Growing up…vertical farming

Dickson Despommier, a professor at Columbia University, talks vertical farming

 Vertical Farming

Vertical farming–as the name suggests–refers to cultivating crops in multi-story greenhouses. These vertical farms are fitted with modern technology (hydroponics, aeroponics and aquaponics) and enable crops to be grown in the center of urban areas. Being a closed-loop agricultural system, it's the cleanest industry you can imagine, filtering dirty air and rain water during the process.

The concept of vertical farming has been around since the 1980s–when we started to realize a change was necessary–but didn’t evolve into a viable solution until the late 1990s, thanks to technical advances.

However, today we can no longer avoid the need to find new solutions. One example are wine growing regions which can be used as a barometer to measure climate change as grapes require such a specific regime of humidity and temperature to grow. In fact, according to wineologists, in 50 years wine growers in Bordeaux will no longer be able to grow grapes in the region. We can see in many regions that optimal wine growing conditions are moving north in the northern hemisphere and south in the southern hemisphere–for example, ideal climatic conditions for growing the Pinot Noir grape are shifting steadily north from the Napa Valley, towards northern California and even into Oregon.

These changes are also having a tangible impact on corn, wheat, barley, rice and other cash crops. As our populations expand we will need to start growing crops in new regions that don’t necessarily have the correct soil types. Vertical farming provides the opportunity to bypass these regional environmental hurdles by creating prime exterior conditions indoors.

Benefits of vertical farming

  1. Year-round crop production – there are no seasons in a vertical farm, so any crop that can be grown indoors can be produced year-round, locally
  2. Requires very little water – water is scarce in many locations but water used in vertical farming is recycled in a closed loop cycle which means availability and waste of resources is not a problem
  3. Employment opportunities – vertical farms are located in the city and therefore provide employment, in a pleasant environment for urban dwellers
  4. No soil contamination – with no agricultural run-off, need for fertilizers or heavy metal contamination, vertical farming eliminates the usual pitfalls associated with outdoor traditional farming
  5. Repurposes old buildings – warehouses equipped with the right infrastructure make the ideal vertical farm, negating the need to destroy old buildings

Encouragingly, an increasing number of big companies are now getting on board with vertical farming and developing the idea at a corporate level, including Toshiba, Panasonic and Goldman Sachs–who are funding a large vertical farm in Newark, New Jersey. A clear demonstration that vertical farming is a viable and efficient way of growing food for urban populations and industry will have a core role in making this happen.

Vertical farms are also beginning to harness the power of natural energy sources. For example, the power of geothermal energy is being harnessed in places like Italy, USA, Iceland, New Zealand and Japan. Huge opportunities also exist in places like Australia where the climate is favorable and solar energy could be used. There will be a whole host of alternative energy solutions to generate electricity for these farms, meaning the more we invest in thinking about how to do things ecologically, the more economical the process of vertical farming will become.

Vertical farming presents a huge investment opportunity, and as you would expect, the concept is now gaining extensive global interest thanks to the possibility of creating inexpensive, healthy and locally produced food.

For example, we only need to look to China which has employed US company, Green Sense Farms, to develop 20 vertical farms across major cities in the country.


Farms of the Future

Solar powered irrigation system

SunCulture is providing solar-powered irrigation systems for farmers in Kenya, enabling them to grow additional fresh fruits and vegetables at less cost. The system–delivering water directly to crop roots–provides yield gains of up to 300 percent and 80 percent water savings.1 In areas of low and unpredictable rainfall, this system is proving invaluable and ensuring farmers can avoid high fuel costs, negating the need for diesel-powered generators.

Drones for crop management

Start-up PrecisionHawk has created a lightweight drone to gather high-resolution aerial data enabling the agriculture industry to “optimize area usage and increase land use efficiency”. The system–integrating drones and software–provides information on “the status and health of crops and soil”, enabling maximum crop yield. Going one step further, the drone can also identify areas at risk of drought, detect disease (in plants and animals) and estimate growing time for crops. A highly useful tool for drought affected regions.

Dairy hubs

A dairy hub refers to community dairy “development programs” which have been launched successfully in Bangladesh and Pakistan and are currently being piloted in East Africa and India. Linking smallholder farmers to dairy processors, this model enables cost cutting, higher incomes, healthier livestock as well as access to proper infrastructure. With milk being an important source of energy, vitamins and minerals, it also increases the availability of a long term supply of safe, affordable and local milk in these regions.


CONTRIBUTORS

Dickson DespommierMicrobiologist and Ecologist

As an Emeritus Professor of Microbiology and Public Health at Columbia University, Despommier conducted laboratory research for 27 years, which he left in order to focus on globally relevant projects, such as parasitism and its impact on societies living in the tropics. In “Growing Up…Vertical Farming”, IN spoke with Despommier about vertical farming, and its critical role in achieving agricultural sustainability in urban environments.


Footnotes

1Sustainia 100 2015 http://issuu.com/sustainia/docs/sustainia100_2015/43?e=4517615/13109045

2The Good Stuff, 2015