Agriculture and architecture team up to feed a growing population

From skyscraper gardens in the 1930s to the plants aboard the Soviet Salyut space station in 1982, scientists have spent decades experimenting with the next agricultural revolution. Today, the emerging field of agritecture blends crop science, architecture and agriculture to grow foods indoors, but the trend’s long-term viability remains an open question.

In February 2012, dignitaries in the frozen city of Linköping, Sweden, jammed shovels into the ice for a ground-breaking photo-op marking a new concept: a 17-story, south-facing, glass-sheathed “plantscraper” designed by Swedish architectural firm Plantagon. The building receives excess heat and carbon dioxide from nearby industrial plants, creating a closed-loop process for indoor growing. Food grows on the building’s south side, while people work in offices facing the sunless north. The US$40 million (35.5 million euros) building is set to open by 2021.

Also in 2012, San Francisco Bay-area startup Crop One Holdings was founded. Today, through a joint venture with Emirates Flight Catering, Crop One plans to build the world’s largest vertical farming facility in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. The US$40 million (35.5 million euros), 130,000 square feet (12,077 square meters) controlled-environment facility is expected to produce 6,000 pounds (2,722 kilograms) of fresh produce daily. The food will supply in-flight meals for more than 100 airlines and 25 airport lounges.

As both of these examples illustrate, environmental concerns and global population growth are fueling bold designs that blend nature with architecture – a growing field known as agritecture. One of the most prominent examples is the 20-story Tao Zhu Yin Yuan carbon absorbing, double-helix residential tower in Taipei, Taiwan, which incorporates nearly the same number of trees and shrubs in its design as New York’s Central Park.

US$5.8 billion

The projected value of the vertical farming market by 2022, a 24.8% compound growth rate since 2016.

MARKETSANDMARKETS, INDIA-BASED MARKETING AND RESEARCH CONSULTING FIRM

India-based global research and consulting firm MarketsandMarkets estimates that the worldwide agritecture market – also known as vertical farming – will be worth US$5.8 billion (5.16 billion euros) by 2022, growing at almost 25 percent annually since 2016. In short, entrepreneurs, crop scientists and data analysts are reinventing how food is being produced, people fed, land used and supply chains managed.

MORE FOOD WITH LESS SPACE

Growing crops indoors under red/blue-spectrum LED lights, without soil, using vertical space where climate can be controlled year round is an attractive proposition. Certain foods can be grown free of pests, using very little water, with nutrients applied in stingy, precise quantities to produce specialty foods packed with flavor. A vertical farm can grow more produce per acre than traditional dirt farming. And by growing food near urban centers, agritecture shortens long distribution chains, so food arrives on tables faster and fresher, reducing food waste and carbon emissions produced by transportation.

“Start with a crop with the highest demand in your market,“ is the advice that Jon Friedman, who co-founded indoor farming company Freight Farms in 2010, gives to aspiring agritecture operators. “The modular footprint allows you to change with the market.“

OVERCOMING TECHNOLOGY BARRIERS

In theory, indoor farming sounds wonderful. In practice, it’s filled with challenges. Many promising indoor farming startups have failed in recent years. Energy and labor costs can be high. So are urban land values, which make converting inner city warehouses into high-tech farms a difficult economic proposition. One of the biggest challenges is finding the right scale for indoor operations. 

Some companies are scaling up, including Plantagon, Crop One and Silicon Valley startup Plenty, which plans to build a 30,446-square-foot (2,829-square-meter) vertical farming warehouse near Seattle, which surpasses New Jersey-based AeroFarms’ 21,300-square-foot (1,979-square-meter) farm, the world’s largest agritecture operation just two years ago.

Others are keeping it small. Boston-headquartered Freight Farms converts 40-by-8-foot (12.2-by-2.4-meter) shipping containers into fully equipped, self-contained, automated growing units that can be located on any patch of level ground measuring at least 138 square feet (12.8 square meters). The company has growing units in the United States, Canada, the Caribbean, Europe, the Middle East and Southeast Asia.

Robert Colangelo, owner and founder of Green Sense Farms, which is based in Portage, Indiana, thinks he has hit on the “Goldilocks” design: 6,100-square-foot (567-square-meter) buildings for growing lettuces, leafy greens and herbs, each with an adjacent greenhouse for other crops that require more energy and growing time, including tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers.

Green Sense Farms locates its paired indoor growing facilities on the fringes of urban areas, near existing food distribution centers that serve hundreds of grocery stores, along with corporate campuses and institutions that serve large volumes of meals. To Colangelo, this combined operation is practical, at least until agritecture’s future becomes clear.

FUTURE FARMING FORECAST

Indoor farming has captured the imaginations of architects, engineers, scientists, urban planners and entrepreneurs. But whether agritecture can make a substantial contribution to the world’s food supply remains an open question.

While they wait for an answer, operators are experimenting with production scale and cultivation methods, looking for the perfect formula. For now, what grows indoors is limited; protein-rich foods are conspicuously absent, although researchers continue to work on new food types.

Their hope is that agritecture could usher in the next agricultural revolution. For now progress appears to be incremental: inch-by-inch, row-by-row and floor-by-floor. 

de Dan Headrick Retour en haut