From Urban farm to fork: the (high)rise of vertical farming

July 7, 2016 10:32 am
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I read yesterday that the world’s biggest vertical farm is currently being built in New Jersey in an old steel mill on a 70,000-square-foot plot. The annual crop is expected to amount to over 900,000kg of vegetables, or about 2 million heads of lettuce… if google serves me well the average yield on a single acre of land is approx. 20,000 lettuces, so on a plot equivalent to 1.6 acres these are pretty impressive stats.

Vertical farming certainly isn’t a new concept. With a vast amount of the food we consume travelling long distances (US estimates the average journey at 1,500 miles), governments are not only under pressure to reduce the extent of food waste as we’ve talked about previously, but they are also burdened by the extensive carbon footprint.

What are the benefits?

Germany have led the charge in their retail sector, moving the farm in-house through a joint collaboration between InFarm and Metro AG. The venture saw Metro’s Cash & Carry employees cultivating and selling vegetables and herbs in-store. InFarm technology claims to enable optimal growing conditions through custom light recipes and climate control which gives farmers the ability to produce crops year round with controlled environmental factors. This allows the production of healthier and higher yields at a faster rate than traditional agriculture, with added resilience to climate change. InFarm have already forged relationships with some of the most progressive technology firms and innovation hubs in the world, and with sustainability so high on everybody’s agenda you can see why the bigger corporations are keen to get involved.

In the US it is predicted that 80% of the population will reside in cities by 2050, and vertical farms could help meet rising demand for fresh local produce in these heavily-populated urban centres without the associated carbon footprint. Vertical farms require 90% less land and 70-95% less water while harvesting 80% more per unit per area. Produce can grow even in times of drought, requiring no soil or natural sunlight, while further opportunities arise in being able to utilise disused industrial and commercial spaces and provide employment as well.

While vertical farms aren’t cropping up all over the city just yet(!), retailers have enabled us to become more self-sustainable and less wasteful of late. Ikea introduced the KRYDDA/VÄXER series enabling customers to grow their own produce affordably at home on a small scale, and terrariums are certainly not difficult to come by. I’m sure several of your friends/family/colleagues grow a little produce at home, whether they’re nurturing a miniature herb garden on their windowsill or balcony, or cultivating a little veggie patch out in the garden. Supporters of vertical farming believe that the introduction of small scale farms into stores will open consumer’s eyes to a more sustainable way of living in the future, encouraging more people to be self-sufficient and grow their own vegetables and herbs, even in urban areas with limited space.

What are the challenges?

High energy costs and limited food options have led to vertical farming taking a little longer to catch on, but Ray Kurzweil, head future engineer at Google defined the 2020’s as the decade of the vertical farming revolution, so maybe we have a couple of years of further advancements before vertical farming becomes the norm.

Is there enough demand?

As to whether vertical farms are worth the investment, demand for fresh veggies has never felt so prominent. Consumer’s eating habits have shifted in recent years, with more and more of us now pursuing lifestyle choices such as reducing the amount of meat we eat, taking up meat-free Mondays or challenging ourselves to a vegan week. Pret a Manger recently announced new stores would be introduced with vegetarian only dishes after their vegetarian options outperformed meat/fish equivalents, and the introduction of new grains from exotic shores seems like a weekly occurrence. And is anyone over avocados yet?


Written by Kayleigh Humphrey, Coriolis Ltd