Urban “vertical farming,” using LED lights optimized for growing, is emerging in a few places around the world. Also nicknamed “city farming,” it goes far beyond greenhouses by completely controlling all the conditions in which plants are grown. And since sunlight is no longer required, whole floors and even entire buildings could be full of such contained grow areas.
Right now vertical farming is in the initial pioneering stage. Earlier this week, GrowUp Urban Farms announced it had received permission to install a commercial-scale aquaponics venture in East London, which will be the first of its kind in the U.K. The firm will install a stacked vertical growing system with LED lights in an old warehouse, which will have an annual production capacity of over 20,000kg of salads and herbs and 4,000kg of fish; the majority will be sold to local restaurants. The firm hopes to begin harvesting in September.
Technology has just now reached a point in which it can actually manipulate the light spectrum to suit different types of plants, opening up all kinds of options. Dutch firm Venntis Technology has been developing “light recipes,” drawing heavily on two wavelengths in particular. “Red is most proficient at driving photosynthesis and plant growth and blue is the ‘multi-vitamin’ and prevents plant stretching and cues nutrients production,” said Jeff Mastin, one of the firm’s biologists. The results have been promising — the firm’s vertical farms are able to grow similar quality plants at a much faster rate than conventional farming or grow better quality plants in a conventional amount of time.
Philips, the large electronics company that has been at the forefront of LED technology over the past few years, has also been developing “light recipes.” It has partnered with Green Sense Farms for a prototype city farming project in a warehouse outside of Chicago. Inside, fourteen racks (each 25 feet tall) stretch from one end of the 30,000 square-foot-space to the other. Its total of 1 million cubic feet of growing space produces about 4,000 cases of produce a week.
Vertical farms like these could ultimately help feed dense urban populations locally, with a much lighter environmental footprint. High-quality crops could be grown year-round, since there’s no danger from severe weather. Neither are there weeds nor pests, and therefore there is no need for pesticides or herbicides. There isn’t any agricultural runoff into streams and rivers, either. Furthermore, local distribution would entail far fewer greenhouse gas emissions than trucking in food from agricultural regions to cities. And vertical farms are a positive new use for abandoned or blighted buildings.
In addition to all of those benefits, local production means local jobs. The founders of GrowUp Urban Farms believe that “smarter, more sustainable cities only develop when businesses and communities are ‘people-centric’ – and creating meaningful employment is one of our core values.” So they will be hiring and training local youth in East London to build up the firm’s new venture.
Dickston Despommimer, author of The Vertical Farm: Feeding the World in the 21st Century, said it’s hard to compare the prices of indoor and outdoor farming directly, because traditional agriculture is so heavily subsidized. Even so, and despite the use of electricity to power LED lighting, vertical farming uses less fossil fuels overall than conventional farming, and its crop yields are far higher: 90% compared to about 50% for traditional farming. (Vertical farming also may have drawn practical inspiration from the high-yielding indoor cultivation of marijuana, legal or illegal; that same level of precision and care is now expanded to food crops.)
The main challenge at this stage is the determining what plants can be grown indoors and at what cost. Currently, mostly leafy greens, basil herbs and low hanging fruits are the only viable options, but the technology will continue to evolve. Already Philips has created an LED light that is 68% efficient, compared to its previous 28% efficient model. When it comes to convincing investors and banks, this has made a huge difference, Despommier said, adding that “vertical farming is fast becoming a profitable option, rather than a gimmicky idea destined to stay in the domain of fancy architectural drawings.”
While rooftop gardens have become more popular in recent years in many eco-conscious cities, their impact on sustainable urban food production would be dwarfed by that of vertical farming– if it becomes widespread. And that seems more and more likely as successful results pop up around the world. For example, Japan, with its high population density, scarcity of arable land, and penchant for ultra-efficient technology, is especially receptive to vertical farming. About five years ago, the Japanese government issued a technical report on “plant industries,” concluding that it could make a major contribution to Japan’s daily nutrition. Now the country boasts a spectrum of indoor farming, from large scale vertical LED-lit ventures to the mixed-use office building Pasona O2 (where tomatoes and rice are grown on the ground floor and eaten by the office workers above), and supermarkets that grow their own produce.
As the technologies behind vertical farming become more efficient and economies of scale reduce set-up costs, its momentum will keep growing rapidly, just like the plants.