Sunday, December 8, 2019

An introduction to vertical farming

What is vertical farming?

One of the trends in agriculture is that of producing food in so called Vertical Farms. Although there are differences between Vertical Farming systems, very simply put: they are greenhouses in a building in the city. They are systems for growing crops indoor in vertically stacked layers.

The official definition of vertical farming comes from an expert in the field of Vertical Farming, Professor Dickson Despommier. He refers vertical farming as being a method of growing crops, “usually without soil or light, in beds stacked vertically in a controlled-environment building.”

vertical farming to improve crop yields
United Kingdom uses hyrdoponics in vertical farming

Did you know Vertical Farm (VF) is also known as, Plant Factory, Indoor Farm, High Rise farm? In the academic world it is called Controlled Environment Agriculture (CEA).

The most special feature of Vertical Farming is that its goal is to provide optimal growing conditions throughout the development of the plants, conditions that are almost optimal for each individual plant! The closed environment gives protection from outdoor influences and gives more ways to control the many uncertainties that cannot be controlled when growing crops outdoor.

Modern VF facilities can regulate lighting, humidity, temperature and nutrients with sophisticated sensors and climate control systems. Another CEA is that of stack containers so called container farm.

Vertical-Farm-Oasis-Biotech
Photo: credit Oasis Biotech

What is the history of vertical farming?

Vertical farming finds its origin in the desire of farmers to be able to better protect crops against external weather influences. Farmers started with placing glass roofs above the crops in the field and the first complete small-scale greenhouses were developed. Eventually, those small-scale greenhouses evolved to the greenhouses, we now use today. Conventional greenhouses can still be influenced by climate variations, like for example on cloudy days with reduced solar irradiation, influencing the climate within the greenhouse.

To eliminate influences from outside farmers, scientists and engineers started creating new concepts. Those concepts would have created better circumstances for plant growth than in traditional greenhouses. They used CO2 to improve yield and found they can grow crops without using soil by developing artificial growth mediums instead. Later on LED lighting and hydroponics was invented.

What are the benefits of vertical farming?

There is a wide range of possible benefits when farming vertical The benefits of growing indoor vary from the producers without the need of pest- and disease contro. Due to the closed system pests and diseases have less chance causing damage to a crop. Another advantage is that produce can be produced year round and can be produced close to its market, avoiding high transport costs and related CO2 emissions.

Newest developments show the integration of small vertical farming systems into supermarkets. A Berlin based company, called Infarm, is planning to sell its systems to supermarkets.

The table below presents possible benefits. Table 1. Possible benefits of vertical farming.

Environmental benefits: Environmental benefits: Social benefits Economical benefits
Reduction of Water Demands New Landscape Opportunities Job Opportunity Economic Opportunity For Land Scarcity
Energy Saving Reduction of Urban Head Island Greater Community Return of Investment
More Productivity Per Unit of Area Protect From Natural Disease Visual Amenity Minimization of Energy Cost
Healthy Food Provision Reduction of Herbicide and Pesticide Manufacture Education Low Price of Food
Reduction of Carbon Footprint And The Effect of Air Quality More Productivity Per Unit of Area Improved Food Security Community Economic Growth
Reduces Fossil Fuel Resilient to Climate Change Leisure Economic Opportunity For Land Scarcity
Recycling of Organic Waste Acting As a Sound Insulator Psychological/Spiritual Health Return of Investment

(source F. Kalantari/ Opportunities and challenges in sustainability of vertical farming: a review)

Do you still need sunlight?

Not really. An old building that has been empty for a while would be a great object, even when there is no natural light. The choice for demolition or renovation is not always the best solution because of the expenses. With vertical farming it is possible to create a new way to use (unused) real estate.

Lighting is key part in indoor farming. Design of an indoor farm can be built so that as much as possible natural sunlight can enter the building. There is also need for artificial light. There are two options: LED light (light emitting diode) or the HPS light (high pressure sodium). Artificial light is beneficial to vertical farming because the used LED light can send out only those light frequencies the plants need.

Agricultural innovation forum

Does it make sense to build a Vertical Farm in the city?

It depends. Land is becoming more scarce, more expensive and must be handled carefully. By producing food in existing, unoccupied buildings, it is possible to offer local food to make a city self-sufficient. The footprint of current agriculture is reduced, leaving more land for forests and other purposes. The products from the Vertical Farm can be sold in the city so that the consumer can enjoy their own vegetables. Because supply and demand are close to each other, it is easy to respond to the demand of the customer.

Because food is grown with high-quality techniques, vertical farming in the city is more reliable and better traceable. One knows exactly what goes into the plant because it happens in a closed environment. Diseases in plants and pollution from outside is no longer relevant. A rather larger indoor farm can contain very many stories. Most of them are for production, a minor part for aquaculture, and other floors will be used for distribution, packaging, etc.).

High energy use, is that a downside?

Vertical farms use artificial lighting, climate control systems for heating and cooling, and vertical stacking of crops. With this it is possible to dramatically raise crop productivity. The unavoidable downside is the high energy use. Focusing exclusively on the energy use of vertical farms would it would blend out the environmental benefits. But, indoor farming is becoming more energy efficient, due to technology developments and upscaling.

Vertical farms can reduce land, fertilizer, water and pesticide use. Growing certain crops, for example, lettuce, indoors, can dramattically reduce the use of water. In most cases use of chemicals is not necessary. Experts believe that, when taking into account realistic assumptions about electricity generation, transport, land use and food waste, cabon emissions of vertical farms is very close to that of outdoor farms.

 How do plants get their nutrients in an indoor farm?

There are three systems that can provide the nutrients for the plants:

Hydroponics

Hydroponics is a method of growing plants without soil by using mineral nutrient solutions solved in water. This aquatic solution is pumped around until it reaches the roots. The system is also used in traditional greenhouses.

Aeroponics

Some manufactures of indoor farming technology use Aeroponics in which by mist the roots of greens are provided with nutrients, water, and oxygen. So, with Aeroponics, plantroots grow in the air and are nutured by nutrients dissolved into mist that is sprayed on the roots. The mist condenses to water and is redirected to reservoir tanks where it can be re-used.

Aquaponics

In aquaponics fish production is integrated. It is a combination of hydroponics and aquaculture. The nutrients for the plants come from the fish that are raised in a special aquatic tank

What is the future of vertical farming?

 Steadily declining costs of the production technologies will enable a wider range of operations in the future. The market for fresh produce grown in indoor farms is limited to a few crops. Some niches may prove to be profitable in the long term however. Current Vertical Farming stakeholders have obtained support from local governments and other organizations to initiate or to improve their operations. Also, existing players have been successfully expanding their operations in highly populated markets.

Likely vertical farming, because of its benefits will expand in the future. But, lots of questions are still left open. For example; how much energy is needed to grow food without sun and soil? How much does it cost? How much better is vertical farming really in terms of net greenhouse gas emissions for consumed foods? Can vertical farming suit a great deal of our food demand? If vertical farming in the city will expand, will large companies dominate the food system even more than they do today? Can communities be involved to ensure a fairer and more inclusive food system?

Many parties are interested in the answers: energy companies can benefit from cooperation; Retailers can benefit from shorter supply chains, less waste and high quality produce. Government agencies can stimulate Vertical Farming improve local food systems; Communities can eliminate their food loss; Scientists  and Seed industry companies can develop new crop varieties; Technology firms can create and sell new technologies.

 Where are vertical farms situated?

Most vertical farms are situated near or in big cities. Most of the current vertical farms are built in dense metropoleian regions, i.e. in Japan: Kyoto, Singapore, USA, Sweden, and China they are often situated in urban warehouses, older buildings and high-rises. Advocates see vertical farming as a way to feed a global population that is urbanizing faster: the UN estimate that 68 percent per cent of the people in the developed world will live in cities by 2050 (55% in 2018).

What crops are grown indoors?

Most crops grown in a vertical farm are food crops, followed by pharmaceutical crops (including functional foods, botanicals, and extracts). Also medical cannabis is grown (Canada only).

Lettuces (Romaine, Butter head, Red Leaf, etc.) Summer squash Herbs Cannabis (CA)
Kales (Tuscan, Winter boar, and Dinosaur) Peppers Lettuce Flowers
Chard & collard greens. Eggplant Spinach Vine Crops (container farm)
Basil (Sweet, Lemon, Cinnamon, etc.) Cantaloupe Tomatoes
Small woody herbs. English Cucumbers Strawberries

 

How are products from indoor farming marketed?

What are the markets for vertical farming products like? What marketing strategies and operation concepts exist? In the next episode of this series of 4 articles about vertical farming we will answer these questions! Did you like reading this article? Was it informative? Then, if you like, you can always rate our site via the survey on the home page.

Author: G. Sijpkens | Published 11.28.2018

 

Sources:

https://www.independent.co.uk/environment/vertical-farming-solution-food-security-hydroponics-aquaponics-urban-agriculture-a8547561.html | https://www.verticalfarm.nl/ | https://www.agf.nl/artikel/9045970/van-de-vroege-voorloper-van-vertical-farming-naar-meerlagenteelt-onder-een-roze-gloed/ | https://techcrunch.com/2018/11/08/infarm-paris/ | https://www.greenbiz.com/article/future-farming-vertical | https://www.verticalfarming.com/ | http://stateofindoorfarming.agrilyst.com

Latest news on Vertical Farming

Vertical farming: Tool to revolutionize food production

Is Vertical Farming going to solve global food demand?

Increasing world population. Increasing demand in food production. How are we going to solve this never-ending problem? Defined by Professor Dickson Despommier, known expert in the field of farming, as a method of growing crops “usually without soil or light, in beds stacked vertically in a controlled-environment building”, growers saw an opportunity in vertical farming to address world’s demand for food production.

Infarm-Edeka_Vertical_Farm
Infarm instore Vertical Farm. Picture courtesy of Edeka GmbH

Earth has now lost a third of its productive lands. Soil erosion continuously causes disaster for farmers. Farms are turning to commercial buildings or houses. Agricultural lands emit greenhouse gases. As a human, what can we do to make a change? What are the changes that we need to do to cope with losses? What can we do to survive? And, what role does vertical farming play to solve these concerns?

Vertical farming, in my own definition, is a way that growers can use to maximize space in a certain location. Anyone or, even, everyone can grow their own food through this method. You wanted to grow your own vegetables in the house? Build a stacked bed in your kitchen. Want to have food while working? Encourage your bosses to make an indoor farm in your rooftop.  Through this method of growing, we now can’t deny the fact that vertical farming is slowly revolutionizing the way we grow food today.

Using the Controlled Environment Agriculture (CEA) technology, it allows crops to fully grow with artificial light and minimal use of soil. Also, it controls the temperature of the room, light, humidity, and gases that make it possible to grow high quality and quantity of crops.

What are key features of Vertical Farming?

Lettuces. Kales. Basils. Squash. Eggplants. Cucumbers. Herbs. Spinach. Tomatoes. Fruits. Flowers.

These are just some of the things that we can grow through vertical farming. Imagine how we can grow an entire farm in just an acre or less? In actuality, there are four things that we need to consider before adopting vertical farming.

  • Physical Layout

The main goal of vertical farming is to grow foods within a small space. The thing that we need to consider at first is the physical layout of the space because it will depend on the growing state of each plant. So, if we want to grow big and space-consuming products, we might as well consider getting a larger space than a square meter. But, if we only want to grow our own foods which we can get whenever we cook, we could use stacked beds to grow different crops at a time.

  • Lighting

A perfect combination of natural and artificial light is also important. Because we’re growing indoors, crops can only get a minimal amount of natural light. That’s why we need to invest in a good and perfect artificial lighting. One of the best artificial lights that is available to the market is LED lights. First, it is efficient, cheaper, and a great selection of light source. In lighting, growers use different combination of lights to achieve the quality that we want in a crop. In vertical farming, growers do not use pesticides or other farm chemicals because its controlled environment alone already allows crops to grow perfectly healthy and rich in nutrients.

  • Growing medium

Instead of growing in the soil, in vertical farming there are three techniques that growers can adopt to minimize the use of it. First, Aeroponics is the process where growers utilize the air or mist environment to grow crops, other than soil. It is said that air cultures optimizes access to air for a successful plant growth. Second is the Aquaponics. Aquaponics is a process where crops are fed through aquatic animals’ discharge or waste. Don’t feel cringe, because, in return, the crops clean the water that goes back to the aquatic animals. Last is the hydroponics. Hydroponics is a process where crops are grown using mineral nutrient solutions in a water solvent. These nutrients came from fish waste, duck manure, or chemical fertilizers.

Aside from these three, there are also other ways that growers can use such as peat moss, coconut husks, and other non-soil mediums.

  • Sustainability features

An average vertical farm uses 95% less water. Its sustainable features such as reducing the costs spent in energy, water, soil, and chemical fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides. Growers must always have this checklist in attaining a sustainable vertical farm.

  • Health and safety of workers.
  • Food safety and quality assurance.
  • Pest management and pesticide use
  • Water conservation and management
  • Community relations
  • Waste management
  • Energy and climactic conditions.
  • Site and facility characteristics.

What are innovations in Vertical Farming?

Considering vertical farming as already an innovation, comes under it is a list of innovations made to make this method more accessible, sustainable, and productive. As this method of farming is always handy to locations that thrive hard just to grow a crop, such as deserts, mountainside towns, and cities, these innovations welcome diverse type of locations

  • Growing crops without soil using hydroponics. In this innovation, plants are submerged in a solution of nutrients that is frequently circulated and monitored in order to ensure the maintenance of the correct chemical solution in a nutrient solution.
  • Growing crops with no soil and very little water through aeroponics. Invented by National Aeronautical and Space Administration (NASA) in 1990s, it very minimal amount of water, and utilizes air and mist to get more vitamins and minerals to make plants healthier and nutritious.
  • An innovation that promotes plants and fish farming together through aquaponics. In this process, fish grow in indoor ponds and produce a nutrient-rich waste that further acts as a food source for the plants grown in vertical farms.

And which companies are leading in Vertical Farming innovations?

  • The smart vertical farming innovation called AeroFarms. It allows growers to predict the results of their harvests with less impact on the environment, faster growing period, and high-quality of products. It utilizes smart light, smart aeroponics, smart nutrition, smart data, smart pest management, smart substrate, and smart scaling. It also aims to grow crops in much lesser space.
  • Growing crops in buildings through Plantscapers. Developed by Plantagon, office spaces and buildings can now help feed a large number of people through a rack transport system that moves planting boxes from ceilings to vertical greenhouses and requires no artificial light. It also employs high-level automation for its maintenance and harvest, thus keeping the costs real low.
  • Dubbed as the world’s greatest invention by Time Magazine, VertiCrop allows food to be grown in urban areas. It offers optimal exposure to both artificial and natural light and provides a précised measure of nutrients to every plant. Crops can be grown in controlled and closed-loop environments.
  • Developed by Modular Farms, the Modular Farm System has the ability to produce healthy and fresh plants virtually in any climatic conditions. It also concentrates on plant health and the perfect pair for container farms. Growers can also customize the system and extend it function according to the size of your desired farm.
  • The Singapore-based company Sky Greens developed the world’s first low carbon and hydraulic-driven farm. In its settings, crops are planted on shelves and rotates all throughout the day. The bottom part is used for receiving water and the top part is used for lighting. This approach allows to minimize the use of water, land, and energy over conventional farming techniques.

These are just some of the innovations in Vertical Farming that makes it accessible to all the people who want to grow their own food. A baby steps to achieve self-sufficiency in food production worldwide. Imagine if every person has their own vertical farm, the amount of food produce every day is greater than the expected demand in food! It can also help to address countries that strive hard just to have a regular set of meals per day. You, what can you do to better adopt this method?

City Farming The Hague, Nehterlands
City Farming The Hague, Nehterlands

Conslusion: The Pros and Cons of Vertical Farming

Though the effects are immense, we really cannot guarantee that it’s all on the positive side. However, what we can do about it is to utilize it responsibly.

Its advantages boil down to efficient farming, can grow crops without the use of pesticides and insecticides, crops are protected against changing weather, carbon footprint will also reduce, and water used in this type of farming can be recycled for other purposes.

However, growers can also face disadvantages. These will be: less jobs for people because, usually, this type of farming is automated and controlled. It can also affect the costs spent in pollination as there will be no insects that will pollinate the crops. There will also be a possibility to have a big loss in production if there will be power interruptions due to the technology it uses.

In conclusion, vertical farming can be a great help but it also comes with a much greater risk. Like what Spiderman said, “With great power comes great responsibility”. Every innovation that we may experience, let’s always keep in mind that proper and responsible utilization can cause greater benefits not just for yourself, but for the whole world itself.

Author: Abigail Dano | 12-05-2018

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