Making good money while serving customers and helping the environment
By Paolo von Schirach
March 12, 2012
WASHINGTON - Urban vertical farming, (see link to a related story above), is slowly becoming real. A new vertical farm will be built in Sweden very soon, and others will follow. On a smaller scale, there are now commercially viable food-producing greenhouses placed on roof tops in Montreal. And it is estimated that, just by using the existing roof top surfaces in large cities like New York, it may be possible to feed its entire population.
But we are just at the early beginnings of what could turn into a complete, global farming revolution. There are obstacles to be overcome. The whole urban farming concept is still quite new. Optimal designs for vertical greenhouse buildings are still being studied and reviewed, while the regulatory and permitting framework that will make it easier to start these types of commercial enterprises within cities is just not there yet.
Does urban farming make sense?
But, whatever the technical/regulatory hurdles, does any of this make any sense? Yes, it does. Urban farming can be a profitable business. Most importantly, if applied on a global scale, it would contribute to solve the enormous problem of insufficient land and water to grow all the produce necessary to feed billions of people.
The urban farming concept is both futuristic and simple. It is all about growing vegetables, fruits and herbs where people live. As there is no farm land in cities, the whole idea is to erect tall buildings that would be essentially stacked greenhouses. Just as a skyscraper solves the problem of lack of land for building apartments or offices by going vertical, it is totally possible to build a skyscraper for broccoli and salad. Besides, by farming in an enclosed environment, it is possible to use only hydroponics, (a water based cultivation), or aeroponics, (air based cultivation), techniques, without any soil whatsoever. The water mixed with minerals used to nourish the plants flows in a closed loop and so it is not lost in the soil, or through evaporation, as in conventional farming.
Why it makes sense
All this becomes attractive not just as business proposition but because we may be getting close to the limits of what conventional farming may supply. Simply stated: too many people, not enough farm land. Almost all the arable land across the globe is already in use. In some regions of the world, forests are cleared in order to cultivate the land, therefore causing additional environmental damage. On top of that, conventional farming requires immense quantities of increasingly scarce water.
Besides, by growing plant food away from urban centers where most consumers now live, we have to add to the price of produce the cost of an often long, expensive (and often quite inefficient) logistics train. The vegetables are grown and harvested in one place. But then they need to be stored, transported with refrigerated trucks, delivered to supermarkets and finally offered to the public on their shelves. All this adds to cost, while some produce is wasted along the way, especially in the least developed countries.
Restore land, save water
Vertical urban farming has the potential of solving, almost magically, all these problems. One can grow lots of food in a very limited space, consuming far less water and finally eliminating the entire logistics system necessary to bring vegetables from the farm to the supermarket. Imagine your tomatoes grown one block away from your favorite grocery store. This may sound crazy, but it is entirely possible.
A project in Sweden
Indeed, the Swedish firm Plantagon will start building its first vertical greenhouse in the city of Linköping. Their hope is that this will be just the beginning of a process that can expand to the rest of Sweden, Europe and all over the world. In that particular location, the Plantagon greenhouse building will also act as a carbon sink. The plants grown will absorb CO2 emitted from nearby industrial facilities.
The project was made possible through help from a Swedish Government’s agency, the Delegation for Sustainable Cities. Hans Hassle, CEO of Plantagon International AB, received the funding and the project could go ahead and so the first urban farm will be built close to Stockholm.
Plantagon is considering other building shapes and designs. At this early stages, constructing an urban farm can be expensive. But the pay off is in higher yields. “The unusual form adds to construction expenses –the Plantagon people explain– but we say that the doubling or even tripling of yields makes the structure more than competitive with traditional greenhouses or surface agriculture. With a ground footprint of 10,000 sq m, a vertical greenhouse equals 100,000 sq m of cultivated land.”
According to Dickson D. Despommier, a Columbia University emeritus professor, in theory a 30-story, one-square block farm could yield as much food as 2,400 outdoor acres, and with far less (or no) spoilage, because vegetables would travel only a very short distance.
Roof top farming also possible
While dedicated vegetable-growing buildings represent the optimal urban farming solution, plenty can be done by utilizing so many roof tops of existing buildings. Even though the farming scale per building is obviously much smaller, there are so many buildings in large cities that the total food production can be quite significant, not to mention the energy savings for the buildings themselves, since the green house on top of them would work as added insulation.
The New York Times reported on Lufa Farms, a thriving roof top greenhouse business in Montreal, Canada. (Cash crops under the glass and up on the roof, May 18. 2011). Lufa Farms “turned an unassuming office rooftop into a 31,000-square-foot greenhouse that grows tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and other produce year-round and is a working example of a developing trend known as urban rooftop farming. It has taken a timely convergence of technologies and consumer attitudes to bring rooftop farming to the fore. The advance of hydroponic growing techniques and innovative, cost-effective greenhouse systems, together with increasing consumer desire for organic produce, has redefined the term locally grown and spurred entrepreneurs to create a variety of greenhouse technologies and business models“.
It is profitable
And they make money. The costs of setting up a roof top greenhouse can be significant. But, after that initial expenditure, the operating costs are lower than those of a conventional organic farm offering the same quality produce. The incentive for potential customers is to have their reliable supplier literally next door.
New York City could feed itself
Moving from Montreal to New York City, it has been noted that New York has 14,000 acres of unused rooftop space. According to New York Sun Works, a nonprofit group that promotes the use of rooftop greenhouses, if all of the unshaded rooftops installed greenhouses, the resulting produce could feed as many as 20 million people in the region. This is quite an astonishing figure. Even if you cut this estimate in half, it would still be wonderful news. New York could feed itself by growing food on its rooftops.
A viable concept
Clearly these are just beginnings, early steps and projections into the future. But, while the concept is novel and still somewhat experimental, many key technical issues have been dealt with. And there are strong economic incentives to go ahead with urban farming. The hungry customers are right there, in the city. They would love to have reliable supplies of quality, unspoiled food, right at their door steps. Once the initial capital costs have been absorbed, the early pioneers of this novel business claim that they are making money.
Good for the environment
From a broader public policy and global environmental protection perspective, vertical urban farming, if practiced world-wide, may very well be the best way to avoid the (current and projected) over exploitation of land and water, while providing needed nutrition to increasingly urban populations. From an economic perspective, eliminating the need of transporting, refrigerating, warehousing and distributing produce, will cut down its cost, with benefits for all urban consumers –especially the poorest.
As for idle farm land, no longer needed for cultivation because of urban farming, grow forests on it, recreate a natural habitat for many species, while absorbing excess CO2 and producing more oxygen.Print This Post