By Paolo von Schirach
November 5, 2012
WASHINGTON – I have written before (see link above) about the potentially disruptive innovation of “vertical urban farming”. And now a TIME magazine story, (Local food Grows Up, October 15, 2012), points out the economic potential of the broader urban farming concept. Urban farming is not a new idea, (think about “Victory Gardens” created in war time). But it is a revolutionary, new idea as a scalable, profitable and cost effective large scale enterprise.
Agriculture is complicated
Agriculture is a rather complicated business. Until now it was assumed that, in order to make money, agricultural enterprises in advanced economies needed to have massive scale, so that they could keep their prices low while selling large quantities. But large scale farming has to depend on enormous amounts of land, complicated and costly supply chains of refrigerated warehouses, trucks, wholesalers, distribution points, etc. Not to mention unpredictable weather. The strawberries you buy at your local supermarket usually come from far away. And distance has a cost, (trucks, truck drivers, fuel), that adds to the price you pay. Besides, this means produce sitting in refrigerated warehouses and trucks for much longer. So it often does not taste that “fresh”.
Grow it in the city?
Well, imagine that someone can grow the same strawberries in your city. They are culytivated in a green house located on a roof top, picked up, transported to the same local supermarket where you shop, located just a few blocks away, and you can buy them literally hours after they have been harvested.
Sounds crazy? Not really. The TIME story describes Gotham Greens, a successful enterprise growing fresh produce on a roof top in Brooklyn, New York . This is a very sophisticated operation, based on hydroponic cultivation and computerized temperature controls. The only problem for this urban ag corporation, is scale. Even though the systems they use are highly productive, Gotham Green is very small, and it just cannot keep up with demand.
Go vertical and you add quantity
Well, here comes “vertical farming” to the rescue. Just as skyscrapers resolved the problem of squeezing a lot of people in a limited urban space, imagine a skyscraper for lettuce and broccoli. Instead of using the small surface of a roof top, this systems will give you 40-50 floors or more of growing surface. Have many of these vertical greenhouses and you could grow the entire food supply for New York City within NYC.
Now, this is truly disruptive innovation! If you can picture that, you can picture the amazing consequences. Vegetable are plentiful and cheaper year round. No use of soil. No need for the long and expensive logistic train from farm to market. End of land erosion. End of overuse of fertilizers with all the well known adverse environmental consequences.
A new green revolution
We are not there, yet. But we will get there. Right now the challenge is to find the best design that will guarantee optimal lighting, temperatures, ventilation and what not up and down the lettuce skyscraper. New computerized systems will take care of that. After that, it is all about economics. How much will it cost to build the structure. What is the possible yield and what is the market price for the products that will be cultivated will determine the size of the vertical greenhouse and the types of produce that it will farm.
When this idea will be scaled up, it will help consumers, energy savings and the environment. Many if not most of the large scale food production corporations will go out of business because they would not be able to compete with mass produced vegetables cultivated within cities. This means that all that land can be reforested with huge benefits for the environment and wild life. It will be a better world.