Vertical farming: the activity of growing crops in many layers, one above the other, inside a building or under the ground, often in a specially controlled environment.”

Cambridge Dictionary

Numerous innovations in soil-less food production techniques such as hydroponics, aquaponics, aeroponics, and other practices have enabled something of a revolution in sustainable agriculture. These innovations have allowed for the refinement of vertical growing solutions, and the use of marginal or inner-city spaces for food production. 

Traditional farming: a primitive style of farming and food production that involves the intensive use of indigenous knowledge, land use, traditional tools, natural resources, organic fertilizer and cultural beliefs of the farmers.”

Pinduoduo

Traditional farming stands in stark contrast to these new and often high-tech vertical farms. Traditional farming, by this definition, is used by subsistence farmers around the world, and by sustainable food producers looking to redress the damage that 20th and 21st Century farmers have done (often by harkening back to a previous age). It shapes our rural landscapes, and defines our relationships to the land in many different ways. 

Both vertical farming and traditional food production seek to meet humanity’s needs. But they do so in rather different ways. 

What Do These Differences Between Vertical and Traditional Farming Mean

By harnessing the potential of vertical as well as horizontal space, vertical farming makes optimal use of smaller spaces. Vertical farming at its best is efficient, closed-loop food production, with tiered grow areas stacked in space to produce high yields, quickly, in limited spaces.

What are the main advantages of vertical farming?

While vertical farming can certainly provide some interesting solutions for the future of food production, it is important to understand that the ideas and concepts are still really in their infancy. There is still a lot of variety in the ways in which these ideas and concepts are applied and implemented – some far more efficient and effective than others. 

Vertical farming can:

  • Reduce the amount of land required for food production (meaning that the land can be used in better ways for people and the planet).
  • Make use of brownfield sites, marginal spaces, and urban sites currently under-utilized or neglected. 
  • Bring food production into the heart of cities – allowing a closer connection between people and their food, and producers and consumers. 
  • Provide much higher yields per area than traditional farming, while consuming fewer resources. 
  • De-couple food production from seasonal variation, and insulate it from changing weather patterns induced by global warming. 
  • Reduce environmental damage and degradation often caused by traditional farming. 
  • Limit pressure on food supply chains and help in tackling the massive infrastructure gaps for growing cities. 

What are the main advantages of traditional farming?

Large, intensive, mono-crop plantations and factory farming have a lot to answer for. They are a huge part of the problem and certainly not part of the solution for a more sustainable and eco-friendly food future. 

But where a regenerative approach is taken, traditional farms can:

  • Produce crops and livestock which cannot be produced in vertical farms.
  • Avoid the need for intensive energy use and investment sometimes required for vertical farming. 
  • Be closed-loop systems that require little to no external input (such as the metals and mined materials sometimes utilized heavily in vertical farming. 
  • Allow farmers and farmworkers to work closely with the land, and feel a connection to it.
  • Improve the landscape and enhance biodiversity, healing the land. 

Let’s have a closer look at the differences between these two farming concepts and their main benefits.

What Are the Key Differences Between Vertical Farming and Traditional Farming

Comparing key characteristics of vertical farming and regenerative traditional farming can help us to build up a clearer picture of the best options for a fairer, cleaner, and greener food future. 

Vertical FarmingTraditional Farming
Land UseSmall space friendly, vertical farmingLarge areas of farmland, horizontal farming
Water UseFewer water resources are usedWater use can vary, but generally, is higher
Energy UseOften high energy use (but renewable)Moderate energy use (if well managed)
GHG EmissionsRelatively low GHG emissions (with the right strategies)Relatively high GHG emissions
Pollution and Ecosystem DegradationMinimal pollution and ecosystem degradationMost farming damages the environment (but regenerative, organic farming can improve biodiversity and repair ecosystems)
Supply ChainsDecentralized food production system with fewer food miles and lower supply chain complexityCentralized food production system with more food miles and higher supply chain complexity

How Vertical Farming and Traditional Farming Differ in Land Use

Space usage has been essential in food production up until now. And land use is a key concern in the future of food production. There is a risk that as the global population grows, more and more land will have to be given over to feeding people, increasing deforestation and ecosystem destruction. Farmland is finite, so vertical farming, which uses far less space than traditional farming in fields, will form an important part of the solution. 

  • Vertical farming: Vertical farms use small areas of land – often spaces which cannot easily be usefully managed to meet other needs, often rooftops, disused buildings etc. in cities.
  • Traditional farming: Traditional farming takes up far more space. But when land is used for regenerative farming and rewilding, it can enhance ecosystems, rather than destroying them, and produce the foods vertical farming cannot. 

With vertical farming, space no longer plays an essential role in food production. Vertical farming allows food to be produced in small dedicated spaces pretty much anywhere in the city.

How Vertical Farming and Traditional Farming Differ in Water Use

Freshwater overuse and misuse is a major problem in today’s food systems. Agriculture accounts for 70 percent of water withdrawals worldwide and pollutes precious freshwater resources. Vertical farming uses less water, and avoids water pollution. And high water use in traditional farming can be significantly reduced through organic practices and clever water management schemes. In fact, traditional farming can even replenish aquifers and boost rainfall through tree plantations. 

  • Vertical farming: Low water use (in re-circulating systems). One main idea behind the vertical farming concept is that water gets recycled over and over again. With the hydroponic system, the water doesn’t enter the soil, nor does it evaporate. Instead, it is collected and stored in a reservoir and reused repeatedly.
  • Traditional farming: High water use (though it can be reduced through more sustainable, organic practices). Traditional farming uses soil and soil needs water for crops to grow. With the ever-increasing global population, food production requires even more agricultural expansion to meet the demand. As freshwater resources are limited, the expansion puts a strain on water bodies and aquifers that are already depleted.

By growing food in vertical farms – especially by creating closed-loop hydroponic systems, or better yet aquaponic systems which produce fish as well as leafy crops, fruits, and vegetables – water use for food production can be significantly reduced. Meanwhile, by switching to regenerative, organic practices used in traditional farming elsewhere, non-sustainable water use can be reduced still further as we meet our remaining food needs. 

How Vertical Farming and Traditional Farming Differ in Energy Use

As we switch to renewable energy sources and decarbonize our food systems, how much energy is required for farms will be a key concern. Traditional intensive agriculture is highly dependent on fossil fuels, and of course, the transition will not be easy. There is no shortage of energy from our sun. But renewable energy production must keep up as we alter our ways of life. 

  • Vertical farming: Often high (but renewable, and needs can be reduced). While different types of vertical farming systems do vary in their energy needs, energy consumption is more intensive in the indoor, controlled environments of vertical farms.
  • Traditional farming: Moderate to high – depending on methods (can be renewable in sustainable systems). 

Vertical farms grow more food, but they also use much more energy. Often, vertical farms rely on LED lighting and may have energy-intensive climate control systems. But innovations in vertical farms using natural light, and more holistic systems can ease the transition to renewables as generation struggles to keep up with ever-increasing demand. 

Careful design and thought about the specifics of renewable energy use in vertical farming can make it a solution for the future, alongside regenerative practices in traditional farming. 

How Vertical Farming and Traditional Farming Differ in GHG Emissions

The agriculture industry is one of the main culprits behind global warming and climate change. It is clear that both well thought-out vertical farms and regenerative farms can significantly reduce the greenhouse gas emissions associated with agri-business food production.

  • Vertical farming: Vertical farming has relatively low carbon emissions due to smaller land usage, simplified and innovative crop production methods, faster and simplified distribution and the creation of green spaces that play an essential role in oxygen generation and carbon storage. If powered by renewable energies, vertical farming could drastically impact global farming and climate change in a positive way.  
  • Traditional farming: Traditional farming has high GHG emissions because of land usage, crop production, the use of pesticides and chemical fertilizers, animal waste, and long supply chains. Regenerative farming can sequester more greenhouse gasses than it emits. 

For example, agroforestry approaches that incorporate crops with trees can become better than carbon neutral. Generally speaking, trees have an astonishing capacity to store carbon while growing. Research has shown that all tree species absorb CO2 from planting to old age (200 years plus). However, they reach their peak in terms of carbon sequestration in their ‘teenage’ years (from 10 to 45 years after planting).

Of course, the focus on renewables and on closed-loop systems, along with the careful use of resources, minimization of waste, and shorter supply chains mean that vertical farming can have very low associated emissions. But the right strategies, and careful thought about the use of materials and energy use must be employed. 

How Urban Farming and Vertical Farming Differ in Pollution and Ecosystem Degradation

Agriculture and food production degrade our environments in a range of ways. From the use of pesticides and herbicides, to nitrogen dead zones, to deforestation – harm is everywhere.

  • Vertical farming: Significantly reduces environmental harm. 
  • Traditional farming: Most farming damages the environment – but regenerative, organic farming can improve biodiversity and repair ecosystems. 

As closed-loop systems, with minimized inputs and zero waste, vertical farms do not come with the numerous pollution and ecosystem degradation issues of mono-crop agriculture and organic, sustainable traditional farming. But regenerative farming can also not only halt damage but also make things better. 

How Urban Farming and Vertical Farming Differ in Transportation, Distribution, and Supply Chains

Centralized food production systems through traditional farming no longer serve their initial purpose. Currently a major emitter, food production has the capacity not only to reduce emissions, but to mitigate climate change through carbon sequestration. But better infrastructure is required – not just on farms themselves but also throughout supply chains.

  • Vertical farming: Short supply chains, fewer food miles, greater connection. With vertical farming, food travels less from farm to processor to the retailer and then to the end consumer. This greatly reduces food mileage.
  • Traditional farming: Complex global supply chains – can be improved through localization of supply from sustainable local farms. With traditional farming, a vast logistical operation takes place to reach people living in the cities. As urbanization becomes a global trend, the food mileage index becomes larger and highly unsustainable.

The creation, for example, of local food hubs and local, sustainable, seasonal distribution channels is essential. Both vertical farms and regenerative farming practices are likely to play important roles in this effort. 

What Will the Future of Farming Look Like?

One thing is very clear – farming has to change. Fortunately, the solutions, both from vertical farming and in traditional farming are already here – we just need to implement them. 

  • Prediction 1: Cities will increasingly take care of their own food needs. (Though vertical farming and decentralized production.)
  • Prediction 2: Mono-crop farming and complex global food chains will increasingly face problems relating to our changing climate, biodiversity losses and soil and ecosystem degradation, hastening the switch to more sustainable practices. 
  • Prediction 3: Farming will no longer be looked at as distinct from forestry, societal systems and ecosystem restoration/rewilding. Regenerative practices will bring all concepts together. The lines in terms of food production between urban and rural will blend, bringing people to the land, and food production into closer proximity to people. 

Final Thoughts

Moving away from harmful agricultural practices will take a two-pronged approach: 

  1. We will need to reform farming practice in traditional farming (moving from the damaging practices of the ‘green revolution’ and mass agriculture, and towards regenerative farming). 
  2. But we also need to embrace the new approaches of vertical farming to bring food production back to the heart of our society and feed the rapidly growing global population. 

We need both vertical farming and reformed traditional farming to meet the needs of future generations.

By concentrating certain types of food production into these small areas, larger areas of land can be freed up for the use of regenerative farming and rewilding. Cities of the future can use vertical farms to reduce reliance on damaging, land-intensive farming practices.

Stay impactful,



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Dennis Kamprad

Dennis is the founder of Impactful Ninja and passionate about enabling you to make a positive impact on the world & society. He started his professional career as a Sustainability Consultant and has worked on several social projects around the world. Outside of work, he is a passionate salsa dancer, fast runner, and multiple Ironman finisher.

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