Can we use vertical farming to tackle the greatest threat to our ecosystems?

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Salt columnist Stephanie Johnston this week looks at vertical farming company ‘AeroFarms’, another circular economy success story.

Farming has a lot to answer for. So much so that the WWF believes unsustainable agricultural practices present the greatest immediate threat to species and ecosystems around the world.

Perhaps the most alarming of statistics about farming centre around water wastage and contamination. According to the World Resources Institute, agriculture accounted for 70 per cent of all freshwater withdrawn from rivers, lakes and aquifers globally in 2013. Meanwhile a recent global study from the University of Koblenz-Landau found that over 40 per cent of water tested globally exceeded legally-accepted regulatory threshold levels (RTLs) for insecticide and pesticide contamination.

With the UN predicting that two-thirds of the world’s population will be living in water-stressed countries by 2025, and with many big food producing countries like the US, China, India, Pakistan, Australia and Spain close to reaching their renewable water resource limits, can we really afford for the farming industry to carry on regardless?

Significant contributions to greenhouse gas emissions and arable land depletion are some of the other criticisms levied against an industry that on the one hand is on mother nature’s blacklist, but on the other hand is the only thing capable of helping us to feed our growing (and increasingly urbanising) global population.

Light at the end of the tunnel

But in the midst of all the doom and gloom, there is (LED) light at the end of the tunnel, and things are looking up. Literally. Young entrepreneur David Rosenberg is busy proving that there is another way, with his New Jersey-based vertical farming company. While many might rightly run a mile from an industry plagued by such challenges, Rosenberg, CEO and co-founder of AeroFarms, can’t help but see an opportunity amid the issues. “Looking at all the tensions just interested me, so I decided to write a business plan,” he explains.

Aeroponics

Founded in 2004, AeroFarms is using aeroponics technology to grow soil-free, pesticide-free leafy greens on a mass scale. Seeds are fed by misters, sprouted in cloth and illuminated by LED lighting from above: technology that is taking farming to a new level. The farms themselves are built using modular, stackable blocks, allowing for fast installation and meaning AeroFarms can be flexible on location and literally grow upwards rather than outwards. This presents the opportunity to not just contribute to the environment but also rejuvenate disused buildings, and in turn support disadvantaged neighbourhoods. Upcoming developments will take over disused nightclubs and paintball facilities among other buildings.

But perhaps most critically, the closed nutrient method that AeroFarms employs means they can recirculate nutrients and conserve water. In fact, water usage can be up to 95 per cent less than in field farms growing the same produce. So, it seems Rosenberg may have some serious answers to farming’s various faux pas.

Eliminating waste

But for Rosenberg, when it comes to farming’s footprint, it’s not about finding a few answers and making things a bit better, it’s about asking a whole different set of questions. “We’re not just looking at how to reduce waste”, he explains emphatically, “we‘re asking how we can eliminate it. The business is very much inspired by Bill McDonough’s ‘Cradle to Cradle’ principles. We’re asking how can we make LEDs more efficient? How we can use 100 per cent recycled material that’s 100 per cent reusable? How do we use less water and less fertiliser?”

A cultural shift

Rosenberg may be keen to set an example and new standards of performance in farming, but his challenge to the food production industry as a whole goes far beyond just waste. “We need a cultural shift,” he says. “I mean people just have to realise it’s not about how many calories you eat, it’s about the nutritional density of the foods you consume. Leafy greens are among the most nutritionally dense foods you can find. So the opportunity there is clear.”

Right on the money

Against a backdrop of growing demand for local produce, and priced to compete in the ‘organic’ food range, it seems AeroFarms is right on the money. Not only that, but with farming taking place not just locally but also indoors, seasonality is no issue. But Rosenberg is quick to point out that the advantages of his leafy greens don’t end there. “We offer retailers the ability to buy products year-round to meet the demand for their customers,” he explains, “but importantly, the quality and taste is fantastic – we’ve spent a lot of time and resources just getting the product right.”

Listening to the AeroFarms story, and processing what it means that this technology exists might well leave you thinking, where’s the catch? But Rosenberg, an accomplished optimist yet a down-to-earth realist, is firm and fair when putting things into context. “Biology is really difficult,” he says. “My last company was a nano-technology company and that was a cakewalk compared to this. If you want to optimise a living organism, you really need a great deal of expertise. I know how challenging it can be, and I have concerns that other local food producers are cutting corners on food safety because it’s hard to achieve the sophistication and economies of scale required.”

Investment

It’s fair to say that the scale factor is far from straightforward, even for a business like AeroFarms, with its flexible infrastructure. Despite being able to attract funding to invest in research and development on a significant scale, hire the right sorts of skilled engineers, and bring safety personnel on board to avoid ‘cutting corners’, AeroFarms doesn’t have all the answers just yet. It remains to be seen how this capital-intense business can truly scale up in a capital-efficient way. But for now, AeroFarms has backing for its upcoming investments from Goldman Sachs and Prudential, among others, and it shouldn’t go unnoticed that the vertical farming model presents the opportunity for a staggering 70 times higher yield per square foot of floor space, alongside the cost benefits of needing less land in the first place.

The future

AeroFarms may only have shown farming the future in the leafy greens space so far, but in a water-scarce world with more mouths to feed it’s hard to ignore the appeal of such a solution. And with a new $40 million project set to launch this year and two more $20 million projects in the pipeline, it seems the sky may literally be the limit for this circular economy success story.

AeroFarms is one of the CEO100 – a group of organizations collaborating with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation to act as inspiration and industry-based proof of the Circular Economy idea in action. For more information visit: http://www.ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/business/ce100

Do you know someone who’s working towards or delivering ideas or innovations taking a more circular approach? I’d love to hear from you. Contact me on Twitter @stephiejohnno or by email at oliver@wearesalt.org with subject line: FAO Steph Johnston.

 

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Photo Credit: Yelp from flickr

 

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