"I think they use penguin excrement." And with this quote overheard during a tour of one of New York's newest and arguably most exclusive "vertical farms," I found myself immersed in New York's AgTech Week, hosted by the NYC Agriculture Collective. Yes, the world will probably be forever changed this week by events in New York, but not from the rhetoric of world leaders at the United Nations, but by synergies cultivated among attendees at AgTech Week.
In 10 years time, I'm sure most all of us will be consuming something that was "vertically" farmed nearly every week if not every day. A new fruit, vegetable or herb grown locally will have entered our diet replacing something else grown half a world away. As the sustainability movement gains strength, consumers have become more conscious of what they eat and abandoning the practice of eating high carbon-footprint foods is a part of that. I once ate an apple in Hong Kong grown a few miles from where I grew up in upstate New York. How much pollution did my apple consumption contribute to the atmosphere? Probably far more than its health benefits to me. Needless to say, the taste of the apple was overshadowed by the guilt I swallowed.
Local. Sustainable. Healthier. More conscious. This is the latest trend in world of agriculture, and it may be here to stay.
Vertical farming is often used to describe indoor "farms" that use artificial light to grow plants in vertical stacks. Some use insects and natural grow mediums like soil or "rockwool," while others use "hydroponics" or floating growth structures that allow plant roots to use nutrient-rich water in place of soil. The use of nutrient-rich water as a grow medium coupled with high-tech lighting solutions allows growers to more efficiently grow produce. Another production method known as "aquaponics" uses fertilizer produced by fish (or perhaps penguins) in a closed loop system to provide the nutrients necessary in the water.
Vertical farming is said to be anywhere from 80 to 99 percent more efficient in terms of its water use because of controlled evaporation and recycling of water. Land use is also maximized with 30 to 40 times more crop yields per square meter of land. With imminent existential climate change looming, efficient use of both land and water will be necessary in the very near future practically everywhere as it is already in many parts of the world.
Is vertical farming here now, as in, "Is vertical farming a sustainable alternative to conventional farming?" It depends on who you ask. Farm One, a lower Manhattan "chef's farm" with several locations, grows high-end produce specifically tailored to the needs of Michelin-starred chefs in New York. Some of the herbs, micro-greens, and edible flowers they grow you've probably never heard of, taking their place in exotic tasting menus, while others like basil are pretty universal. The similarities between a vertically farmed hydroponic basil and your run-of-the-mill supermarket bought basil ends with the name. The vertically farmed basil is delivered practically minutes after it is cut and used that same day. The taste is stronger, the leaves crispier and the colors fuller. Non-GMO seeds and organic growing techniques mean you are eating herbs as fresh and natural as you would on a traditional farm, but from a converted office building in Tribeca. Other Farm One offerings include exotic plants such as a Mexican papalo, normally harvested during a short multi-week harvesting season, now available year-round. Herbs and microgreens native to far-off lands are now being grown and delivered fresh, thousands of miles from their home ecosystems.
I toured a large industrial vertical farm in Japan two years ago, and at the time the math didn't add up according to my calculations. The initial capital expenditures coupled with the operational costs of electricity for lighting, heating and cooling didn't make vertical farming financially viable at the time, but it appears the future has arrived. Several vertical farms have recently taken advantage of multi-million dollar venture capital investments with promises of profit in several years, while many others will have difficulty ever becoming profitable. With advancements in LED technology and the use of sustainable energy in lowering utility costs, vertical farms may soon be popping up everywhere.
The future as I see it includes wind-generated electricity powering underground vertical farms using storm run-off water to grow produce year round in climates normally prohibitive for agriculture. This will allow for near elimination of transportation costs and associated pollution. The greens we eat may actually become "green" pretty soon. As vertical farming expands, the costs of growing produce may make them newly available to the millions that previously couldn't afford to eat fresh produce. Such a development in the future would make this AgTech Week's events far more important than anything going on at the United Nations.