Vertical Farming gets ready to Grow

by John Brian Shannon.

Brooklyn Grange, a one acre urban farm on top of industrial 6 story industrial building in the Long Island City neighbourhood of Queens.
Brooklyn Grange is a 1-acre farm on top of an industrial 6-story building in New York City. Plans are on to lease some of the top floors which will turn Brooklyn Grange into a true Vertical Farm – as opposed to an outdoor rooftop farm. brooklyngrangefarm.com

Vertical Farming to increase local food production in cities

As the global population tracks toward 10 billion by 2060 and evermore potential farmland is scooped up by developers for residences, commercial buildings and industrial use, vertical farming looks to be a viable way to grow fruits and vegetables within cities — as opposed to hundreds or thousands of miles away.

According to the UN, the combined land area under agricultural land management on the planet is equal in size to the entire South American continent. Before 2060, an additional land area the size of Brazil will be required to grow crops for human consumption and to grow feed for livestock if we continue to employ present agriculture policies. Only the best land can be used for agriculture or the crops simply fail, while livestock underperform in sub-optimal conditions.

Finding more locations with acceptable levels of rainfall and sunshine, nutrient-rich well-drained soil, and the proper topographical profile will become even more of a challenge in the coming years. Of prime importance for food producers is the location of farming and ranching operations as spoilage/shipping costs often soar with increased distance-to-market.

Potential to Save billions of gallons of water

The huge water capacity required for conventional agriculture and ranching is a major issue. Extremely high levels of water usage result in high costs for farmers which are then passed on to consumers. Soil erosion, water shortages, and massive contamination of waterways are also significant and growing problems. Unimaginable quantities of water are required for crops to flourish, while astonishing water loss rates due to evaporation and fertilizer/pesticide runoff polluting our rivers and coastal areas now rank among our most serious marine pollution problems.

In Arizona, it takes an average of 25 gallons of water to grow one head of Romaine lettuce. In California, growing a head of Romaine lettuce requires 20 gallons of water. In the vertical farming scenario, growing one head of Romaine lettuce uses only .33 of a gallon, and with zero pesticide use involved and no losses to wildlife/drought/flooding. 

You might not think it, but agriculture is one of the most studied sectors on the planet. Even NASA is involved. Data is downloaded from high-tech NASA satellites and is made available to farmers and ranchers on a daily basis. Radar, thermal imaging and weather satellites all contribute their datasets to help the people who grow our food, to produce even more. And it works. Almost every year, the U.S., Canada and Europe show a larger ‘bumper crop’ than the year before.

All of these factors however, conspire to add to the final price that consumers pay. This means that we have a system that works, as it produces plenty of food and crop yields seem to increase every year. But it is extraordinarily expensive. Let’s review (conventional production method) costs that affect the final price at the market.

  • Entire satellite systems and government departments devoted to enhancing crop yields.
  • Massive transportation systems to move and warehouse food.
  • Obscene levels of water consumption/wastage.
  • Highly contaminated water runoff into formerly pristine rivers/lakes/coastal ocean areas.
  • High rates of food spoilage during transportation/storage (up to 30% in some countries).
  • Land contamination and degradation, including soil erosion.
  • Loss of natural habitat for wildlife.
  • Loss of land for human uses, such as homes, or sport & recreation.
  • Gigatonnes of fertilizers and pesticides which are derived from highly-refined petroleum.
  • Price spikes due to extreme weather events such as drought, hurricane/typhoon, flooding.
  • Expensive GMO technology to combat natural pests and weather challenges.
  • Huge research budgets (government, industry and academia) to solve crop failure/livestock disease problems.
  • Chemical sprays or radiation treatment (irradiation) to control bacteria prior to transport or storage.

Vertical Farming to lower food costs for consumers

Vertical farming adroitly bypasses all of the above problems and more by producing food (and small livestock) very close to, or within population centres. In the vertical farming scenario, all of the food produced is consumed locally, thereby negating the need for warehousing, trans-ocean shipping, trans-national rail, producer-to-city and city-to-city trucking.

Food spoilage/wastage is dramatically lowered due to the rapid delivery times that are possible when delivering ultra-fresh produce within one city — as compared to shipping/warehousing produce grown hundreds or thousands of miles away.

No multi-billion dollar NASA satellite systems required! No loss of animal or human habitat, no polluted waterways, no GMO’s, no price spikes. Perhaps most profoundly of all, millions of gallons of water per hectare/per season are no longer required, thereby freeing up that water for human consumption, for use by fish and wildlife, and for hydro-electric power production. Some rivers in the United States have stopped flowing their historic route to the sea, as ALL of the water in the watershed gets diverted for farming and ranching use long before it reaches the ocean. Bad for the fish that once lived in those river systems too.

Can you think of a better use for vacant office towers than hydroponic food growing operations?

Lower pollution levels due to dramatically lower transportation mileage (per megatonne of produce) is just one reason why governments may want to assist with startup funding for such operations. Want another reason? Many more local jobs will be produced — permanent jobs that can never be outsourced to another state or country.

Yet another benefit concerns grocery store operators; Fresh, undamaged produce that is only one-day away from their store shelves. “The Bridge is Out” or “Snow Closes Highway” or “Train Derailment Blocks Access to Town” — all of these types of news headlines are non-problems for Vertical Farming operations, grocery stores, and the customers who rely on the stores.

Vertical Farming Quiz: Did you know?

  • In the United States most food travels an average of 1500 miles from producer to consumer
  • Indoor hydroponic farming uses 80% less water than conventional farming techniques
  • Vertical farming operations filter massive amounts of pollutants out of city air
  • Vertical farming continuously recycles the water it requires

Some foresighted organizations have already embarked on such projects. In Milan Italy, they are building purpose-built concrete highrise residential buildings with a forest as part of the architecture. Milan’s attempt to clean that city’s incredibly polluted air now include an outdoor vertical forest — equal to a natural forest 1-hectare in size — that will purge tonnes of pollutants and particulates from city air. Bosco Verticale (see below) is Milan’s first such project.

Bosco Verticale. Milan, Italy.
Bosco Verticale. Milan, Italy. (This two-building complex will be ready for Expo 2015 in Milan, Italy)

 

Vertical farming, offices and residences combined. Urban cactus Rotterdam, Netherlands
Vertical farming, offices and residences combined. Urban Cactus, Rotterdam, Netherlands. (This combined luxury office tower and residential suites complex is already complete and occupied)

Vertical farming image for illustrative purposes only. Vertical farming by Chris Jacobs
Artistic rendering of a Vertical Farming purpose-built building. ‘Vertical farming’ by Chris Jacobs. (Cylindrical building shape allows more natural light to fall on the plants)

Additional Vertical Farming information:

Working Vertical Farming operations:

Vertical forest/office tower/residences/air pollution mitigation system, under construction:

Future Urban Farming Event:

  • International Conference on Vertical Farming and Urban Agriculture 2014 (click here to visit website). September 9-10, 2014 at the University Of Nottingham, UK

Follow John Brian Shannon on Twitter at: @EVcentral

Published by

John Brian

Editorial Board at kleef&co. Published by the UNDP.