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Vertical Farms: how technology and innovation is boosting the potential for urban food production.

Updated: Jul 8, 2019

From low to high-tech

Trends and changes in society can come from anywhere. The tides of cultural habits often seem to ebb and flow on the most precarious of whims. But when we look back to the most seismic shifts in human behaviours, they tend to be in response to specific needs… or as the pioneers of any industry might label them: opportunities.

Mark Zuckerberg and Steve Jobs might be credited with creating the digital world that we use everyday, but they stood on the shoulders of much smaller innovations. Creations such as the Transistor or the Silicon Chip meant that the next generation of entrepreneurs could harness the power of computers to mould society in their own way.

This chain of innovations lead to an acceleration of technology that is know as ‘Moore’s Law’. Since 1965, Moore’s principal finding has rang true - that every couple of years would see the doubling of computational power along with the continuous decrease in cost. We as consumers can attest to this first hand… just think of how much storage and processing power your average smartphone had a few years ago in comparison to today.

When we start to realise how drastic the upward curve in technological advancement has been, it’s hard not to wonder how several industries have not caught the wave. Agriculture is sadly one of those that has merely been paddling in the shallows for all too long… or has it been? If we’re talking about traditional, rural, field farming, this statement seems fair. But in the throngs of our planet’s biggest cities, technology is starting to find its roots in a number of ways.

Aqua, Hydro & Aero - Ponics 

When it comes to the highest yield technology for food growing, the name of the game is ‘Ponics. That is, hydroponics, aquaponics, or aeroponics. All of which operate on the same principles: replacing soil with a combination of water and nutrients. Hydroponics, can often just be a body of water with a nutrient mix added every so often; In aquaponics, the nutrients come from fish living in a water supply tank; Or in aeroponics, the water & nutrient mix is misted directly onto the roots to the same effect.

In the circles that follow the rise and rise of successful start-ups from silicon valley, companies like Aerofarms are also getting a lot of attention. This US based startup is hailed as a “world leader in vertical farming, growing food without sun or soil in 9 different vertical farms. This includes one inside a former steel mill in New Jersey, at 70,000 sq ft - making it the largest vertical farm in the world, growing 250 varieties of herbs and greens growing in trays stacked 36 ft high and 80ft long, with specialised LED lighting." (Trailblazers Podcast: Walter Isaacson)

In the words of David Rosenburg , CEO and founder of Aerofarms, “vertical farming enables local food production at scale… compared to a traditional farmer in the NE US, our production is about 390 times higher than a field farmer”. (Trailblazers Podcast: Walter Isaacson)

And the baffling statistics don’t stop there: Aerofarms’ methods require 95% less water than field farming, 50% less fertiliser, with no worry of pesticides or the associated health risks. If you want to trace the roots of any industry on the cusp of disruption, then find out where the best graduates in the world are sending their CV, or where the biggest investment is going… and Aerofarms ticks both boxes.

To be clear, although Aerofarms has one of the largest single facilities, they aren’t the only company at the forefront of the vertical farming revolution. Whilst we don’t have time to go into every organisation in detail, it’s important to take stock of a few of them to watch out for.

  • Plenty - US - First big Vertical Farmers from Silicon Valley, operating in the US, Middle East, and China, with funding from Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos.

  • Crop One - Dubai, UAE - Growing food in sealed modular boxes, now the largest vertical farming company (overtaking Aerforams), claiming to operate at just 25% of the cost basis over any other vertical farmer on the planet.

  • Sky Greens - Singapore - One of the first commercial vertical farms in the world. It hosts rotating ‘A’ shaped racks to equalise light received to all levels of greens.

  • Sasaki's Sunqiao - Shanghai, China - A whole neighbourhood of vertical farms in the Sunqiao Urban Agricultural District in China’s second biggest city (24 million people). The 20-year plan began in 2017 for the 250-acre complex.

  • Intelligent Growth Solutions (IGS) - Dundee, Scotland - At the forefront of Vertical Farming in the UK. Not in the business of food production for sale, but progressing automation and processing technologies to help other entities set up vertical farms on their own sites.

Vertical farming is a term that isn’t going anywhere, and new organisations are popping up every week using LED lights and water-based growing in indoor environments. As you might have gleaned from our list to watch, there are a handful of vertical farms making serious waves in the industry, so what are the factors that lead to success in this new industry?

According to Bright Agrotech, the main reasons most vertical farms fail tend to be because of location, labour costs, training, and efficient use of data & processing. Of course one of the biggest roadblocks to success not mentioned is the use of energy. Probably most noted as the key cause for concern over the long term sustainability of vertical farms is sheer mass of energy consumption needed - predominantly lighting and climate control. In September 2018, Andrew Jenkins summarised this problem with the following comparison:

“lettuces grown in traditionally heated greenhouses in the UK need an estimated 250kWh of energy a year for every square metre of growing area. In comparison, lettuces grown in a purpose built vertical farm need an estimated 3,500kWh a year for each square metre of growing area.” (A Jenkins, the Independent, 2018)

"..right at the start of this vertical farming journey"

The lack of light in indoor vertical farms has traditionally meant that artificial lights and their energy consumption have been one of the biggest demands for indoor growers. However, as technology has found it’s way into other industries, so to is it enabling more and more efficient ways of vertical growing. LED auto-responsive lights are a key feature in many of the vertical farms mentioned above, and the automated systems that manage them are growing in popularity.

To get a sense of the key challenges to implementing these new technologies, we caught up with Dundee-based Vertical Farm specialists, Intelligent Growth Solutions:

“To be a commercial reality, (the VF industry) must address the fact that light is generated using electricity as opposed to free sunlight. The entire industry is right at the start of this vertical farming journey. We have simplified the whole process… IGS’s core product platform is designed to reduce energy consumption and compliment the power source to maximise productivity. The efficiency and power reduction benefits can be applied to established industries such as glasshouses and retail and commercial environments.” (David Farquhar, CEO - Intelligent Growth Solutions, 2019)

What’s important to note is that IGS aren’t worried about the production and distribution: their goal is to forward the efficiency of the process. By selling their methods & technology instead of their own produce, IGS is able to enable existing farmers, entrepreneurs, retailers and even governments to invest in sustainable vertical farming - and that includes their promise of reduced power consumption. Indeed this clarity in research has allowed IGS to pursue a variety of new ways to grow a variety of plants indoor:

“(Our customers) are also interested in the work that we are doing at the moment with the James Hutton Institute to develop plant recipes which will allow us to mimic certain environments and provide exactly the right conditions to grow different crops. This is all controllable through our platform.” (D.F., IGS, 2019)

Undoubtedly, the work of many vertical farming experts like IGS and others is critical in providing scalable methods of sourcing food sustainably in our cities. Whilst densification is happening in our built environment, so too is it happening to our food production. One huge win for the industry is that vertical farming solves the problem of space that many other growing methods struggle with.

So what does the future of vertical farming look like? Seemingly, the mechanism is already in place to feed our cities sustainably through indoor growing, and the efficiencies are only getting better. Perhaps the next question then is, how will this industry find it’s place in society? At present, most of the vertical farms leading the industry are backed by corporate or private investment. Intrinsic in the success of this type of growing is that it is commercially viable, with a sound business model - they need to be self sustaining. But unlike allotments and urban gardens, the VF industry has yet to plant its foot into public realm in a tangible way. Could the next big vertical farm in your city come from a grass roots cooperative?

By now you'll know that energy consumption is one the main challenges faced by this new industry. But when it comes to urban, high-yield farming, indoor growing isn’t the only solution. Another method that combines the conventional with the pioneering is rooftop, greenhouse growing. In next week’s case study we’ll cover the organisations looking for light above our heads in the city, in an attempt to feed the people below: finding out if anything compares to the high capacity potential of vertical farms.


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