Vertical Farming: Agro-Startups from Silicon Wadi Conquer European Urbanism
The concept of urban farming is, of course, not new. With the carbon footprint of essential produce increasingly of concern to urban consumers with purchasing power, agro startups, although only peripherally involved with IT or biotech, are fast becoming hot items. Berlin may not sound like a natural choice for a young Israeli agro-startup, but one of the most promising experiments in advanced urban integration indeed took root there before it spread out to Paris, London and Copenhagen. Infarm is, in a manner of speaking, ‘sprouting out-of-the-box.’ ‘Microgreens,’ the shoots of salad vegetables such as arugula, celery, beetroot, etc., picked just after the first leaves have developed, contain up to 40 times more vital nutrients than mature plants. Microgreen economics of indoor production contrast remarkably with economics of conventional farming. Microgreens are quick to grow, moving from seed to feed in just one to three weeks depending on plant variety, and with an incredible yield-to-space ratio, offering a perfect solution for urban living with increasingly little room or time for a garden, as they require minimal expense, time and effort for a highly expeditious healthy harvest of organic greens. Functional requirements are very modest: access to good light means no more than a well-lit bench indoors, a tray or other suitable shallow container, water, and a growing medium. This model also offers near-total independence from climate: fresh living greens for salads, sandwiches, soups and garnishes are easy crops to grow year-round.
Infarm, founded 2013 by an Israeli couple from Tel Aviv and one partner’s brother in an Airstream mobile home, laid the foundation for an increasingly fashionable urban gardening scene in metropolitan Europe with a staff that grew to well over 100 to date and includes biologists, engineers, programmers and management talent. Together, they have spawned more than 70 ‘vertical farms’ in Berlin restaurants, warehouses, and supermarkets. Infarm provides and operates under leasehold agreements the vertical farming boxes with sensors that constantly record and monitor data, including pH, temperature, light, density of nutrients, and other factors. The system uses AI to learn and optimize conditions on location. Edeka, Germany’s largest national supermarket chain, has stocked its outlets in Berlin and Hannover with urban farming boxes that enable customers to purchase after work some incomparably freshly harvested greens or other produce for dinner. A 5000 square meter hall at the outskirt of Berlin houses City Hub Farm where farming boxes and their technology are manufactured. In early 2018, the company announced that it had raised from investors €20 million, which is expected to fund also expansion into other metropolitan areas: Paris-Nanterre is expected to feature a 100 square meter indoor farm at a Metro supermarket by end of 2018. By mid-2019, 1,000 indoor farms are expected to be operational across Europe. First imitators, the sincerest form of flattery, have emerged already, proving business model viability and growing demand. Some new vertical farming technologies use no soil and up to 95% less water, although metrics, comparability of data and claims are disputed and critiqued by some.
Aquaculture, a fancy term for fish farming, has had its ups and downs over recent decades as reservations against the quality of farmed fish grew steadily – at least among those consumer segments that were not compelled to make purchasing decisions primarily on price. Urban aquaculture includes the farming of aquatic organisms, including fish, mollusks, crustaceans and aquatic plants within the urban environment: rivers, ponds, lakes, canals, but also and especially indoors – the nearer to the consumer, the higher efficiency and the better. Urbanizing aquaculture is not a new concept: oceanic habitats are becoming less hospitable, with water temperatures and acidity rising, dead zones growing, and mass extinction of fish and coral species looming in an uncomfortably near future. Farmed fish, on the other hand, is raised in conditions so dirty that constant antibiotics and other chemicals must be supplied for it to grow to consumable size. Urbanization requires making recirculating aquaculture systems small enough to run anywhere on a municipal water source, putting a vision of jacuzzi-sized tilapia tanks on every roof within very realistic reach. It is a concept not only capable of yielding at least 100 pounds of fish per person per year, but also using fish waste to grow hydroponic plants floating on a foam sheet on the water surface in the same tank, producing lettuce in six weeks.
As an obvious consequence, urban aquaculture will transcend the hobby stage if, and only if, it can be facilitated to transcend a circle of activist enthusiasts by integrating it meaningfully and thoughtfully into advanced urban architectural planning and developing adaptation kits for properties that do not have easily convertible facilities. While urban farming and aquafarming may be capable of relatively practicable integration in urban or suburban sprawl, it is still extremely difficult to show the same for metropolitan living in even moderately sophisticated high-rises and limited apartment sizes dictated by disproportionate real estate costs per square foot. Here, only centralized, communal facilities are realistic – which, in turn, require board approval and involve the possibility of obstruction. Therefore, truly ‘domestic’ fish farming in a metropolitan setting would seem feasible only under exceptional circumstances and especially in townhouses or rare rooftop apartments. But urban-domiciled centralized facilities integrated in supermarkets or specialty stores are nonetheless a promising option that still provides extreme freshness with manageable compliance and quality control procedures. It is probably fair to say that architecture and organizational matters and procedures are more of an obstacle to metropolitan urban aquaculture than technology or safety inspections.
But neither vertical farming nor aquaculture are likely to cover more than a fraction of needed supply, and have to be balanced to coexist with traditional food supplies from conventional sources and locations, thus only gradually reducing sustainability concerns. Nonetheless, small-scale urban aquaculture has a wide range of benefits for the future evolution of urban agglomerations. Legal foundations exist and do not present particular or unfamiliar challenges.