Professor Dickinson Despommier argues urban agriculture might be the way to go in order to manage feeding the cities of the future: Plenty Inc., a Californian start up ready with 541 million dollars
With the goal of building a vertical farm in every city with more than one million residents, Californian vertical farming start-up Plenty Inc. has raised 541 million dollars in investments coming from the Japanese company SoftBank, Jeff Bezos and the ex Google CEO Eric Schmidt, among others. Both the company’s designs and the funding it managed to gather public attention over vertical farming and indoor Controlled Environment Agriculture (CEA). Vertical farming is a modular system for growing food indoors, vertically instead of horizontally as in traditional agriculture. It is done indoor and in a controlled environment allowing to reduce the need for land by up to 99% and water usage up to 95%. The idea behind vertical farming is all but recent. «The technology is well known, it’s been in existence since 1938 and even before then», explains Columbia Professor Dickinson Despommier, author of the book The Vertical Farm: Feeding the World in the 21st Century, where the concept as we know it today first appeared. If the theory is well-established, what has changed is the equipment that is now available in terms of machinery and software: implementing the use of A.I. and robotics can solve two of the major issues that have been holding back CEA experiments so far – by monitoring and controlling the environment while reducing labor costs.
Another issue that was raised in the past, is that of energy consumption: plants grow thanks to LED lightbulbs, used to require a large amount of electricity. This problem has also been confronted – in two different ways: by using renewable energy (mainly solar) and by developing lightbulbs technology itself. «In the past couple of years», Despommier observes, «LED bulbs efficiency has been rising by 50% every six months» making farms’ energy costs more affordable. Matt Barnard, Plenty founder and CEO, took advantage of all available technology for their designs. They employ Hydroponic as a method, a technique that reduces at a minimum – but does not eliminate – the use of soil. Their prototypes are ‘quite vertical’, according to Despommier, with plants arranged in wall-like structures, «two or three stories tall». As for the growing procedure, «they are using a drip system which allows the nutrients to flow from the top of that very tall wall of greens down to the bottom. They have artificial intelligence employed to measure the PHs and the oxygen levels and all the things that you need to be concerned about». On Plenty’s work and achievements, he comments: «When you can gather that much funding it means your idea is good, you’ve got prototypes and you’ve got proof». Still, a few concerns remain: «Plenty is limited in what they can grow, because of the very configuration of the growing system. It’s a wall, and they grow things on it like basil and spinach and kale and leafy greens of various sorts. There’s a lot of money to be made in that, and there’s nothing wrong with that. If you want to expand your produce list, so that it’s a one-stop shop operation, you have to reconfigure for root and vine vegetables and maybe some fruits like blueberries and raspberries».
Moving in the direction of fruit-growing, Plenty started a collaboration with Driscoll’s Strawberries, «probably because they didn’t have the right configuration to do that themselves». They also «had a false start. They were going up for Seattle, into Takoma, but for some reason that didn’t work out for them». And yet, Despommier predicts a bright future for the company: «with that money and investment in technology at their fingertips I don’t see how they can fail. It also looks like they are good growers – having people working for you that have never done this before or lack experience can be a good reason for failing moving from a home garden to a 150 000 square building is a big jump». Plenty does not seem to run this risk, and more growth is expected from them: «they are now situated in Los Angeles and eventually they’ll be in any major city up and down the West Coast».
Plenty runs the risk of monopolizing the discourse. The methods implemented by the Californian giant-to-be are not the only ones. Controlled Environment Agriculture spans a variety of systems. Research and Development (R&D) in the field is starting to pay attention and test Aeroponics as well. Instead of using water and soil like traditional agriculture while reinventing the disposition – which is the principle of hydroponics – aeroponics eliminates soils and further reduces water usage: the roots hang in the air and nutrients are sprayed directly in the ambient. «Aeroponics is much easier to do because you have less to keep track of. The less you have to keep track of the easier life becomes, so if you can arrange for the roots of the plants to hang in the air and then you spray a mist over the roots inside an air container, the plants will actually grow twice as fast as if they were in soil». Despommier believes that «aeroponics will become the method of choice for most parts of new indoor farms, provided that there is a robust set of equipment for them to take advantage of». Wanjun Gao, CEO of BiFarm is working to provide that kind of technology. «Our mission» Gao explains, «is to advance the way we grow today, to have a better life tomorrow. The way I see it, agriculture is a bit behind the rest of industries in taking advantage of available technologies – so there is a lot of room to improve. The world population is in rapid increase, and the way we grow is not efficient. It is urgent for us to get into this business, find the problems we have to face and plan a solution, instead of waiting for the time when it’s going to be too late». BiFam aims at providing the means and methods to design «a site that is energy efficient, with a minimum carbon footprint. And specially to build a system that is employable everywhere, to grow all year round».
Some, like James Lloyd-Jones, CEO the British Jones Food Company (JFC), the largest vertical farming business in Europe, still believe that hydroponic is more reliable: «the reason is the robustness of the system. With aeroponic, if something goes wrong at any time you are going to waste the crop. Whereas with hydroponic you tend to work in redundancy, which gives you a little bit more of a slack», in a word, «it is safer». Gao agrees that «with soil and water the plant has stable access to the nutrients». Yet, «aeroponic, if done right, will generate a lot of revenue. The growth is faster and the environment for the plants is better. If you can dial in the settings, if you can confidently manage the environment, aeroponics is the way to go». Some issues are still open for discussion. One of the main concerns is the job market: if on one hand the employment of vertical farming in the food industry on a large scale will lead to cuts in manual labor, on the other more professionals in the fields of software engineering and R&D will be required. According to Gao, «the industry will switch from an expertise-based system to a more computer-based one. At the same time, the pure labor and repetitive work will be reduced and replaced by robots. Expertise will be required, and they can actually focus on certain areas. For instance, on research, to develop a best practice on how to design and replicate growing systems».
The world is changing, and the way we eat and produce our food will evolve accordingly, and so will the job market. JFC for instance is planning to build ten new farms in the UK over the next five years – with the need for national food production more valuable than ever after Brexit. In 2010, when the first book on vertical farming was published, it seemed like a utopian tale. Ten years later, a new edition has been published with the addition of a new chapter showing the pictures of projects that were developed in the meantime: the utopia has turned into reality. Before vertical farming can be widely accepted, some challenges still need to be faced: «The first one is public health education». says Professor Despommier «When you say public health – and food is health, a good diet means that your immune system is intact and that common infections do not develop to diseases. The biggest challenge is to convince people that your food will be healthier and more abundant if you grow it locally in a building that controls all the external things that need to be controlled in order to keep diseases out of your food. The next challenge is to educate people to work in them. Then of course finally we need government support in order to make this a bigger reality that it is». Vertical farming might be one of the pillars for the city of the future. One that, according to Despommier, could look like «a forest of buildings that communicate with each other» where «every one of those buildings could become energy-sufficient» – and this might be the second utopian design Despommier is getting right.IMAGE GALLERY
Dr. Dickson Despommier, PhD, is a microbiologist, an ecologist, and emeritus professor of Public and Environmental Health at Columbia University. For 27 years he conducted research on cellular and molecular parasitism and held lectures and courses on Parasitic Disease, Medical Ecology and Ecology. From one of these courses, in 1999, he founded the root for this idea of raising crops in tall buildings; vertical farming. In 2010, he published his widely received book: The Vertical Farm: Feeding the world in the 21st Century, St. Martin’s Press, New York. Two years ago vertical farms were regarded as a utopia, but one year ago the first prototypes were built. Among those prototypes are a three-story VF Suwon, South Korea, over 50 (plant factories that qualify as vertical farms) in Japan, a commercial vertical farm in Singapore that opened in 2012, and another in Chicago that was built in an old industrial building.