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Regional conditions shape the food–energy–land nexus of low-carbon indoor farming

Abstract

Modern greenhouses and vertical farming projects promise increased food output per unit area relative to open-field farming. However, their high energy consumption calls for a low-carbon power supply such as solar photovoltaic and wind, which adds to cost and overall land footprint. Here we use geospatial and mathematical modelling to compare open-field and two indoor farming methods for vegetable production in nine city-regions chosen globally with varying land availability, climatic conditions and population density. We find that renewable electricity supply is more costly for greenhouses per unit energy demand satisfied, which is due to the greater fluctuation in their energy demand profile. However, greenhouses have a lower energy demand per unit food output, which makes them the least land-intensive option in most of the analysed regions. Our results challenge the land-savings claims of vertical farming compared with open-field production. We also show that regionalizing vegetable supply is feasible in most regions and give recommendations based on the regional context.

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Fig. 1: Overview of the land-use comparison approach for open-field farming and two CEA farming practices.
Fig. 2: Spatial analysis results and regional characteristics.
Fig. 3: Renewable energy system indicators.
Fig. 4: Combined land-use requirements for both growing and renewable energy supply.
Fig. 5: Regional land-use requirements of CEA practices.

Data availability

The majority of the data that are important to interpret, verify and/or extend this work have been included either directly in the main text or detailed in Supplementary Tables 2 and 3. Further primary data are available at https://doi.org/10.6084/m9.figshare.14778804.v1 (ref. 95) and include the energy demand curves, vegetable basket and yield factor data, and the output from HOMER Pro and ArcGIS Pro. Publicly available third-party datasets are described in the Methods and are listed in refs. 58,59,60,61,62,64. Source data are provided with this paper.

Code availability

All computations are fully described in the Methods and in the Supplementary Information. HOMER Pro files and Excel files to generate the figures can be obtained from the corresponding author on reasonable request.

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Acknowledgements

Financial support for T.W. for the duration of his PhD project by the Clarendon Fund Scholarship is greatly appreciated. We thank the reviewers for their constructive feedback and generous efforts.

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T.W. developed the methodology, conducted the analysis and wrote the original draft. A.Y. aided in the conceptualization and development of the methodology, supervised T.W., validated the model and calculations and reviewed and edited the draft. F.F. validated parts of the methodology and the model and reviewed and edited the draft. M.W.H. conceptualized the work, validated the methodology, and reviewed and edited the draft.

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Correspondence to Aidong Yang or Michael W. Hamm.

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Weidner, T., Yang, A., Forster, F. et al. Regional conditions shape the food–energy–land nexus of low-carbon indoor farming. Nat Food 3, 206–216 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1038/s43016-022-00461-7

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