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Vertical farming of cotton: a remedy for the backward linkage of BD RMG sector

The great headache

While strengthening the backward linkage, sourcing of cotton has always been a silent problem for Bangladesh. But we still haven’t found a holistic solution that can enable us to be completely independent for cotton sourcing. According to Cotton Development Board (CDB), about 44,185 hectares of land were brought under cotton cultivation in the 2018-19 FY with a production of 1,71,000 bales of cotton.

Vertical-Farming-cotton
Figure 1: vertical farming is the activity of growing crops in tall buildings with many floors. Courtesy: a2zpressrelease

 

As calculated by the International Trade Centre UNCTAD/WTO (ITC), Bangladesh has been the second-highest importer of cotton in the world for the last couple of years. As the textile industry is mostly a cotton-based industry, Bangladesh cannot think a single moment in the field of spinning industries without an uninterrupted supply of cotton fibre.

According to The Daily Star, Bangladesh imported 8.28 million bales of cotton in 2018. In dollar terms, the imports are worth $3 billion. The country produced only around 3 percent of the annual demand for 10 million bales which is not at all significant.

Moreover for Bangladesh, lead time is a serious bottleneck. Backward linkages pay a major role for the garment industry to reduce lead time and offer competitive price in the international market. When there is a delay in cotton import, manufacturing of yarn, fabric gets greatly hindered just like a Domino effect.

A theoretical remedy

growing cotton in a building like an infrastructure instead of an open field i.e. vertical farming which can be a trump card for the new age farming. The controlled environment coming with this type of farming as an obvious feature can reduce the risk of crop destruction due to natural calamities and insects, save the farmers from their dreams being shattered; solve way too many supply chain-related issues which are beyond our imagination.

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Figure 2: Challenges of conventional cotton cultivation in Bangladesh, image courtesy: author

What is vertical farming?

Actually this is the notion of vertical farming, revolutionizing horizontal farming by occupying the least amount of land and the greatest amount of yield. According to the Cambridge Dictionary, vertical farming is the activity of growing crops in tall buildings with many floors.

In an elaborate sense, vertical farming is the practice of growing crops in vertically stacked layers, incorporating controlled-environment agriculture, which aims to optimize plant growth, and soilless farming techniques such as hydroponics, aquaponics, and aeroponics. The environment is controlled with artificial light, temperatures, and necessary carbon dioxide. The plants are also provided with necessary plant nutrients. According to Cambridge Consultants, the term vertical farming was coined by American geologist Gilbert Ellis Bailey in 1915. In 1999, Dickson Despommier, a professor at New York’s Columbia University, popularized the modern idea of vertical farming.

Traditional-Vertical-Farming
Figure 3: Traditional vs Vertical Farming. Courtesy: author

An interesting study to look at

An engrossing study published in the National Academy of Sciences headlined ‘Wheat yield potential in controlled-environment vertical farms’ published on July 27, 2020 shows that the implementation of vertical farming can revolutionize the world’s ability to grow wheat. The study authors created two growth simulation models of a 10-layer vertical farm set up to grow wheat with optimal artificial light, temperatures, and carbon dioxide levels.

They found that the simulation could yield up to an incredible 1,940 metric tons of wheat per hectare of ground per year. For context, the current average wheat yield is just 3.2 metric tons per hectare of land. So it’s a miraculous 606.25 times more production than the widely practised horizontal farming. The wheat production simulation study is one of many, so, why not cotton?

Marvelous solutions we can get from vertical farming of cotton

There are many challenges that obstacles our cotton growth in the conventional horizontal farming. But vertical farming has a platter of holistic solutions to support the 3P’s of sustainability.

Greater efficiency: We can analyze the efficiency on the basis of 3 major aspects. The first aspect will be water usage. When growing crops in a vertical farm the water use will be lower than used in conventional farming. According to AeroFarms, over the years of development of techniques, the water usage of a vertical farm went down to 95% less than used at a conventional farm. The second aspect will be the growing time of the crops. Freight Farms found that the annual marketable yields of lettuce in a vertical farm is more than two times higher than the conventional one.

AeroFarms states that they grow their crops in 16 days instead of 30 days. The third and last aspect will be lost yield. According to the association for vertical farming 50% of the crops planted are not harvested with traditional farming opposite to 10% with vertical farming.

A win against pests and toxic chemicals: Cotton is the second-most damaging agricultural crop in the world; 25 percent of all pesticides used globally are put on cotton crops.  Most cotton is irrigated, and the combination of chemical application through pesticides and fertilizers with irrigation is a direct conduit for toxic chemicals to circulate in groundwater worldwide.

On the contrary, vertical farming’s totally controlled space gives the least chance to the pests to thrive. The highest cost on a farm are the pesticides, a vertical farm does not use pesticides and thus has lower costs and no chance of toxic chemicals being exposed to the environment.

A stand against volatile weather and natural calamities: Temperature rise and rainfall variability can damage crops. In the era of climate change, cotton is facing diverse abiotic stresses such as salinity, drought, toxic metals and environmental pollutants. Storms, other natural calamities can greatly damage the cotton crops. But in a vertical farm, we can control the environment. There is much less influence of such weather uncertainties.

Solve our supply chain based problems: Bangladesh currently has 430 spinning mills. If it is possible to utilize some spaces of each spinning mills to develop a cotton-growing vertical farm, a tremendous number of advantages will blossom. There will be no cost of transportation as the crop is grown just adjacent to the spinning mill, there will be no cost related to the processes for importing cotton from other countries, there will be no shipment cost.

The spinning mills will be able to get the best quality cotton within a controlled environment with the least amount of risk. In short, a lot of supply chain-related problems will be solved. The spinning mills can be independent to source their raw material for producing yarn.

Greater advantages in post-pandemic situations: As more international buyers are already searching for other trusted producers apart from China, there is a great advantage to be independent for sourcing raw materials. As international buyers want less lead time, a country which can show greater strength in their backward linkage can easily attract them.

But there are some certain limitations!

Some limitations are inherent in the nature of the cotton plant. Growing cotton in a controlled farming system can be quite challenging. A better understanding of cotton growth and development in commercial production is highly crucial in the continuing efforts of growers to produce cotton crops in vertical farms. This will also require experienced people for curating the whole process of the farm.

It requires massive amounts of energy to work, especially because unlike traditional farming, it requires artificial lighting systems. So to implement such kind of farming can be very difficult for a developing country like Bangladesh. But at an experimental level, it is obviously possible. Only intensive experiments can lead us to fruition.

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Figure 4: A comparison between the challenging side and the bright side of vertical cotton farming, image courtesy: author

Equalizing the costs

The massive Infrastructure and other set up costs, cost for educated personnel can be equalized and returned by the cost saved from the transportation for importing cotton from different countries, internal transportation costs,  fertilizers, damaged crops cost, fuel cost, labor cost and most importantly the environmental cost saved for a greener version of farming. As there is no transportation needed, there will be a faster supply chain. Faster supply of cotton will speed up the RMG production and as a result it will have a better impression on the foreign investors.

Conclusion

There was one time when almost everyone thought that flying in the air defying the law of gravity is impossible because all the experiments were failing at that time. But just when people came to that conclusion, the Wright Brothers came up with a contraption that could fly at large. The notion of vertical farming is just like that. It is very much promising and tantalizing at the same time. But proper utilization of this technology can change the backward linkage of Bangladesh and the whole world forever and it is for sure.

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