Vertical Farming Technology Poised to Bring Agriculture & New Commercial Opportunities to Urban Areas

A December 3 Fast Company article highlighted the potential benefits that vertical farming technology could bring to urban settings, including the potential for viable (and commercially profitable) year-round agriculture in highly developed areas with little or no open space.  Vertical farming technology allows certain crops to be grown in warehouse-type facilities without sunlight or sometimes even soil.  The article highlighted several examples showing the maturation and increasing scalability of the technology, which even a few years ago was considered experimental or prototype:

In a windowless warehouse just outside of Chicago, where today’s forecast is for below-freezing temperatures, Green Sense Farms grows leafy greens and herbs all year around. They sell their bounty—protected from insects, disease and brutal winters—to grocers like Whole Foods and some local restaurants. Green Sense grows their soil-free produce (they use coconut husk instead) in indoor growing towers. Beneath 30 foot ceilings, rows and rows of produce are stacked and CO2 levels, water, lighting, and humidity are precisely controlled.

“At capacity, we’re producing about three to four million pounds a year,” said Robert Colangelo, the president and founder of Green Sense Farms. With their current footprint—30,000 square feet—Green Sense can grow fresh produce that can be distributed within 100 miles to 20 million people.

Their success is another sign that the vertical urban farming movement is beginning to scale. In Cambridge, Massachusetts, MIT’s Media Lab is developing an open source version, known as City Farm. In Japan, just 60 miles from where the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster occurred, inside of a former silicon chip manufacturing facility, Fujitsu grows 3000 heads of lettuce a day that sell for three times the price of other lettuce.

The article noted the benefits of vertical farming which include: (1) year-round crop production; (2) independence from weather and climate; (3) minimal issues with crop-destroying animals, fungus, or disease; and (4) food produced in relatively sterile environments.

Growers say they want to grow nutritious food in a new, sustainable way, and supplement field farms and greenhouses. They believe the technique can revolutionize farming in crowded urban metropolises, during cold winters, and in impoverished parts of the world. And, the growers add, their produce is already in demand because it’s local, available year around, and frankly, pristine.

“In the field—there’s pests, there’s animals, there’s fungus, and there’s weather—the sun may shine, it may not,” said Colangelo. “We see this as the future of farming.”

The article also highlighted some potential drawbacks to the technology, including: (1) the need for precise computer controlled management of the facility; (2) water and power consumption (the facilities require LED lighting); (3) limited suitability for certain popular food crops, such as corn, tomatoes, or grains; and (4) questions about the taste and nutrition value of vertical farm produce.

“I worry about the energy cost of inputs—light, water, nutrients,” said Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition at New York University and the author of Food Politics and What to Eat. “I also worry about the nutrients in soil that aren’t reproduced in artificial systems. And then, there’s the taste issue. Soil influences taste.”  …

“The concern is there,” said Gus van der Feltz, the global director of city farming for multinational lighting and tech company Philips. “If you don’t use sun or soil what do you lose? Providing the right kind of environment and nutrients to the plant is important and we are working on that.”