You’re driving in the car and have been for the entirety of the day. You’re tired, worn out, and for the umpteenth time one of your passengers asks “Are we there yet?”
Now imagine, that instead of being a car, it’s agriculture, and instead of your being the driver, you are now a farmer. You’ve been farming the land for the last thirteen and a half thousand years, and now the soil is tired and worn out. You’ve heard of these new and developing indoor farming technologies, and desperately want to move to those technologies but they aren’t readily available and one of your fellow farmers keeps asking “Are we there yet?”
Well, the answer to that question is a solid sort-of. Vertical farming faces several challenges when being grown in and around cities, challenges that can crush the possibility of vertical farms with the current technologies.
Location is important for any endeavour because if you can’t sell your product or service, you shouldn’t offer it. Thus if a vertical farm is going to be built, it needs to grow a product it can sell. Any given farm could focus on premium plants, like herbs and spices, aimed at supplying local restaurants, or on fast growing, high value, leafy greens aimed at everyday consumers. Another option is to grow out-of-season crops, that would otherwise have to import into the area.
Selling the produce is only one half of the battle, as a farm also needs to think about how the produce will be distributed. The most efficient model is to deliver direct-to-distributor, so if a farm is supplying herbs and spices to restaurants, then deliver the produce directly to those businesses. But those arrangements need to be established, just as confirmed buyers for the produce do.
Once you have decided on the produce, you’ve lined up the buyers and figured out the distribution, you need a building to set up shop in.
An ideal location puts the building in the most efficient proximity to the buyers and an ideal building meets all the infrastructure needs of the farm. The ideal vertical farm is a custom built construction that is tailored to the needs of the farm, but at this point in time, this is a pipe dream. The more realistic option is the conversion of existing buildings, like underground cellars and subways or large warehouses.
Whatever the structure of choice, the building needs to have the electrical infrastructure to meet the demands of the farm.
Cost & Pricing
The next two points are interlinked – the cost of running the farm, and the price of the produce.
Running costs shouldn’t be underestimated, including things like labour costs and electrical costs. These costs can be reduced before the farm even starts producing by building the farm in more efficient ways, as illustrated below:
The other consideration is the pricing of the produce – localized growth and far fewer transport costs allow for prices to be lower that food is that grown elsewhere, but the improved freshness and quality of the food shouldn’t be discounted either – price the produce too cheaply or too expensively and vertical farms will struggle to remain operational.
So… are we there yet?
Well, sort of. Vertical farmers are capable of choosing a product, finding buyers and planning distribution. And those businesses that have started up have done so in warehouses or unused subways. But those businesses have and continue to face challenges. Some businesses have closed down due to high costs.
A lot of the development that needs to happen in order to produce more efficient systems is currently largely only being driven by the vertical farming companies themselves, as there is not enough urgency in peoples minds of the impacts and rising issues stemming from climate change and how current agricultural practices fit into that.
However, it is those current pioneers that are driving the technology forward, with a few companies in the process of building their first custom facilities – which are good signs toward progress.
In the last post, we looked at what the idea on an eco-city was, and how energy and resource generation and consumption have a big role in an eco-city’s design. Vertical farms play a role in both of those aspects, both as generators and as users of those assets. The next point of consideration is the quality of those resources – mainly food, air and water.
Some of the issues experienced by people are the abundance of chemicals that are present in the food we consume, the water we drink, and the air we breathe. These chemicals come from vehicle and industrial emissions, herbicide and pesticide leaching, hormone and antibiotic contamination, etc. An eco-city can potentially work toward eliminating most of those chemical sources.
Because vertical farming can be done in environmentally controlled conditions, the presence of unwanted plant species, pathogens and pest are greatly mitigated. In theory, the only plants growing are the ones the farm has planted, so there is no need for herbicides. Any diseases or pests present in the crop can be caught early thanks to the technological systems, and problematic plants can be individually removed, thus removing the need for pesticides.
The same applies to any meat produce – depending on the livestock of choice, like crickets, for example, a large amount of meat protein can be grown in a short space of time, hopefully removing the use of growth hormones, and the controlled environments hopefully allow the animals to be reared in healthy conditions, with a little as possible antibiotics required.
If an eco-city’s vertical farms are producing clean, chemical-free food, this benefits the entire community consuming that produce, leaving people healthier and happier. It also makes the next aspect easier.
Water is a premium resource, and in a city, there is a lot of demand for it too. Water for drinking, water for washing, water for food production and water for sewerage. A key value of an eco-city is efficient resource use, and this is particularly applicable to water. One way an eco-city can achieve that with water is for water to be recycled. Greywater and processed sewerage water supply the vertical farm’s water demands, which in turn becomes food, which is eaten by people, and then goes back into the system as waste. Because chemicals are passed out of the human body through our waste, it’s important to reduce the number of chemicals that are going around in that system. This is partially achieved through food production, as mentioned above, and partially through how the water is cleaned too – the city’s green spaces, like parks, could act like large filtering systems, cleaning water as it makes its way through the soil, something which is achieved with greater ease when there are fewer chemicals.
As for air quality, this is achieved on two fronts – the first being to produce less pollution, by switching to electrical transport and clean energy production, and the second being how the existing pollution is recaptured – farmland that has been freed up by switching to vertical farms is returned to a forested state, acting as a pollution sink.
Another way of achieving this would be through plant covered buildings, like the one seen above. These ‘Green Buildings’ would not only absorb CO2 but would produce Oxygen. While I’m not sure of the scale, a large building could absorb 25 tons of CO2 each year, and produce 25 kilograms of oxygen each day. Imagine the clean air these cities would have.
Another thing that comes with modern human habitation and something that is concentrated in cities is waste. Food scraps, plastic and cardboard packaging, glass and metal containers, just to name a few. Unfortunately, for many cities around the world, all of that waste ends up in landfills, where it will sit for hundreds of years decomposing if it decomposes at all and leaching chemicals into the soil under which it is buried. Like air quality, there is a two-fold approach to how we solve this.
The Waste we Produce
The first approach is by changing what waste we produce. Even if you changed nothing about how we currently dispose of waste, you could still have a huge environmental impact by changing what the waste is. If all of our current plastic waste was replaced with biodegradable alternatives, a landfill’s contents would decompose in decades instead of centuries and would leach nutrients into the soil, instead of chemicals.
How we Recycle it
As good as biodegradable packaging is, an eco-city can still do one better, by changing how its waste is processed. Returning to the idea of an ecosystem, if our waste goes into a landfill, then resources have left the system. If however, the waste is recycled and returned to the system, then the potential of the waste is reused, to create new resources.
In the video above, you can see the efforts San Francisco is going to in order to become a zero-waste city. What does this mean? A zero-waste city would be a city whereas little waste as is possible goes to landfills or incinerators. The cities waste is sorted by the residents into three categories – recyclables, compostables, and landfill. Recyclable goods, such as glass bottles, could initially be sterilised and reused, perhaps holding a product a dozen times before its condition worsens beyond reuse. At that point, it can still be ground up and turned into other goods. Compostable goods, like food scraps, plant trimmings and biodegradable packaging can all be turned into compost, which in turn could supply the city’s vertical farms with more plant food for their crops. Over time, I’d like to think that the landfill category would be phased out, as all waste goods are either recycled or composted.
A Smart City
The final key to the eco-city is tying all of its parts together. Having smart vertical farms, smart transport networks, smart energy grids and smart services are all good on their own, but they all become even more powerful when they start working together. The city intelligently knows how many people reside within it. It knows how much energy, food and water is being produced and knows where to distribute it. The transport system dynamically routes itself based on the transport demands at any one time, automatically catering for peak hours or clearing a path for emergency services. It knows how well its students are performing academically, automatically referring struggling individuals extra assistance. It knows which people are sick, and even what they are sick with, automatically quarantining portions of the city if needed, or providing medical facilities with extra resources when they need it. While this idea may not appeal to everyone, the city becomes this self-aware ecosystem, that balances its needs as perfectly as it can, providing each one of its residents with all of their requirements. From that efficiency comes sustainability, something which is desperately needed.
Over the last couple of weeks, we’ve looked at the current state of affairs, what vertical farming is and what it can be, some of the technologies that drive vertical farming, farming insects as a food source and how vertical farms can produce more than food. We’ve explored how vertical farming can be implemented in the home and how vertical farms can be made intelligent through robotics and IOT. Any city of the future would benefit immensely from the inclusion of one or more vertical farms, and indeed the wider environment and communities would benefit too. But vertical farms on their own are not enough to save the environment or the people and creatures living on the planet – to achieve that, our efforts need to be bigger and grander. Vertical farming still plays a big role in those efforts, by being part of a smart, eco-city.
A what now?
So what is an eco-city? Well, depending on where you look, you will get different answers, but I think that the working definition accepted by organisations like the Ecocity Builders and the International Ecocity Framework and Standards Advisory summarises it nicely:
An Ecocity is a human settlement modelled on the self-sustaining resilient structure and function of natural ecosystems. The ecocity provides healthy abundance to its inhabitants without consuming more (renewable) resources than it produces, without producing more waste than it can assimilate, and without being toxic to itself or neighbouring ecosystems. Its inhabitants’ ecological impact reflect planetary supportive lifestyles; its social order reflects fundamental principles of fairness, justice and reasonable equity.
As mentioned previously, during humanities beginnings, we were part of natural ecosystems. As a species, we grew, and our advancements and growing numbers moved us further and further away from those ecosystems, eventually destroying the ones around us – a process which continues to this day. An eco-city is a reinvention of how we live, which doesn’t sacrifice our modern conveniences (if anything, adding to them) and returning to a sustainable, ecological centric way of living. So what are the key areas of an eco-city?
Renewable energy generation and smart energy consumption
Renewable resource generation and smart resource consumption
Healthy resource quality of food, water and air
Efficient and reusable waste management
Efficient and readily available social requirements like housing, education, health, safety and transport, for all parts of society
Smart management of energy, transport, resources and people, as well as communication between those systems
Intelligent and efficient city design to maximise the accessibility and efficiency of the above points
Energy is a huge cornerstone of our modern way of life, and even more so for future life in eco-cities. For example, we are seeing a transition toward electric transport, which will increase the demand for energy as the technology propagates itself through society. A big problem with cities currently is that much of their energy is generated by non-renewable sources, like coal and gas, or through risky means such as nuclear fission. To top it off, a lot of the energy is wasted because it is used inefficiently. So how do we solve this?
The first key step is to switch 100% of a city’s energy sources to renewable ones. This includes sourcing energy from:
Solar, via solar panels built onto rooftops and open spaces, and built into windows and roads
Wind, via wind turbines
Hydro, via dams and rivers
Tidal, via tidal cycles
Biofuels produced by sources like algae
The second key step is how renewable energy is used. A city-wide smart electrical grid would be capable of talking to all of the buildings, the appliances within those buildings, with the energy generation sources, and with the cities transport. By knowing exactly how much energy is available and how much is required, energy could be moved around the grid to maximise its usage, buildings and appliances could be switched to low power modes dynamically as required, balancing the needs of everything within the city. Because the buildings themselves would be generating energy, many buildings would be self-powering and if they were generating more energy than they were using, the extra energy could be shared with other buildings or the grid in a process called peer to peer energy. Vertical Farms would be a key user and contributor to the smart grid.
Cities are big consumers of resources, or more specifically, the people inside the cities are. The three key resources are food, water and air.
The need for food is a key one, a role which vertical farms would be filling. In order to adequately provide for a cities population, there are two things that are needed – the right amount of food being produced and that food being efficiently distributed and consumed. As far as production is concerned, a rough calculation can be run.
(T x V) + ((T x M) x N) = Y
How does the equation work? Well;
T = total calories consumed per day
V = is the percentage of those calories that are plant-based
M = is the percentage of those calories that are meat based
N = the number of plant calories needed to grow the meat
Y = is the total amount of plant-based food that needs to be grown to provide T
plugging some values into the equation like such:
T = 2,500 (an average daily calorie intake – varies from person to person)
V = 0.9 (i.e. a 90% plant-based meals)
M = 0.1 (i.e. 10% meat based meals)
N = 16 (based on the average plant calories per calorie of meat from beasts like cattle or sheep)
(2,500 x 0.9) + ((2,500 x 0.1) x 16) = 6,250
Y = 6,250 total plant calories required per day to feed one person
Ready for another calculation? (C x D) / M = L
C = Calories required per day, in this case, 6,250
D = number of days in the year, 365
M = average square meters require growing 1000 calories over the course of a year – which is 1m²
L = (6,250 x 365) / 1000 = 2,281.25 meters squared
Thus 2,281.25m² is required to grow 2,500 calories per day for one person, 365 days per year. To produce food on such exact figures is risky, as some people will eat more, some will eat less, and if you don’t have enough food, you end up with food shortages, which is not a desirable outcome. Thus the equation should grow more calories than the average person needs, let’s say 2,700 calories per day. This brings our land total up to 2,463.75m².
In a world where space is at a premium, and even more so within a city even more so, and again more so within a vertical farm, this doesn’t bode well. In a previous blog, we looked at how insects as a protein source would be more sustainable than continuing to grow beef. For an equal amount of beef protein, cricket required 12 times less food to produce. If we divide 16 by 12 we get approximately 1.33. If we plug that into the calculation for 2,700 required calories per day, we end up with 2,789.1 calories that need to be grown each day, which only requires 1,018m² – a far more sustainable amount.
So how much could theoretically be grown in a vertical farm? Well, if a vertical farm was build that had a usable floor area 100m wide by 100m long, you would have an area of 10,000m². If this particular vertical farm used a-frames that were 0.5m wide, 1m long and 2.5m tall, each side of the A-frame would have a growing area of 5m². Allowing for 0.5m aisles between a-frame rows, 50% of the space can be filled with A-frames, which provides roughly 25,000m² of growing space in the 100m by 100m floor area. If the food produced was solely going toward feeding people, each floor could feed approximately 25 people, every day, each day of the year. That figure doesn’t take into account the increased efficiency of growing indoors – while it would vary from plant species to plant species, as a general rule of thumb, one acre indoors is equivalent to 10 outdoors, although, for certain foods, like strawberries, this can go as high as 1:30. For reference, 25,000m² is about 6.2 acres.
Water & Air
Water and air are simpler that food, as both are more readily available – the main goal here would be quality. Many large cities around the world suffer from polluted water and polluted air, however, in an eco-city that could be very different. If renewable energy sources were powering cities and if all transport was electric, the air would already be substantially cleaner than it currently is in a lot of places. As for water, cities could be a lot more efficient with their water consumption, not only in its usage but also in how it processes and recycles wastewater.
In the last post, we were looking at vertical farming applications in and around the home. One of the applications we looked at was a project called RUFS (Robotic Urban Farm System). One of the cool aspects of that project was its inclusion of IOT – short for the Internet of Things.
If you haven’t heard of IOT before, its both an exciting and cautionary technology, in which everyday items, like clothing, furniture and cars, can be monitored and controlled, remotely over the internet. The scope and potential of this technology are huge, enabling things like smart grids, smart homes, smart cities, and intelligent transport.
More importantly for us, it has applications in vertical farming. As we saw with RUFS, their usage of IOT within the project enabled water to be cycled by a timer, the measurement of natural light to then activate artificial lighting to maximize growing efficiency, monitor temperature, nutrition and pH levels in the water. All of this information is collected for analytical benefits, alerting of issues (Like poor pH levels) and the enabling of corrective actions, like the introduction of a pH balancing agent into the water. These are only some of the ways in which IOT can be beneficial to vertical farming.
The first major area where IOT becomes beneficial is through data collections – sensors either embedded in the growing beds or dynamically moved between plants capture and record different sets of data about plant conditions, environmental conditions or resource conditions – all of which can be relayed back to the end user as individual, collective or statistical data. The sensors can collect a wide range of data, including:
Water quality i.e. nutrition and pH levels
Environmental data like wind speed, light levels, air pressure, humidity, CO2 levels
If a system incorporates higher tech sensors, such as cameras, other possibilities open up as well, like:
Image recognition of weeds
Image recognition of disease symptoms in the plants
While not all of these would apply to certain vertical farm installations, they all can provide a farmer with immensely valuable data, allowing the customization of plant growing conditions, resource cost predictions, resource management, harvest predictions, and produce quality control.
Sensors can also be used to alert the farmer of issues within the system – if a sensor detects that no water is passing through a given pipe or reservoir, the farmer can be notified, thus enabling them to fix the issue, say a blocked pump – something which otherwise may have gone undetected, cause loss of produce.
Remote Control & Monitoring
The next benefit that can be afforded by IOT integration is remote control and monitoring. The no longer has to be on site to tend to their crop, smartphone apps and web apps can allow the farmer to log in from anywhere in the world, view the plants, view the resource levels, read through the analytical data, etc.
For a control use case, let’s say that the system notified the farmer that one of the plants is showing signs of illness. The farmer can take control of the system, view the plant in question and make their own assessment of the plants health – if the assessment confirms the plants poor condition, the farmer can either manually control the system and removed the plant, or authorize the system to removed the plant itself – all from the palm of their hand.
A huge plus to both the implementation of sensors and remote monitoring and control, is that it improved availability – more plants isn’t strictly an issue when they can all be managed efficiently – what doesn’t scale well is the requirement for there to be manual input – what may only be one manual task, when scaled up, could become a full-time job, just carrying out that one task. Which is where automation comes in.
Now granted, while there will for the foreseeable future always be some jobs that require manual input, there are a lot of tasks that could be automated. There is one project, that is described by its creator as Roomba for the garden – in fact, Joe Jones‘s was a co-creator of the Roomba while working at iRobot. He also co-created a floor scrubbing robot, called Scooba. Co-founding his own company, Franklin Robotics, he’s now helped create Tertill (pronounced ‘turtle’) – an automated weeding robot. While weeds are less of a problem in vertical farms, its examples like the Tertill, that show how automation can play a role in gardening of the future, and within vertical farms.
A Wider Application
IOT also has a wider application for vertical farming – as mentioned earlier, IOT enables systems like smart grids and intelligent transport – and making use of those technologies, a vertical farm company could have databases that track local food demand from restaurants and supermarkets, customizing its production and delivery to match. Tapping into other aspects of a smart city, the vertical farms themselves could ‘talk’ to the power grid, adding power or drawing it, as and when required.
There are some companies that are already providing the tools and software packages that enable this type of smart, automated farming to occur, if so less vertically. A company called Autogrow provides a range of products including:
Remote pH level Controller
Electrical Connectivity Controller
Automated Nutrients & Irrigation Controller
Automated Climate Controller
Central Control Systems
Web/App Combination Software Management System
Last but not least, I’ve included this because I not only see huge potential for everyday, urban food production, but I also see this technology playing a huge role in the scalability of stacked bed vertical farming. Take a look at the Farmbot ‘trailer’ below.
Farmbot Genesis is an open source, automated farming machine, that can currently seed, water, weed and monitor a garden bed. The creators have also discussed the ability for the system to have other functionality added, like the ability to harvest plants as well, thanks to its universal tool system, which is what enables Farmbot to be so multifunctional. It can be bought as either a kit and self0assembled or all of the plans and software can be downloaded, then the parts bought or manufactured and assembled by anyone.
Interested in today’s topics? Check out the links below
Over the last few posts, we’ve been exploring the grandiose idea that is the future of vertical farming – skyscraper hubs of efficient, renewable food production – but big ideas often start small and vertical farming is no different.
Urban farming is an umbrella term for the practice of cultivating, processing a distributing food in or around urban environments. This encompasses a range of practices including horticulture, animal husbandry and beekeeping. If you or someone you know has a vegetable garden or fruit trees in their backyard, then this is an example of urban farming.
The world in its current state struggles to feed all of the people that currently inhabit it, and one of the solutions that has been thought up is that if more people grow their own food, fewer people will go hungry. This is not to say that people should grow the entirety of their food, but every meal they can produce themselves is a meal that hasn’t had to come from elsewhere.
Now if you are a person or persons that are fortunate enough to inhabit a piece of land, then relatively speaking, it’s easy enough to set up a garden and start growing food. However, for people who live in apartments or the like, this becomes an altogether more challenging task. Yet this is again where vertical farming can start to shine through.
For the daring and adventurous, there’s no challenge too big or small – like building your own Vertical farming solutions. When outdoor space is available for use, vertical spaces can easily be turned into productive spaces through everyday items, as seen in this blog post here, by Bryn Huntpalmer.
Unused cans attached to a wall or fence as plant holders
Fabric shoe organisers as hanging gardens
Asymmetrical concrete block towers using the hollows for plants
Pallets repurposed as standing gardens
Plastic bottles strung together and hung over walls
Making use of outdoor space can also include freestanding structures as well, such as standing vertical pipes or A-frames. Many of these projects can be constructed from second-hand materials or easily acquirable materials. Some companies and individuals even go so far as to share complete instructions and guides on the internet, like this one, sponsored by a company called BLT Robotics.
The project in question, dubbed RUFS (Robotic Urban Farm System) includes a list of all materials and lengths/sizes required, a step by step construction guide, and because this is a more high-tech project, it also includes a coding and setup guide for the IOT components of the project (We’ll be covering IOT integration into vertical farming in a future post, so make sure you subscribe to catch it!)
If however, outdoor space isn’t an option, those DIY skills can set up vertical farming indoors too. A spare window provides a space in which a farming setup can be created, as seen in the design below.
That being said, the DIY approach isn’t for everyone, and while the market is still a young one, there a few companies that provide, or are in the process of being able to provide, pre-built vertical farming solutions.
CityCrop is one such example, with their self-titled product scheduled for release at the end of 2017. The two-tier tower appears to allow for 24 separate plants to be grown. A companion app allows the user to specify which plants are being grown in each of the 24 slots, and the system handles the rest from there, customising the water and lighting requirements for each plant. The range of plants that the system knows how to grow ranges from leafy greens, microgreens and herbs, through to a small collection of fruits and edible flowers. The system has an indicative price of £700 which is around $1300 NZD.
As mentioned, the market for urban vertical farming solutions is still a young one and has a way to go yet before it starts to gather momentum. What does the future look like and what are the solutions that we’re likely to see? While the future is ever changing, an educated guess would suggest that urban farming set-ups become commonplace technology, and just like it’s common for a house to have a fridge or a microwave, vertical farming appliances would also become common, with houses having one or more of them.
Designs, like the one above by George Sawyer, illustrate what these growing environments might look like, built right into the kitchen. The sleek and professional look is something that comes with time and development – when the demand is there, companies make better products.
Over the last two weeks, we have taken a look at some of the possible production items that a vertical farm could produce that are not intended as food. These products have a wide range of applications, everything from medicine to cosmetics, disinfectant to deodorant, textiles production, essential, cooking and combustible oils, fertiliser to cooking additives – the range is huge.
Today, however, I would like to return to food production by discussing livestock and their place within a vertical farm.
Traditional Western Livestock
Coming from a western culture, our livestock of choice generally fall into the range of Goats, Sheep, Cattle, Deer, Pigs, Chicken, and Turkey. A common theme with raising livestock is that they require space. While some farming pushes the boundaries on just how much space an animal can be reared in, most raise their animals in large paddocks. Aside from the issues with animal waste and emissions, a big issue with raising livestock is that they take up a lot of space. How much space? Well, a 2012 report by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization said that 26% of the earth land surface is used for livestock grazing and another third for livestock feed production.
While feed and land requirements vary from stock-type to stock-type, many resources are sunk into livestock farming each year, with more harmful side-effects and a less efficient return compared to plant production. Emissions, waste, erosion caused by stock movement and grazing, food and water consumption – these are all issues brought about by livestock cultivation. In terms of the efficiency of the product produced, the World Hunger Program calculated in 1990 that the world harvest at the time could feed 6 billion people on a plant based diet, but could only feed 2.6 billion if that harvest was used to produce meat. If that doesn’t scream inefficiency then I don’t know what does. With a growing global population, efficient food production is an increasingly important aspect of farming.
While there are different ways of combatting these issues, such as becoming a vegetarian or vegan society, you would have an uphill battle convincing many a meat eater not to eat meat. One way forward that might keep everyone happy, is picking and choosing species of livestock that can be grown more efficiently than others. Looking at the image above, we can see that you could produce three times as much pork for the same amount of water needed to produce beef.
Non-Western Eating Habits
While livestock that westerners are familiar with are also consumed in many other global cultures, we also see a lot more diversity in what other livestock are eaten. Cats, Dogs, Rats, Mice, and Duck are a few that come to mind – many of which a westerner would retch at the thought of. More than that, we see a diverse range of insects being eaten, including:
Grasshoppers, Crickets, Woodworms and Ant eggs are all eaten in Thailand.
Termites are a common food source in Ghana, enjoyed roasted, friend or used to make bread.
Mexicans enjoy a range of insect snacks, including French-fired Caterpillars, Chocolate-covered Locusts, Candy-covered Worms and there is even an alcohol known as Mezcal, a shot of which is served with a Moth larvae in the bottom of the glass.
In China, you can find boiled Water Bugs, Scorpions covered in Baijiu (Chinese Liquor), roasted Bee larvae, fired Silkworm larvae and even Ant soup.
Austrailias Aborigines eat Moths, Honey-Pot Ants and Witchetty Grubs, enjoyed cooked or roasted.
Japan consumes a range of insects as well, including boiled Wasp larvae, fired Silk Moth pupae, aquatic insect larvae, fired Cicada, and fired Grasshopper.
While these are just a few examples, it demonstrates not only the range of insects currently eaten but also the range of dishes they are apart of. As disgusting as this food choice might seem, they might be one of the most viable protein sources that humanity could switch into mass producing, compared to our current selection of livestock. The use of insects as food is a practice known as Entomophagy.
There are several benefits to farming insects over the traditional livestock choices which include:
To keep things simple, the benefits of farming insects can be grouped into five main categories – Reduced resources for equivalent production, more nutrient efficient, less waste and emissions, less land usage and more humane farming.
If you compare the food and water requirements of producing an equivalent amount of Cricket protein compared to Beef protein, Crickets require 12 times less feed compared to Cattle, and only 15 litres of water, compared to Cattle which can require as much as 30,000 litres of water. Based on water consumption alone, you could grow 2000 times more Cricket protein compared to Beef protein.
As a bonus, more of an insect is edible compared to other livestock – after slaughtering and processing, only about 40% of a Cow ends up as consumable meat, compared to 80% of a Cricket that can be eaten.
Insects are more efficient at converting food into protein but are also more nutritional as well. Again, comparing a Cricket protein to Beef protein, Crickets have:
Fewer calories than Beef
3 times more protein than Beef
Low in fat
More Iron than Spinach
More Calcium than Milk
20 time more B12 than Beef
All 9 essential Amino Acids
Ideal Omega 3:6 ratio
High in Prebiotics
While this will differ from insect to insect, high nutritional content is a common attribute of insects.
Less Waste & Emissions
Once again, on a gram for gram comparison, for every kilogram of Beef, a cow will have produced nearly 3000 grams of greenhouse gas. Crickets, on the other hand, will only have produced a gram of greenhouse gasses for every kilogram. Livestock account for 15% of global greenhouse gas emissions, the biggest producer of which are cattle, as can be seen in the infographic above.
Animal Welfare and Production Space
I mentioned earlier that space was one of the big issues with livestock production – to meet consumer demand a farmers either have to dedicate more and more land to raising larger herds of animals, or they factory farm the beasts, a cruel practice of raising livestock in small confined spaces so as to grow more livestock with less land. For this reason alone, vertical farms are most likely a poor place to raise traditional livestock as growing conditions would probably resemble factory farms more than they would free range. Insects, however, don’t mind living in high-density populations and within a given growing area, like those found in a vertical farm, you could grow a lot of insects.
Another issue a lot of people have with meat production revolves around humane practices such as those involved in the slaughtering of animals. Crickets as an example, when frozen, go into a dormant state known as diapause. Once the insects are in this state, they can be deep frozen, which kills them humanely.
As an additional bonus, Insects can also be raised to maturity a lot faster, better meeting consumption demands and generating more profit for the grower. A Cricket reaches maturity in just one month, while a cow reaches maturity in 2 years. Not only that, but traditional livestock will produce only a handful of young at a time – a female Cricket, on the other hand, can produce 100 eggs during her full, 4-month lifespan. Roughly half of those eggs will themselves be female Crickets, meaning that a farmer can start off with a small initial livestock investment and have an exponentially growing return.
With nearly 1900 known species of edible insect, we are spoilt for choice and have a potential goldmine of sustainable protein production chirping in the world around us – now we just need to make use of them.
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In part 1, which you can read here, we took a look at the by-products of food production, either of the food directly by way of the parts of the plant that aren’t for consumption or by way of other products that form part of the process toward food production, such as fish in an aquaponics system. We also looked at growing plants not for food but rather for medical purposes. Today we’ll continue looking at what other produce vertical farms can produce.
Algae is an informal term for a group of photosynthetic organisms, that are polyphyletic in nature, meaning that they are scientifically grouped but don’t necessarily share a common ancestry or biology. The Algae group of organisms ranges from single-celled organisms like Phytoplankton all the way through to multicellular forms, like seaweed. Much like bees and plant byproducts, Algae have a lot of uses.
Agar – is a multi-purpose gelatinous substance, that can be used as a laxative, a gelatin alternative, a thickener, but perhaps its most commonly known use is as a culture medium.
Alginates, also known as Alginic acid is used in the fields of biotechnology as well as in medical dressings and as a gelling agent in food.
Fertilizer – Algae can be very nutrient rich, and as a result, some types of Algae, like seaweed, have been used as fertilizer, as far back as the 16th century.
Nutrition – because Algae are so rich in nutrients, they are often used in food, particularly in Asian cultures. Some of the nutritional types include:
Pollution Control – Algae absorb nutrients from the mediums in which they grow, an ability which can be turned toward controlling pollution. As such, Algae can be used for treating sewage, capturing fertilizer runoff (and the fertilizer filled Algae used as fertilizer themselves), and filtering water sources.
Algae has another use as well, which leads to the next product type.
Biofuels are fuels that are produced through biological processes, in contrast to geological processes, like those involved in the creation of fossil fuels. Biofuels can be produced from ethanol, which often comes from crops like corn, from biogas, which comes from sources like manure, sewage, and refuse. The other main source is Biodiesels, which are produced from animal fats and plant oils. It’s Biodiesel that can be produced from the oils extracted from Algae.
Biofuels role in a vertical farm could be that given farms sole purpose is to produce a biofuel producing crop, such as ethanol-producing corn, or as a product produced by Algae crops. The reasons for producing Biofuels can be twofold – both as a power-source for the vertical farm and as fuel to be sold. There will be more on power generation later.
I really big problem in the world is a lack of food for the growing population of people, and running out of options for increasing that production. In fact, that is why we are exploring vertical farmings – as a means to grow more food in less space. However, there is another big problem that doesn’t help meeting those food requirements, and that is food waste.
It is estimated that roughly a third of all food produced globally goes to waste, which is approximately a staggering 2.3 billion tonnes. The food that is lost covers a wide range of food type, as seen below:
30% Cereal Foods
20% Dairy Foods
45% Fruit & Vegetable Foods
20% Meat Foods
20% Oilseeds & Pulses Foods
45% Roots & Tubers Foods
Imagine how many people could be fed with that amount of food. This waste stems from food lost during transportation, food that is lost in preparation, food that is lost because of expiry dates, and food that is simply thrown away. Some of these issues need to be solved at a legal level, such as the rules surrounding the usage of ‘expired’ foods, and others, such as food loss during transport could be solved by localized production, something you see with vertical farms. Despite any nations best efforts, it is very unlikely that a country could have zero food waste, however, that doesn’t mean that we can’t be better with our food waste.
While there are different ways of managing food waste, one that could be applicable to vertical farms would be the production of Bio-liquid fertilizers made from food waste. With the use of bio-digesting technology, which uses enzymes to break down the food. The main result of this process is a nutrient-rich Bio-liquid which is perfect as a fertilizing agent for plants. Not only could a vertical farm recycle its own food waste, particularly if its lowest floor was a restaurant or supermarket, but it could offer food waste processing to the surrounding city. For a brief look at this technology, watch the video segment below, from 19:25 to 20:50 (timestamp)
One of the predicted issues with large scale vertical farms is energy consumption. Particularly for production arrays that make use of LED lighting, vertical farms become a very energy intensive exercise. In a world where rapid global warming is very much an issue, you don’t want energy-hungry farms using energy that is produced by non-renewable sources. Without viable energy production, vertical farms would very quickly lose their viability as an idea, let alone as a practical implementation. Yet some of the answers have already presented themselves and others are on the horizon.
Biofuels and bio-gasses could be a readily available power source. Either as a product of Algae or food waste, the vertical farm could produce renewable energy sources that contribute to the energy consumption of the structure.
Solar panels could be built on the roof of a vertical farm, again contributing to the farm’s energy consumption.
Solar windows – now while you may have heard of solar panels, you might not have heard of solar windows. The basic principle is that transparent windows have a built-in layer that captures sunlight just like solar panels do. While the technology is a few years away from being efficient, a multi-story vertical farm could have its sunward face be covered with these solar windows, instead of regular windows, again contributing to the overall energy usage.
Wind Energy is another option for vertical farms, much like solar panels, they could be built onto the rooftops of these buildings.
While not strictly part of the vertical farm, depending on where a farm is built, they could also tap into hydroelectricity from nearby rivers or tidal energy from the ocean.
Depending on the efficiency of the vertical farm and how many energy production mechanisms it has built-in, conceivably vertical farms could not only meet their energy requirements but also exceed them, thus providing renewable energy to the cityscape surrounding them.
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In the last article, we discussed briefly the main types of technology that are used for plant (and Animal) production in vertical farms – Hydroponics, Aeroponics, and Aquaponics. Now the vertical farms growing the products are most likely going to be commercial in nature and as is the case with so many a business, they need to make a profit. While a vertical farm can grow a vast range of plants, they will go for the plants which are the most valuable or the plants they can grow the fastest. High-value plants tend to be herbs, while fast turn plants include Lettuce, Rocket, Kale, Spinach, Basil, Coriander, Silverbeet, Oregano, and Chives. However, the beautiful thing about all that a vertical farm can be, and what a well-designed vertical farm should be, is a multi-produce building, and that produce isn’t limited to just food.
A by-product is defined as a secondary product derived from a manufacturing process or chemical reaction. If we said that a vertical farm’s primary product was the plants it grew, then anything else that we can grow as part of that process is a by-product. We can also consider any leftovers, or products made from the leftovers as by-products too. So what by-products can a vertical farm have from its plant production?
In the last article, Vertical Farming Technologies, I discussed how using an Aquaponics system provides the farm with secondary products – the fish or Crustaceans that provide the system with ammonia-rich waste. Another use for fish besides food for people is that the leftover waste from processing the fish for consumption, can itself be turned into fish meal – which can be used as a food source for the fish currently being grown, or it can be sold as livestock feed.
In these early days of vertical farming, not all plants groups are considered viable, like fruiting plants and tubers. One of the problems with these crop types is water consumption, as fruits and root vegetables use more water compared to leafy plants, like those mentioned earlier. Another issue for some plants is pollination. However, much like Fish form a symbiotic production relationship with plants in an Aquaponic system, bees could serve a similar relationship in pollinating flowering plants, and in turn, producing products of their own. Not only do Bees produce several usable products, but those products are also multi-purpose and include:
Honey, which is a food, a food additive, used medicinally and is used in cosmetics.
Propolis has bactericidal properties, thus providing uses as a disinfectant and a deodorizer. It can also be used as a relaxant, helping people to sleep and soothing nerves.
Royal Jelly, which also has bactericidal properties, and is used medicinally and cosmetically.
Pollen, also used medicinally and cosmetically.
Beeswax, which comes in two variants; White wax, also known as Cera Flava, is used in medicine and cosmetics, and yellow was, also known as Cera Alba, is used in textiles and leather production and in perfume.
Bee venom is used medicinally.
Bee larvae could be used as a food source for people.
While it will vary from plant to plant, a lot of the plants that could be grown in a vertical farm with have parts that are not intended for human consumption. Rather than being allowed to go to waste, these plant by-products can also be put to use.
Plants fibers are one of the main by-products, in fact, there are actually three types of plants fiber; Seed fibers collected from seeds or seed cases, Bast fibers collected from plant stems and Hard fibers collected from leaves or plant shells (like Coconut).
Plant oils – many plant species can have oil extracted from them. These can be in the form of essential oils, like those extracted from Lavender, or cooking oils, like those extracted from Olive.
Insect Feed – A lot of insects eats plants, usually the leaves. Discarded leaves from the processing the plants for sale or non-consumption leaves from other edible plants could be turned into insect feed for all the bugs grown in the farm (Stay tuned for more than food part 2 to learn about insect products).
Compost, of course, can also be made from discarded plants matter. Any compost produced on site can serve the production of more crops or be sold externally.
Verticals farms don’t have to solely grow plants intended as food, they could supplement their produced goods with medicinal plants, or could even be solely dedicated to medicinal plant production. Plant-derived drugs include Aspirin, Digoxin, Quinine, and Opium. In recent years, more and more evidence has also surfaced regarding the medical benefits of cannabis oils – if tested and proven then legalized for medicinal usage, Cannabis could become a high-value vertical farm crop as well.
In Part 2 I will be looking at farming Algae, the production of biofuels and bioliquid fertilizers, and energy production. Be the first to read Part 2 by subscribing to the blog.
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In the last post, I introduced you to the fundamental ways in which vertical farms are structured – from small home and business farms using vertical pipes or A-frames, to larger scale enterprises using stacked plant beds or the designs of the future – the multi-story production powerhouses. What all of these vertical farms have very little of, if at all, is soil. So how do they grow these plants? What technologies drive this soil-less production.
The first of these technologies is Aeroponics. The name is derived from Greek, aer meaning air, and ponos meaning labour. The plants are grown without a growing medium – the roots hang in the open air. The nutrients are delivered via a fine mist that the roots then absorb. A lot of the vertical pipe based growing systems used Aeroponics as the nutrient delivery system of choice. Aeroponic systems benefit from:
High concentrations of Oxygen in the root zone of the plant, also known as the rhizosphere, which is needed for growing healthy plants. An Aeroponics system can deliver more oxygen to the growing plants compared to a traditional or alternative growing medium.
Aeroponics systems can also limit the spread of plant based diseases because there isn’t a medium through which the disease can spread.
Aeroponics systems also have very efficient water consumption – much like a shower is more efficient than a bath, so to is Aeroponics compared to other farming methods.
Aeroponics systems will often be ‘closed loop’ as well, meaning that the mist that isn’t absorbed by the plants is captured as it condensates and is recycled back into the system.
The next technology is Hydroponics – these are plants that are grown in either a nutrient rich water solution or an inert medium like gravel through which the nutrient water is run. Hydroponics is a method often used in the stacked horizontal growing beds. Hydroponics benefit from:
Balanced growing conditions where the nutrient solution can be PH adjusted and well circulated to make growing conditions as ideal as possible.
The water based delivery allows the plants to absorb nutrients with very little efforts, compared to soil grown plants where the roots need to seek out water and nutrients. In the Hydroponics system, the energy that isn’t spent on growing extensive root systems goes instead into the plant’s growth.
The boosted plant growth means that Hydroponically grown plants grow faster, they grow more and have greater yields compared to a soil grown equivalent.
An issue that Hydroponics systems can suffer from is an issue known as ‘root rot’ which is pretty much how it sounds. This is often down to poorly oxygenated water, water that is too hot or too cold, and water that hasn’t been refreshed and thus there is a nutrient build up. There are several different techniques for implementing Hydroponics systems, some of which mitigate the risk of root rot better than others, as well as having different levels of affordability. These techniques include:
Drip System: An irrigation array drips water onto the plants which work its way through the inert medium providing the plants with a gentle flow of water.
Wick System: Wicks passively move water from a reservoir into the inert medium where the plants can access it. Plant growth is slower but a wick system is low maintenance and cheap.
Deep Water Culture System: The plant roots sit in the water reservoir, which is a simple and reliable method however it is more prone to root rot than other systems if not maintained.
Ebb & Flow System: These systems flood the growing tray then let it drain before flooding it again, continuously cycling over the plant’s growth.
Nutrient-Film System: This system uses a slanted growing tray, where the water is pumped into the high end and allowed to trickle down the growing tray before draining back out at the low end.
Finally, we get to Aquaponics, which can be implemented using the same systems as described for Hydroponics, however instead of the nutrients in the water being added by the farmer, they instead come from an animal of some description. The term, in fact, is a cross between Aquaculture, which is the practice of farming aquatic animals in tanks, and Hydroponics, which as we know is growing plants without soil.
An Aquaponics systems work by having a rearing tank where the animals are raised. The animals produce ammonia rich waste, which increases the ammonia levels in the water. The waste water is taken from the rearing tank into a secondary tank where nitrification bacteria convert the ammonia into nitrites and then into nitrates, which is the form usable by the plants. This nitrate rich water is now pumped into the plant beds, using one of the Hydroponic methods, or Aeroponics. The recaptured, low nitrate water is then pumped back into the rearing tanks as clean, aerated water. This is an important step because if the water that the animals are being grown in is too high in ammonia, it becomes toxic to the livestock. You can see a simplified version of this in the image below.
The beauty of an Aquaponics system is that the animals feed the plants and the plants filter the water for the animals. Not only is this an efficient production system, benefiting both the animals and the plants. It also gives the farmer two sets of produce! Fish are a common animal to use in Aquaponics systems, the most commonly used species being:
Tilapia, ready for harvest anywhere from 6 to 9 months
Trout, ready for harvest anywhere from 12 to 16 months
Perch, ready for harvest anywhere from 9 to 16 months
Catfish, ready for harvest anywhere from 5 to 10 months
Barramundi, ready for harvest in 12 months
Bass, ready for harvest anywhere from 12 to 18 months
Other water-based livestock includes Shrimp, Crayfish and Lobsters. Alternative nutrient sources can also come from Ducks and Worms.
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The traditional farming model is one with which so many of us are familiar – flat, far-reaching fields, plowed, sown, irrigated and grown – then, a few months down the line, provided no major calamity has occurred, the produce is harvested.
In the last post, which you can read here, I introduced you to the state of the world, specifically, the impact that agricultural activity has had, and continues to have on the environment around us. At the end, I mentioned how vertical farms and their related technologies could serve as a saving grace for us. So what is vertical farming?
From horizontal to vertical
The traditional farming model is one with which so many of us are familiar – flat, far-reaching fields, plowed, sown, irrigated and grown – then, a few months down the line, provided no major calamity has occurred, the produce is harvested.
As of April this year it was estimated that the global human population had reached 7.5 billion and that largely owes its success to the availability of food, an availability which exists due to our agricultural technologies. However as the global population continues to grow, those technologies have to change too, because we are running out of viable farming space as well.
As mentioned in the last post, those farming technologies aren’t without their side-effects, an array of symptoms which include increased CO2 and Methane production, deforestation, wasteful water consumption, polluted water runoff, soil degradation, and ecosystem destruction.
When faced with an inability to spread out, a natural conclusion is to go up. Thus enter the concept of farming vertically.
Vertical Farming: The Basics
So with the need to grow produce upward instead of outward, how does one do that? Well, there are three main ways in which I have seen this happen.
The first method is to grow the plants in vertical pipes, with holes or sockets in the sides where plants can be slotted. Nutrient filled water is sprayed or dripped down the centre of the pipes which the plants absorb on its way down, and remaining water can be collected at the bottom again. For the space that each of these pipes occupies, each has approximately 30 plants growing in it – far more productive than if a plant was grown in the ground. Because the plants are watered from inside the pipe as well, the system is also far more water efficient compared to traditional growth as well.
The second method is that the plants are grown on revolving A frames, rotating the plant beds to maximise even sunlight distribution and water distribution. Tall and narrow, this growing method also efficiently makes use of limited horizontal space in favour of vertical space.
In this instance, each tower is six meters high and have between 22 and 26 growing troughs, which provides a lot of growing space. To top it off, the rotating mechanism is a self-contained water loop, making these efficient to run as well.
The final method is stacked growing beds, with LEDs that not only make up for what would otherwise be inconsistent light sources but also often finely tuned into a custom light ‘recipe’ to maximise plant growth. Like the other two methods, this one is also efficient in space usage, and whilst more costly to power, it can grow plants quickly if the tailored lighting is used.
With these three methods in mind, if we think back to the issues of traditional agriculture, we’re already starting to solve some of them. All three of these systems have a vastly more efficient water usage, and no polluted runoff if built to capture and recycle the water used. They aren’t eroding or degrading the soil and they are producing more produce compared to a horizontal arrangement. Both the pipes and A frames have the ability to be grown indoors or outside, while the stacked beds are an indoor approach. If grown outside there it is more than likely that herbicides and pesticides will still be used, however indoors there would be a reduction I chemical usage. While this leaves many issues unresolved, vertical farming has the ability to be taken to the next level.
Vertical Farms: Going Up!
The conversion of a farmyard barn or inner city warehouse into a building that houses a production system like any of the three methods above is an achievement. For a relatively low infrastructure cost, a high yield rate is achieved relative to the space used. While there are many improvements to be had and limitations to contend with, the biggest limitation is still ironically, space. If the farmer wanted to start making the system more efficient and produce an additional product, he can add fish tanks and turn his production into an aquaponics system. The problem is fish tanks take up space, if you have them inside, they compete with the plant arrays. If you have the option to put them outside, they may then be in the way of something else. If the farmer simply wants to increase his production, he is limited by the height of his building. Thus once again, the solution is to go up.
By going up, additional space is created, that not only allows for more production, an increase in the range of products, but also more complimentary produce that have byproducts which help to grow other produce. A well designed vertical farm should be self-sustaining, with minimal or non-existent waste, and a range of products that includes not only food but also fuel, electricity, packaging and compost. This ideal vertical farm ‘anatomy’ includes a wide range of plant and animal cultivation, including aquaculture, aquaponics, hydroponics, aeroponics, algae and insect farming. These buildings could meet their energy and water requirements through rain collection and water recycling, solar and wind generation, and electricity generation either from biogas or biofuels. The lowests floors could hold supermarkets, restaurants or packagings plants filled with the produce grown in the floors above and packaged in biodegradable packaging produced on site. Tune in next time as we continue to explore the vast possibilities vertical farming provides.
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