When the Earth’s pop­u­la­tion dou­bles and there is no more vi­able land to farm, plant­ing ver­ti­cal crops within city lim­its may be­come an ob­vi­ous food pro­duc­tion strat­egy.”

China Daily (Canada) - - FRONT PAGE -

One of the most promis­ing fields in agri­cul­ture these days en­ables grow­ing tons of crops and veg­eta­bles in­doors in lay­ers, stacked in racks, in ex­ist­ing un­der­uti­lized ware­houses and mul­ti­story build­ings.

It is called ver­ti­cal farm­ing, and an in­creas­ing num­ber of in­vestors be­lieve the new con­cept could trans­form the agri­cul­tural busi­ness in China and the rest of world.

Howard Brin, man­ager of the China chap­ter of the As­so­ci­a­tion for Ver­ti­cal Farm­ing told China Daily that they have had suc­cess in Zhe­jiang and Fu­jian prov­inces, and that a cou­ple of real es­tate com­pa­nies are in­ter­ested in in­vest­ing in the new farm­ing pro­ject.

“While the con­cept of build­ing farms in­side sky­scrapers might to­day sound like a far­fetched idea, when the Earth’s pop­u­la­tion dou­bles and there is no more vi­able land to farm, plant­ing ver­ti­cal crops within city lim­its may be­come an ob­vi­ous food pro­duc­tion strat­egy,” said Brin. “Why can cities only con­sume food rather than pro­duce agri­cul­tural prod­ucts?”

In May, his as­so­ci­a­tion had a sum­mit, gath­er­ing hun­dreds of ver­ti­cal farm­ing re­searchers and in­vestors in Bei­jing, and found that China might be the most promis­ing land for ver­ti­cal farm­ing.

It is es­ti­mated that, by 2030, there will be 800 mil­lion peo­ple liv­ing in China’s cities who need safe and sta­ble food sup­plies.

“By that time, ver­ti­cal farm­ing prac­tices in cities may play a role in con­tribut­ing to the sup­ply,” said Brin.

Chris­tine Zim­mer­man­nLoessl, pres­i­dent of the AVF, said the May sum­mit was the first of its kind. Choos­ing China as the con­fer­ence lo­ca­tion was a recog­ni­tion of China’s po­ten­tial in this as­pect.

Early prac­ti­tion­ers in China also have been ac­tive.

Lin Jingyi, 39, who grows 800 cab­bages in his 15-squareme­ter room in Hangzhou, said the an­nual harvest can be around 500 kilo­grams.

A for­mer em­ployee of Google China, Lin is now a “mod­ern farmer” who guides Chi­nese farm­ers in build­ing ver­ti­cal farm­ing sys­tems.

Lin said it was the ma­jor drought in south­west­ern prov­inces in 2010 that made him seek a more wa­ter-con­serv­ing farm­ing model.

He said he was at­tracted by the con­cept of zip-grow ver­ti­cal farm­ing tow­ers, and thought that it could be a way out, which inspired him to experiment in his liv­ing space.

The con­cept of ver­ti­cal farm­ing was the brain­child of a Columbia Univer­sity pro­fes­sor, Dick­son De­spom­mier, in the early 2000s.

Ac­cord­ing to De­spom­mier, 80 per­cent of the global pop­u­la­tion will live in cities by 2050. By that time, the pop­u­la­tion will in­crease to 9.2 bil­lion peo­ple, most of whom will live in de­vel­op­ing coun­tries, mak­ing food sup­plies a prob­lem.

Un­der De­spom­mier’s plans, a 30-story sky­scraper with ver­ti­cal farm­ing prac­tices could of­fer food for 50,000 Man­hat­tan res­i­dents. And the food from 160 such build­ings could feed all of New York City’s res­i­dents.

Lin’s story might be a suc­cess­ful case for feed­ing his own fam­ily, but how fea­si­ble is it for ver­ti­cal farms to feed a city’s pop­u­la­tion? And how far is it for China to catch up?

Pro­fes­sor Yang Qichang with the Chi­nese Academy of Agri­cul­tural Sciences said at the sum­mit that the Re­search Cen­ter for Pro­tected Agri­cul­ture and En­vi­ron­men­tal En­gi­neer­ing, which he is lead­ing, is look­ing into as­pects of ver­ti­cal ur­ban farm­ing, green­house en­gi­neer­ing, plant fac­to­ries, hy­dro­pon­ics and energy ef­fi­ciency.

Yang said at the sum­mit that for ver­ti­cal farms to be built in China, farm­ers need to have bet­ter con­trols of the tech­nol­ogy and costs.

Tech­nol­ogy wise, cli­mate con­trol tech­nolo­gies be­ing de­vel­oped by the cen­ter to achieve this in­clude hy­dro­pon­ics and LED light­ing, heat pumps and Ac­tive Heat Stor­age, so that when tem­per­a­tures out­side are -12 C, in­side it is 17 C.

“Planned pro­duc­tion, fast grow­ing, au­to­ma­tion and la­bor-sav­ing, no pes­ti­cide use, space op­ti­miza­tion, and less cli­mate ef­fects are all ben­e­fits of ver­ti­cal farms,” said Yang.

“Com­pared with con­ven­tional farm­ing, a plant fac­tory with nat­u­ral so­lar light can in­crease pro­duc­tiv­ity per unit area by be­tween two and 10 times. With ar­ti­fi­cial light this rises to 40 times, and by adding ver­ti­cal farm­ing this goes to 1,000 times,” Yang added.

An 800- sq- m ver­ti­cal farm demon­stra­tion plant is planned in the cen­ter of Bei­jing at the Na­tional Agri­cul­tural School. “On the sec­ond floor and in the cel­lar will be a plant fac­tory, and on the first floor we will grow mush­rooms,” he said.

He said what drives the tech­nol­ogy are spa­ces (namely to have new build­ings, or con­vert old build­ings, where you can have high con­cen­tra­tions of plants), and energy (where you can get enough light in there for the plants to grow, and have the re­cy­cling of wa­ter and nu­tri­ents).

Un­der the cur­rent tech­nol­ogy, the ver­ti­cal farm­ing costs around $10,000 per square me­ter, ac­cord­ing to a Columbia Univer­sity think tank that was in­volved in the con­cep­tual cre­ation of ver­ti­cal farm­ing.

A high-qual­ity farm of its kind could run into the bil­lions of dol­lars to build, far more costly than the tra­di­tional farm­ing costs Chi­nese are used to.

Still, ver­ti­cal farm­ing is a long way from re­plac­ing reg­u­lar farm­ing.

Stan Cox, the au­thor of Any Way You Slice It: The Past, Present, and Fu­ture of Ra­tioning, said in his book that “veg­eta­bles (not count­ing pota­toes since they can’t grow in wa­ter) make up only 1.6 per­cent of our to­tal cul­ti­vated land. If we were to con­vert all hor­i­zon­tal farm­ing to ver­ti­cal at equiv­a­lent yield per acre, we would need the floor space of 105,000 Em­pire State Build­ings.

“And that would still leave more than 98 per­cent of our crop pro­duc­tion still out in the fields,” he said.

Nev­er­the­less, it is still a good op­por­tu­nity for in­vestors, es­pe­cially as the crops and veg­eta­bles pro­duced in the ver­ti­cal farms can be sold at much higher prices ac­cord­ing to other coun­tries’ prac­tices.

Brin said that while this may sound like an as­tro­nom­i­cal amount, it is worth the in­vest­ment. He said it is es­ti­mated that in about seven years the profit in fresh pro­duce alone could pay for the ini­tial in­vest­ment. In ad­di­tion, the energy and wa­ter that a ver­ti­cal farm would pro­duce could not only sus­tain its own needs, but also pro­vide such im­por­tant el­e­ments for oth­ers.

In­vestors, mostly real es­tate de­vel­op­ers that are for­ward think­ing have be­gun to get in­volved in the in­dus­try.

Ac­cord­ing to Brin, the as­so­ci­a­tion is work­ing with Broad Group, which is de­vel­op­ing a “Ver­ti­cal City” in Hu­nan province to experiment with the new farm­ing model. Brin be­lieves that the fea­si­bil­ity may be in grad­ual steps.

“First step is that en­trepreneurs with sub­si­dies from lo­cal gov­ern­ment part­ners start to re­fit ware­houses to have sim­ple de­signed ver­ti­cal grow­ing sys­tems. How­ever, this does not nec­es­sar­ily make it a vi­able com­mer­cial op­er­a­tion that de­pends on a tightly man­aged and prof­itable busi­ness. But it is a start,” he said. “Grad­u­ally, the tech­nol­ogy would be ma­ture when LED light­ing sys­tems be­come cheaper and op­ti­mized.

“As for the vi­sion of ver­ti­cal farm­ing at a scale that will be able to change our rapid ur­ban­iza­tion, wa­ter de­ple­tion, car­bon foot­print; this is the task of gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials, prop­erty de­vel­op­ers, ar­chi­tects, hy­dro­ponic grow­ers, and LED light com­pa­nies to col­lab­o­rate and de­velop a sys­tem that can op­er­ate on a level that can feed cities at a dis­trict level,” he said. Con­tact the writer at yangyao@chi­nadaily.com.cn

LI XIAOGUO / XIN­HUA

A ver­ti­cal farm­ing

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