Going up: vertical farming

Almost startling in their perfection: AeroFarm's leafy greens grow in micro-managed trays stacked 30 feet high.

Almost startling in their perfection: AeroFarm's leafy greens grow in micro-managed trays stacked 30 feet high.

By Bel Jacobs

In a former steel plant in Newark, New Jersey, trays of leafy cress, kale and more, stacked more than 30 feet high, glow rosily under strips of pink lighting. There’s not a mark on them, no sign of the mandible nibble. They’re almost startling in their perfection. 

These are crops grown indoors, using a system known as vertical farming - which, according to some, is set to revolutionise the way we produce our food. 

The warehouse belongs to Aerofarms, a team of dedicated growers, crop physiologist, plant pathologists and microbiologists on a mission to transform world agriculture. It’s the company’s ninth operation and currently the world’s largest indoor vertical farm - though that might be set to change. 

And not soon enough. As we speak, between 10 and 11 per cent of the world’s population is struggling to find food; with an estimated global population of 9.5 bn by 2050 (from 7.5 bn today), we’ll need to produce at least 50 per cent more food to survive.

Traditional farming - resource-heavy and chemical-reliant beast that it is - just isn’t up to the job. “There’s all these stresses on our planet. Seventy of fresh water usage goes to agriculture [and] seventy per cent of fresh water contamination comes form agriculture,” Aerofarm’s co-founder David Rosenberg told Stories.  “One third of our arable land has been degraded in the last 40 years. We need a new way to feed our planet.”

Plants thrive without yellow spectrum lighting at AeroFarms' Newark site.

Plants thrive without yellow spectrum lighting at AeroFarms' Newark site.

The concept of vertical farming in regulated, indoor environments was championed in the late 1990s by Columbia University ecologist Dickson Despommier. From the get-go, the pros were obvious. Production could be year-round and, by stacking beds on top of each other, production by square foot maximized. Water usage is reduced by 95 per cent; pesticides by 100. Because crops can be grown locally, air miles are slashed. Factor in almost no spoilage - and you have a practically perfect growing system.

Inevitably, it’s not as rosy as the plants in Aerofarm’s reconditioned warehouse. Detractors point to the substantial amount of light and water vertical farms need to function, making produce essentially a niche item, affordable to very few. And, in terms of output, crops with deeper root needs like potatoes still aren’t possible. 

But invention waits for no man. Aerofarms' Newark site is the latest incarnation of the vertical farm and, aided by advances in tech and robotics, is crashing through issues like a friendly bull in a very low quality china shop. After discovering that plants can do without yellow spectrum, for example, the LED lighting is now tuned to exactly what the plants need for photosynthesis, leading to huge savings in electricity. 

“A lot of people say plants need sun," Rosenberg explains. " In fact, the plants don’t need yellow spectrum so we’re able to reduce our energy footprint by doing things like reducing certain types of spectrum." 

The crops sit in sheets of reusable fabric made from recycled plastic bottles, soaked in nutrient-rich waters, meaning the farm uses 70 per cent less water than conventional farming. Everything - temperature, humidity, the CO2 content of the air, the nutrients in the water, the plants themselves - is micro-monitored. If anything goes awry, AeroFarms’ technicians are on the case. 

Rosenberg is rightly proud: “From seed to harvest in 16 days what would take 30 days in a field. And then we're able to do that 22 times a year as as opposed to three times a year in the field because of seasonality,” he told CBS This Morning earlier this year.

And in terms of crops, research is on its way. “Look at whats being grown in greenhouses, tomatoes/peppers/cucumbers – these are the crops we can expect to see next,” says Andrew Blume, Community Manager of agriculture blog Agrictecture

Now, vertical farms are cropping up around the world. A report by PS Market Research forecasts that the market for vertically farmed food will grow rapidly to a total revenue of $6.4 billion by 2023 [2]. No wonder Elon Musk’s brother Kimbal has invested so much time and energy into Square Roots, which teaches young entrepreneurs, including a yoga teacher and a musician, how to grow and sell real food locally, through ‘urban campuses of vertical farms.’

No single system of farming can’t solve the world’s food problems on its own. Different skills need to be brought into play: reducing food waste, eating less meat (a mass switch to vegetarianism would bring down food-related greenhouse gas emissions by a 63 per cent), helping developing countries find ways to feed themselves, particularly in the face of severe climactic change. 

The Mashambas Skyscraper Project by Pawel Lipinski and Mateusz Frankowski.

The Mashambas Skyscraper Project by Pawel Lipinski and Mateusz Frankowski.

But vertical farming’s role looks set to be substantial. Earlier this year, Polish designers Pawel Lipiński and Mateusz Frankowski won first place in the eVolo Skyscraper Competition for the Mashambas Skyscraper project, a high-rise that would act as a vertical farm, able to be disassembled and moved to different locations across sub-Saharan Africa. Not in development yet, but a step in the right direction.

Meanwhile, Scotland’s first vertical farm, currently being constructed at the James Hutton Institute in Dundee, is set to go live in late 2017. And in China, construction on a massive 25-acre city farm starts next year. Conceived by the American-Chinese design firm Sasaki, the area, known as Sunquiao, in Pudong Shanghai, will include community spaces and a seed library as well as towering vertical farms growing greens under LED lights and nutrient-rich water. In farming, it appears, the only way is up ….