Mark Horler of the Association for Vertical Farming sets out the role urban agriculture could play in smart cities of the future
It is now a well-known and recognized fact that our societies are becoming increasingly urbanized. It is also well established that our population as a whole is growing rapidly, expected to peak at around nine billion by 2050. In the light of these facts, it is becoming ever clearer that our current linear economic model is not sustainable. The take, make and waste model cannot continue to be the foundation of our economy, if we are to have and live in resilient and sustainable societies.
What is needed instead is a circular economy, whereby resources are reused, repaired and recycled. It follows from this that we would design products and systems to be durable, rather than disposable. This simple-seeming shift in priorities would have a profound effect on the whole way that our production systems operate, and therefore an equal knock-on effect on society as a whole. Finally, this would result in an enormously positive reduction in the harm we cause to the ecosystems upon which we in turn depend.
How does this pertain to the production of food?
The existing agricultural model has, since the so-called ‘green revolution’, achieved enormous gains in productivity. But those gains have come at a substantial cost to ecosystems and the services they provide us. With 70% of all available fresh water now used to irrigate crops, much of that is lost to evaporation and surface run off. This latter leads to a second problem in that the pesticides and fertilisers we use also run off in that water, causing untold damage to the environment around them and even getting into drinking water supplies, from which they must be removed.
Moreover, those pesticides and fertilizers are derived from natural sources, which must be mined, alongside all of the consequences that entail. To then allow those precious resources to be wasted as run-off makes little sense from either an environmental or economic perspective. Once all that food is grown, it must be transported to market. This utilizes yet more resources, particularly fossil fuels. The advent of globalized food systems means that enormous amounts of these resources are now used to transport food products.
We also have waste. Much of this happens during the transportation and storage phase, but it is also present in the supermarkets that stock the food and at the level of consumers in their homes. In the end, around one-third of all the food we produce is wasted.
The defining principles behind vertical farming
Vertical farming was established to help address these challenges via a series of simple premises. The first and defining principle is that the food should be grown as close as possible to where the people who will consume it live. This means that, instead of only growing in rural areas, we should, wherever possible, also grow in urban and peri-urban areas. Doing so removes, at a stroke, the majority of problems associated with transport. It also substantially reduces wastage. However, land is expensive in urban areas, so conventional farming in cities is simply not realistic economically. As with all urban developments, then, the guiding principle is to go upwards rather than outwards. Thus vertical farming came to be.
The second principle is that growing the food should use as few resources as possible. It follows that not only is a minimal degree of input necessary but that those inputs should be recycled and reused wherever possible. From this came controlled-environment agriculture. Many vertical farms now operate this way, in an entirely enclosed environment, with artificial lights specially designed for maximum benefit to plants, and with controlled heating and ventilation systems. These vertical farms also use soil-less growing systems such as hydroponics and aeroponics, the result being a water use reduction of between 75% and 95%. Pesticides are entirely unnecessary in such a system, and what small amounts of nutrients are required can be dissolved into the water, which is recirculated around the system.
This leads to the final principle, which is that waste outputs should be eliminated wherever possible and limited to the greatest possible extent where they are unavoidable. From these three principles then, a complete, circular, closed-loop system has been derived. This is vertical farming.
The Association for Vertical Farming
The Association for Vertical Farming (AVF) was set up to lead the vertical farming movement to facilitate healthy food, green jobs, environmental protection and climate change resilience by fostering the sustainable growth and development of the movement through education and collaboration. To achieve this, the AVF has focused on four key areas: education and awareness, industry standardisation, sustainability and the circular economy, and policy advocacy.
In turn, this has led the structuring of the association into seven divisions: education; research; standardization and certification; events, policy and advocacy; press and communications; and finance and business models. These divisions are then subdivided into project groups. Each PG is designed to address a specific challenge within the vertical farming world, with divisions therefore acting as communities of PGs, united by a common purpose.
Pursuing our four key areas via this structure has yielded a variety of interesting and exciting projects. We hold events of our own such as the yearly AVF summit, and we frequently partner with other major events to promote the cutting-edge world of vertical farming. We have an education programme in which, by collaborating with major education institutions, we will help to train the next generation of urban vertical farmers. We have a specially designed, first-of-its-kind sustainability certification scheme for vertical farming in development, which will allow the industry, governments and wider society to see exactly how sustainable vertical farming truly is.
Of course, the association, as the name suggests, is primarily made up of its members and, as a result, all of these efforts are dependent upon their support and engagement. We are very fortunate to work in an exceptionally forward-looking movement, where our members do indeed support, engage and collaborate with us in everything we do. Those numerous members, not incidentally, also represent an important counterpoint to those who would argue that vertical farming is not economically viable.
As in any young industry, the failure rate of start-ups was initially high, but the market is now expanding rapidly and, with the support of the AVF, is becoming more stable, with fewer barriers to entry.
Accommodating vertical farming within EU policy
This brings us to what the EU can do to help. One of the greatest barriers to the development of the industry, both in Europe and worldwide, has been the difficulty of placing vertical farming within existing categorisations. As a result, it has been hard for governments and planners at all levels to recognise it as a legitimate agricultural and business sector. Because vertical farming is agriculture, but takes place within a building in an urban environment, currently accepted classifications do not adequately cover all areas of the business. Put another way, vertical farming overlaps several categories.
In Europe especially, most agricultural and agri-tech policy is made at the EU level, for example via the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), and then filters down to the various levels below. As such, it is imperative for the development of this industry in Europe that the EU recognises the unique nature of vertical farming and designs policy to accommodate it. From this would follow EU support for what is a true circular economy food system and industry, in line with its own stated goals of promoting those same objectives, of protecting our natural world, and of increasing human wellbeing via a sustainable and resilient economy. More practical support would also include clear financial incentives and grants to incentivise growth.
Vertical farming is a nascent industry and, if the EU wishes not only to keep up with the rest of the world, but to lead the way, such support is going to be crucial in achieving that goal.
The Association for Vertical Farming
This article first appeared in issue 21 of Pan European Networks: Government, which is now available here.