Urban Farming Poised to Revolutionize Agri-Food Production, says Professor Dickson Despommier and Leaders in This Market Sector

Urban Farming Poised to Revolutionize Agri-Food Production, says Professor Dickson Despommier and Leaders in This Market Sector


David Stradling


Urban Farming Poised to Revolutionize Agri-Food Production, says Professor Dickson Despommier and Leaders in This Market Sector

David Stradling, Sales Director, Global Forum for Innovations in Agriculture, receives inspiration from a banana boat while getting to grips with the urban and vertical farming movement.                             

The sands that surround the shores of Koh Tao in Northern Thailand are the colour of golden demerara sugar, the surrounding sea is crystal clear, and the wildlife in the sea and on the land seems as plentiful as it is exotic.

But as I snorkel off the southern tip of this divers’ paradise, something is clearly amiss. The corals are often sun bleached, the diversity of fish has been shown to be in decline, and on the island itself, natural fresh water supplies have fallen to an all-time low.

This little corner of heaven has environmental problems that are as pressing to the local ecosystem, and to its three thousand local inhabitants who depend on tourism for their livelihood, as they are to the rest of the planet.

There is no escaping the blight caused by climate change. At 10.0955 degrees west and 99.84042 east, the challenges faced by this tropical paradise are ongoing. Failure to meet them will potentially have as serious an impact on the local environment and its population, as it’ has had on those who made a living from agriculture in what was one of the most fertile regions of the United States - and is now the American dust bowl.

On holiday in Koh Tao recently, I was working out the approach to take in an article exploring urban agriculture and, as a technology sub-set within that, the future of vertical farming. Then inspiration struck in the shape of a banana boat!  I’d been chilling out on a mix of vitamin D-inducing sunshine and coconut and banana smoothies when to my dismay, the island’s stock of the fruit dried up. Suddenly, there was a tap on my shoulder, ‘’Bananas here now, the boat has arrived,’’ declared our friendly beach bar waitress.

I was delighted, but at the same time I pondered the fact the fruit was being shipped in, as I would guess was most of the island’s food. Therein lies one part of the challenge. Not only can agri-food production be a drain on the land and its resources, but shipping it from one destination to another is a contributory factor in climate change.
Enter the age of vertical farming!  It’s this that some believe could be the key to many of the problems that come with industrial scale agriculture, and the use of farming methods which fail to show consideration for the environment.

Last week I talked at length with Dickson Despommier, Professor of Microbiology and Public Health at Columbia University, New York City, USA, and author of The Vertical Farm: Feeding the World in the 21st Century. Professor Despommier is widely considered a founder of the vertical farming movement, and is a long-term advocate of urban farming as a potential counterbalance to the negative impact of large scale traditional agri-production. We spoke about the future and he provided me with some useful insights into the positive returns, he, and increasing numbers of experts, foresee will be a direct result of continuing innovation and advancement in vertical food production technology.

Vertical farming; the dawn of a new age

WHILE THE MEDIA'S focus throughout the 1990s and the beginning of this century has been mainly on the role that heavy industry and fossil fuels have played in eroding the ozone layer, the role of agriculture in resource depletion and climate change, has gone relatively unnoticed. Traditional agricultural practices continue to take a major toll on planetary resources and are a key offender in climate change.  Transporting produce from one place to another involves the emission of gases that damage the outer atmosphere, while over-farming has a disastrous impact on the soil and acts as the biggest drain on water reserves.

Professor Despommier believes that agri-crop growing in the traditional sense is often inefficient, citing the United States where the biggest crop is wheat, followed by corn and soya beans, as an example.  He points out that soya beans are often grown as a means of putting nutrition back into the soil, a practice that is extremely inefficient, and is enthusiastic about the use of climate-smart agriculture in outdoor farming. However, all plant life requires water and if that is not available then the only option is to take growing indoors – and to do this locally where the crops which are grown are consumed, so reducing pollution caused by transportation. The Professor has a stark warning for us if we fail to take action.  ‘California is in its sixth year of drought,’ he says. ‘Food prices are going crazy and it’s going to get worse.’  In his view, controlled environment agriculture (CEA) is the solution – and vertical farming is the method which could save our environment from disaster.

An efficient greenhouse hydroponics system uses five percent of the water required in the outdoors and can deliver multiple times the yield of farming outdoors. According to Professor Despommier, a vertical farm can deliver the same yield again, using a fraction of the water the greenhouse system requires. So if vertical farming, with all its obvious advantages, has such a role to play, where does that leave the land farmer? ‘’I have a great answer but it isn’t the one that many people want to hear,’’ he says. ‘’Dirt farmers and the big industrial scale producers are struggling to make a living and this will only get harder, given the climate change issues they face.’’  He believes the time is ripe for change in agricultural crop production on an unprecedented scale. The vertical farming industry is moving at an extraordinary pace and he estimates there are currently about 500 successful vertical farms operating globally. In the next few years the number will grow so fast he will lose count.  Technology and innovation in this sector is thriving and there is no stopping the movement toward growing crops in the city – in our homes, at our place of work and within the vertical farms that are emerging as commercial enterprises.

It is an exciting prospect but the advantages of vertical and urban farming do not end here. There are huge social-economic-implications too.  He refers to projects like the AeroFarms facility in Newark, New Jersey, USA - a project that is delivering prosperity to a part of the city that was formerly in decay, and which will revolutionise and revitalise that whole area.
AeroFarms hopes to develop 25 more farms in the USA and overseas in the next five years. The company says the new trend amongst consumers is for locally grown produce and it has no problem in meeting demand.  It can grow plants within twelve to sixteen days, compared with thirty to forty-five days outdoors. A year round controlled environment ‘grow cycle’ allows it to operate at 75 times the production capacity of an outdoor farm.

Other farms that Professor Despommier is optimistic about, include a flag ship, model three- storey farm in Suwon, South Korea, the leading position taken by Sky Greens in Singapore, and a twelve-storey farm in Moscow – all excellent examples of where the sector is heading.  He also cites the case of Pasona Group in Tokyo, Japan, which allocated 43,000 sq feet of office space for crop production that is used to feed employees, although this is more of an example of good urban agriculture production. As well as rice, the Pasona building features over 200 varieties of fruit and vegetables.

Another crucial factor in the advancement of urban agriculture and vertical farming is a preference for urban rather than rural dwelling.  At present, the split is about 50/50 country to city dwelling, but by 2050 he believes this will change to 80/20 in favour of the city. ‘’All we need to see now is a shift in the mind-set of people who make policy within our cities. Once they understand the importance and benefits of this movement in urban agriculture then there will be no stopping its growth, nor that of vertical farming as a critical part of that.”
In a global context, the Professor believes that, together with the US, it is Japan and countries in the Far East that are driving the movement in take-up of new technologies and ideas. Factors which have influenced change in these regions have included incidents like the Kobe earthquake and the tsunami that hit Japan in 2011. For South East Asia, it has been the intensity of monsoons and the impact of adverse weather on farming that have forced city policy-makers to realise the importance of growing food in their own back yard. “This is a major food security issue,” he says. “When the logistical infrastructure for the delivery of produce is no longer there, or when crops are washed away, then you have a big problem.’’

A small leap for the imagination; a major step for mankind…
In fact, it does not take a major leap of the imagination to see how quickly vertical farming could develop as the dominant force in urban growing, provided innovators can deliver affordable technology solutions. According to the Food & Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, about 30% of global food supply comes from urban farms. ‘’Most urban farms are small scale and on home plots or in the urban areas of cities,’’ explains Mr Henry Gordon-Smith, Vice Chair of the Association for Vertical Farming (AVF).  AVF was set up to foster the growth and development of the movement and to galvanise the efforts of contributing innovators and leaders through collaboration and knowledge-sharing.  He says vertical farms will allow urban agriculture to progress further, so cities are more independent than ever in their own food production. Vertical farms can be integrated with existing food systems and set up anywhere, including schools, institutions and government cafeterias.  They can also be merged with food distribution hubs, making them more resilient.

Mr Gordon-Smith sees innovation as key to sector development and feels it is moving forward quickly. LED lighting technology and automation and sensor technology are helping to reduce operation costs. LEDS lower the energy consumption, and automation decreases labour costs. He believes that among the companies that stand out for their leadership in these areas are SPREAD Co of Japan and Urban Crops from Belgium. AVF expects there to be a vertical farm in almost every city within a decade.

Neither Professor Despommier nor Mr Gordon-Smith see any drawbacks to vertical farming if costs associated with operating grow-light can be overcome. Both are convinced the potential advantages are huge, and that with the advance of technology and greater political drive from city policy makers, we can look forward to seismic change. ‘’Vertical farms can be pest-free using strict food safety and bio-security protocols and strategic ventilation,’’ Mr Gordon-Smith explained.  He concedes there are challenges ahead, but innovation in technological advancement and bypassing some areas (like lighting and robotics) will pave the way. Vertical farming will become more mainstream as we move to a stage ‘’’where water is no longer considered a ‘free’ resource and when climate change hardens its grip, and when costs for LEDs and robotics drop. ‘’
Among the other challenges he cites are zoning and code interpretation, which is delaying the development of vertical farms in many cities. They are also being hampered by a shortage in skilled labour to operate these facilities. Asked about his vision for urban and vertical farming in the next 10 – 15 years, Mr Gordon-Smith predicts:

  • High-tech agriculture will become a central education tool in science, engineering, maths and technology.
  • Kitchens will be designed with vertical farming systems embedded as appliances.
  • City edges and waterways will become agricultural hubs.
  • Restaurants, markets, hotels and office buildings will embed agriculture and it will be a part of a unique experience for tenants and the public .
  • Large scale warehouse vertical farms like AeroFarms’ model will be common place on the outskirts of large cities.

Where new ideas are matched by contagious enthusiasm…

Other innovators who are embracing vertical and urban farming enthusiastically are equally ambitious, but their vision of how far the change will go and its relationship to traditional methods varies considerably. Marco Tidona, Managing Director of aponix.eu, based in Heidelberg, Germany (exhibiting in the Vertical Farm Zone at GFIA Europe 2017 in the Netherlands), says, ‘’Urban farming will not replace but will complement, the conventional methods of growing our food which will need to become more sustainable.’’  He believes urban production would become an element within a circular economy in the urban area. It would reduce waste and traffic for distribution and have positive social and nutritional effects. Like Professor Despommier and Mr Gordon-Smith, Mr Tidona believes this will have a positive effect on the fallout from transporting and shipping produce. Food miles would be reduced and commuters collect produce as they pass distribution hubs – perhaps set up inside train stations - so distribution in urban areas would become a part of day-to-day movement in the city ecosystem.

Mr Tidona is the designer and engineer behind Aponix Barrel, a unique system for use in vertical agriculture, which epitomises the kind of exciting innovative concepts that surround this emerging sector of agricultural technology. He explains that the barrel is used as a growing device in an existing nutrient cycle, either hydroponic, using liquid mineral fertilizer, or aquaponics, using fish organic fertilizer.

The aponix barrels are especially suited to growing herbs and lettuces in high density urban farming situations. The parts fit together like a Lego set and provide a means to assemble the barrel and do away with the need for complicated rack-structures. After harvesting, the ring segments can be easily cleaned and immediately replanted. Reflecting on the role of innovators like himself, Mr Tidona points to the nature of urban organic agriculture, an heterogeneous area of business with the challenges faced differing between sites. ‘’All the technologies are already here or developing rapidly, like LED lighting. Many innovators are coming to the market and they are a critical part of how the sector will develop.’’ 

As well as technological advancement and the political will to implement urban agriculture, he believes there are many areas that will need to change so that produce can find a place in the market. In Germany, there are labels such as ‘Öko’ and ‘Bio’, which cannot be used on labelling because they do not apply to crops grown in soilless environments. He suggests an internationally recognised coding system could be set up to help consumers evaluate the produce and compare it with that grown using more traditional means.

Another impressive example of creative thinking in urban agriculture comes from a Vancouver-based start-up company, AVA technologies. AVA has created a tech-enabled and climate-controlled micro farm called the AVA Smart Garden, a smart home gardening appliance that allows the user to produce fresh herbs, sprouts, mushrooms, fruits and vegetables from the comfort of their own home. It isn’t large scale like a vertical farm, but it is sustainable and reduces our personal ‘food print.’ The company has received a very positive response to the product and will be exhibiting in the Telus World of Science in Vancouver in March 2017.

Mr Mike Nasseri, Chief Systems Architect at AVA, says the distances which are travelled by crop vegetables are detrimental to the environment and to the nutritional value of the produce. ‘’By the time most leafy salad arrives with the consumer in Vancouver, it has travelled over 1500 kilometres. The plant enzyme content and nutritional value will have been devalued in that process.’’ With the coming (post-COP21) introduction of pricing for carbon emissions, the cost effectiveness of supply chains will be diminished. He points out that the new market conditions will place heavier demands on local production. This will have the dual effect of lower emissions and higher nutrient content when the product reaches the consumer.

One of the main purposes of the grow-box is to get people thinking about their own food security and to consider the environment, says Ms Valerie Song, joint founder and CEO at AVA. With the world population growing, Ms Song believes there are only a limited number of practical solutions that can address the food security challenge quickly.  She says, ‘’There are two options which can be combined and implemented relatively fast and effectively – smart, vertical agriculture.”’ Her next comment harks back to Professor Despommier’s reference to the Pasona Group headquarters in Tokyo: ‘’What if your workplace cafeteria had a mini-farm full of luscious salad greens instead of a soda machine? What if your local restaurant had walls adorned with fresh heirloom tomatoes, instead of dull white paint?’’

Project4 Living Systems Ltd is another company out of Vancouver. Set up in 2013, the company uses permaculture principles and explores ways of enabling food, water and power independence. Mr Ben Newman, CTO at Project4 Living Systems Ltd, agrees with observations made by the other industry leaders, that limitations to development of urban agriculture and vertical farming are top-down. ‘’As we found in Canada, vertical farms are limited by a lack of general awareness and there is little information available due to the cutting-edge nature of technology and the ecosystems approach that we are used to, rather than the reductionism that science is able to offer. City officials often do not understand the concept. Lack of appropriate zoning and outdated regulations strangle projects attempting to create integrated vertical farms.”
Having had its first farming project rejected by the City of Vancouver in 2014, the company is currently awaiting a building permit for the city’s first ‘Food Hub’, comprising kitchen and dining area and a laboratory and innovation space.  Mr Newman explains that, ‘’The purpose of the Food Hub is to draw attention to, and create a community of, food forward-thinkers, technologists and innovators to support the local food movements and enhance the possibilities of vertical urban farming in Vancouver and elsewhere.” His company is firmly behind vertical farming and he believes the changing political environment will be a driver in its development.

Evergreen Farm Oy of Finland (exhibiting in the Vertical Farm Zone at GFIA Europe 2017 in the Netherlands) is preparing to launch a 12,000 sq metre growing area with a major vertical farm in the city of Nokia in the South of Finland in May 2017. The company’s managing director and system designer, Mr Ali Amirlatifi, claims the growing system for integration into the Nokia site is safer than other hydroponic and aeroponic farming systems. The reason for this is that it is a closed loop, with modules that are self-sustaining and separate from one another. This eliminates the chances of disease spreading across an entire crop. The Evergreen Farm Oy system was developed with support from the Finnish Ministry of Natural Resources and University of Contemporary Technology, with a pilot scheme operated ahead of the full scale roll out.

Mr Amirlatifi says the company plans ten farms in Finland and will issue licenses to growers elsewhere in the world, beginning in Africa and the Middle East. As far as crops are concerned, the company has had major success with strawberries, blueberries, short vegetables and herbs, which can be produced all year round. The system has proved highly efficient at yield-delivery and as an example of this, the company believes that ten farms specialising in strawberry growing, have potential to outstrip the production capacity of even major growing regions like Huelva in Spain. Mr Amirlatifi says the company has also developed downscaled systems for less ambitious businesses that can be used domestically in restaurants, and by small and medium sized growers.

Evergreen Farm Oy is in the process of developing systems that will be capable of growing many other crops, such as wheat, oats and rice. In a single year there would be up to four harvests with a much higher yield than could ever be achieved in soil-based production.
It seems that with vertical farming there are no limits to the ideas reaching the marketplace, nor to the reserves of energy possessed by those making its development a part of their own futures. Provided the sector takes off in the manner our experts predict, then it will offer an as yet unrealised and hugely exciting potential. 

Article written by David Stradling, Sales Director, Global Forum for Innovations in Agriculture (GFIA). David has 18 years experience in business to business trade fairs and exhibitions. He played a key role over an 11 year period in the launch and subsequent development of Automotive Testing Expo, one of the world’s leading automotive engineering events. He joined Turret Media in 2013, to head GFIA in Abu Dhabi from its launch and subsequent business development, with responsibility for the exhibition and event sponsorship. He is focussed now also on the inaugural European Edition of GFIA, to run in Utrecht, the Netherlands, 9-10th May, 2017. In his early career he worked as a journalist for several newspapers, consumer and business to business magazines. A UK citizen, he has lived and worked in Hongkong, Singapore and Thailand and currently resides in Dubai, UAE. 

David welcomes comments and feedback on his article on urban farming and vertical agriculture. Companies wishing to book stand space at either edition of GFIA can contact him through Linkedin, by email at d.stradling@turretme.com or by calling +971 56 320 9377. GFIA Europe features a Vertical farming Zone specifically designed for suppliers in this sector.


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