Indoor and outdoor vertical farming could help smart cities meet the demographical challenge and enhance a local consumption of goods.
AgTech is riding on a few trends. We could for instance mention the decreasing cost of sensor technologies, becoming more and more affordable for the use in farming. Interesting is also to see how occuring innovations within agriculture tend to put people at the center. Indeed, on one hand, the farmer is being empowered by these technologies as he can make smarter, data-driven decisions. And on the other hand, while the end consumer wants to be more informed on the origin of the products she or he consumes, big data in agriculture can provide accurate insights and traceability of the goods.
Incidentally, getting products directly from local farmers, is something highly trendy nowadays. But how to scale this model in dense urban places where the nearest farms are located miles away and especially when knowing that 80 % of the world population will reside in cities by 2050?
Well, urban agriculture is coming up with possible answers. Indoor and outdoor vertical farming which can be defined by the production of food in vertically stacked areas are for instance two alternatives.
Indoor production of lettuces by Bright Agrotech. ©BrightAgrotech
Being in control of the elements of the production
“The main idea behind vertical farming is that you can contol all the elements of the production: the type and the amount of light your plant will receive, the temperature, in other words: all the environmental aspects. Sensors are being used quite a bit, especially in support of hydroponic systems, for checking the water and nutrient levels”, David M. Ceaser, founder of Oakland-based Green Skies Vertical Farm, explains.
While being installed in abandoned buildings, such as old warehouses within urban areas (like Wyoming-based start-up Bright Agrotech’s concept) or outskirts cities, Indoor Vertical Farming could pave the way for a 24/7 production, increasing then the potential volume of production. “Vertical farming is like cooking a recipe: we know the essential nutrients required by a plant, so we can use chemical nutrients to create the exact same scenario happening in ‘natural’ life. There is also some interesting progress regarding the use of light. Depending on the type of light and the amount of light given to lettuces few days before harvest time for instance, the leaf color changes which reveals the presence of certain chemicals becoming more pronounced. So imagine, we could adjust those factors based on which chemicals we want to highlight. If we want a lettuce to contain more vitamins for instance…So vertical farming could have a great potential in terms of precision nutrition”, David goes on.
ZipFarm's concept by Bright Agrotech. ©BrightAgrotech
The number of initiatives is booming in the US
In the US lots of projects have arisen. Chicago owns since 2013 the biggest aquaponic indoor farm in the country, FarmedHere, a 90,000-square-foot space which supplies organic products for about 80 retailers in Chicago. According to the American magazine PSFK, the indoor farm can produce “15 times as many crop cycles a year compared to traditional farming”. New York also concentrates a bunch of Indoor Farming startups like BrightFarm, Gotham Greens and Aerofarms. Outside very dense urban areas, initatives similar to Alaska Natural Organics and Vertical Harvest Hydroponics (both based in the state of Alaska) have an interesting approach to vertical farming: growing products that are usually imported as the weather conditions do not apply to their usual growth environment. Further more, there are even solutions providing a software solution to help growers manage their indoor farm, such as startup Agrilyst, awarded at Tech Crunch Disrupt last September.
Basil production at FarmedHere, biggest indoor farm in the US ©FarmedHere
However, as David M. Ceaser points out, “ some challenges remain as well. Right now we are only able to grow ‘small’ crops like micro greens, salad greens and herbs. Vertical farming is also still very energy intensive. Let’s not forget that it is still at a very early stage. But lots of initiatives are emerging and it is going fast”. So, vertical farming, either indoor or outdoor, could be a potential response to the demographical challenge faced by smart cities.