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.”
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 firstname.lastname@example.org
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