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Gardening & Agriculture gardening   agriculture General

Vertical agriculture – the future of farming is about to get off the ground

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by: Ariana M
vertical agriculture   the future of farming is about to get off the ground

Future of farming is about to get off the ground – quite literally. In a brand new warehouse in Wageningen, The Netherlands, vertical farming is taking shape, with crops being grown above one another instead of next to each other.

When you enter the warehouse, the first thing that stands out is the purple. The plants, stacked one above the other in KeyGene’s research greenhouse, are bathing in a sea of ​​purple light. And we haven’t even seen the true extent of it yet. “We have just added some more green [light] so you can see the plants better”, says Rolf Mank. “Normally, the plants are surrounded by even more purple”. He pulls up the controls for the lights on his tablet and increases the red value – and indeed, the purple light in the greenhouse becomes even brighter.

Image by: Simon Lenskens

A quiet, sun-lit field and a farmer ploughing it on his tractor – this image feels hopelessly out-dated when you are walking around KeyGene’s Crop Innovation Center. The center is actually a greenhouse that is tucked away in an industrial area on the outskirts of Wageningen, and it is where the latest technologies in the field of agriculture are tested. One of the most fascinating techniques is vertical farming, the cultivation of crops above each other instead of next to each other - agriculture in 3D, so to speak.


Revolutionising urban farming

Rolf Mank is KeyGene’s expert in vertical agriculture. In the new research greenhouse Mank has 3 mini greenhouses for studying crops that are grown one on top of each other. The sides of these greenhouses, which resemble large walk-in coolers, have special shelving for steel planters to hang in. KeyGene helps growers solve problems posed by vertical agriculture, often providing innovations for breeders that allow them to develop new varieties of plants. These problems can crop up in all sorts of unexpected ways. 'Take that purple light, for example,” says Mank. “Plants look almost black in it. This makes it very difficult for you as a grower to see if there is something wrong with the plant. So you have to add a little bit of green light to observe the plant.”

The term “vertical agriculture” is often used one-to-one with urban farming, agriculture within the city limits. The idea comes from metropolises in the US and Japan, where the demand for fresh vegetables is high and the costs of getting those vegetables into the city are high as well. This is where vertical agriculture can become the solution. When you stack empty apartment buildings full of planters you can fill supermarket shelves with locally grown vegetables. In Tokyo and New York, as well as other places, there are already large-scale urban farms where leafy vegetables and herbs are grown under artificial light.


LEDs are lighting the way to a brighter future

Social demand isn’t the only driver behind the increasing popularity of vertical agriculture – technological innovations are also driving its growth. Indoor farming generally utilises sodium lamps, which are the same as the ones used in streetlights. “These lamps convert a large part of the energy that they use not into light, but into heat. You must hang them at least three meters above the crops, otherwise they will burn.”

The rapid rise of LED lighting offers a solution to this issue. Mank explains that LED lamps are much more efficient at converting energy into light and can thus be hung right above the plants. Moreover, you can play with colour. Erik Toussaint, spokesman for KeyGene, drew a wavelength of a light wave in his notepad. “The wavelengths associated with blue, red and far red are the ones that the plants enjoy the most”, he says, drawing arrows in his notepad. “They don’t perform as well under green. With LED lights, you can extract the green spectrum from the light beam, so that you do not have to put any energy into it anymore.”

Square Roots' greenhouse in Brooklyn, New York. Image by: James en Karla Murray

But is the grass any greener?

Square Roots gives a good impression of how vertical farming looks in practice. This American company, founded by Kimbal Musk - the younger brother of Elon Musk - grows basil and lettuce in containers bathed in purple light in the heart of Brooklyn. That looks impressively advanced, but it also raises the question: is such an artificial environment actually good for the crop?

There are indeed disadvantages to vertical agriculture. Or “disadvantages”, as Mank prefers to speak of them as of “opportunities”. "Take the tomato plant. In its current form it is too high for vertical agriculture. At KeyGene we have to ask: how can we adapt the plant so that it becomes shorter and thrives in a vertical greenhouse?”

Mank acknowledges that they are still looking for solutions for some of the problems that vertical agriculture suffers. For example, in the case of agriculture in an enclosed space, air humidity increases rapidly, requiring expensive dehumidifiers. "And pests and diseases, which we do not know about yet, can play a role," says Mank. “In addition, many insect species cannot find their way in LED light. How does that affect plant development? And do biological pest control agents, such as predatory mites or parasitic wasps, still do their job well? These are questions that we can answer with the help of the new research greenhouse.”


Vertical farming – a logical step forward or simply a trend?

Marie-Christine Van Labeke, professor of plant physiology at the University of Ghent, agrees that vertical farming is on the rise. “The term has been known to researchers for twenty years”, she says over the phone. "But the new lighting technology has attracted a lot of attention." Van Labeke expects vertical agriculture to become commonplace in large cities in about ten to fifteen years. “Although much will depend on the price. Are the multi-layer system and the energy for the lamps cheap enough for the grower to be profitable?”

In Ghent they are researching a form of vertical agriculture that is more familiar: in greenhouses. In principle, it is possible to build a so-called 'migrating' system, in which the layers slide one by one to the top of the greenhouse to bask in the sunlight. KeyGene has a similar system, where more than ten thousand plants move slowly through two layers and stand in the sun for half the time. This means that no energy from lamps is needed.

Yet Mank and Toussaint do not expect much from vertical agriculture in greenhouses. “In the Netherlands there is sufficient light for the greenhouses and the infrastructure is in up to par. The immediate demand for fresh vegetables is already very well served, "says Toussaint. Mank adds: “In vertical agriculture we think mainly of cities like Moscow, Mumbai and Dubai. In the Netherlands it will at most serve a niche market. Think of a vertical greenhouse in the supermarket, where herbs are grown for promotion.”


Combining new technology with an old practice

Those who cast aside their doubts regarding vertical agriculture quickly see the ingenious possibilities that the technology entails. Van Labeke shares one such example: “Exploratory studies show that plants produce antioxidants under certain light wavelengths. This can potentially be applied by putting plants under the light at that wavelength a week before harvesting. This way you could use specific ‘light recipes’ to grow extra nutritious plants.”

Marco van Schriek, expert in digital phenotyping, which is fully automatic measuring of plants, is tasked with taking KeyGene’s innovation one step further into the future. Van Schriek points to a large metal compartment. “The plants will enter the photo area via the conveyor belt,” he says. “The computer analyzes the photos and automatically puts measurement data on growth into the system.”

By linking a system such as digital phenotyping to vertical agriculture, in which you can regulate all conditions such as light, temperature and air humidity, you get a fully automatic, computer-controlled agriculture, in which an algorithm determines how much water and what light the plants are being administered.

And what about the farmer on his tractor? "In the end, we also help that farmer," says Toussaint. “With our advanced research we look at questions such as: how do we make a plant resistant to certain diseases? Then you will have to spray fewer pesticides and that is better for everyone.”


Important vertical agriculture companies

Square Roots - Vertical agriculture in containers in the heart of Brooklyn by Kimbal Musk.

AeroFarms - Large-scale domestic builder from America. Opened a 6,500 m² vertical farm in 2016, where they produce almost one million kilos of vegetables annually.

Fujitsu- Japanese ICT giant transforming one of its semiconductor plants into a vertical lettuce farm - reportedly to convince farmers to use ICT services.

Plenty- New player on the market. Applies 'tower agriculture', where the crops do not grow in stacked containers, but sideways in towers of sorts.

GROWx– Amsterdam-based vertical farm that is the first to run entirely on renewable energy.


This article is a translation of a Dutch piece by Volkskrant. Our Dutch readers can read it here. 

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