Speaking at EAT Stockholm Food Forum

Modern farming with reduced environmental cost

Published April 18, 2016

Controlled indoor farming without the use of pesticides, fungicides, herbicides or even soil is the new way of growing food. The project will be presented at the EAT Stockholm Food Forum, June 13–14th.

In New Jersey, USA, the company Aerofarms has transformed a former Newark steel plant into a 22 000 square meter high-tech environment for production of herbs and vegetables.

The farming takes place within an indoor highly controlled environment. The production method is called vertical farming because the plants are not arranged in long rows but stacked upwards, optimising the space available.

Aerofarms is one of the leading companies utilising this food production method. According to co-founder and chief executive David Rosenberg, the advantages to the environment are huge. For instance; high-tech indoor farms use 95 percent less water than conventional, commercial field farms and there is no harmful run-off into the environment.

This is how it works: The plants grow on a reusable cloth medium that anchors their roots and is misted with a blend of nutrients, water and oxygen. Because the production is indoors and controlled, no pesticides, fungicides or herbicides are needed. According to Rosenberg, the production method requires approximately 50 percent less fertilizers compared to conventional methods of commercial greens productions.

Since vertical farming of greens only uses one percent of the land compared to traditional methods, the production can be done in urban areas close to the consumers. This also means less transportation.

Critics have said that the taste can suffer when food is cultivated without soil or sun, however the producers stress the efficiency and reduced environmental footprint of the method.

«The big advantage of indoor vertical farming is that we have less impact on the environment,» Robert Colangelo

The crops grow throughout the year and the production is not vulnerable to seasons, bad weather or crises like droughts or floods. The plants also grow at higher speed. According to Rosenberg at Aerofarms, farms will reap up to 30 harvests of greens a year.

Continuous monitoring with sensors optimizes the plants’ environment and ensures the plants will reach their peak and flavor potential. At Aerofarms, cameras, sensors and algorithms are used to collect and analyze data.

Lighting is one the largest expenditures. At Aerofarms, their specially designed LED lights comprise 50 percent of the company’s capital expenditure. Farmers using the new production methods have discovered that a mix of red and blue light works best to optimize photosynthesis and also requires less energy than standard yellow light.

«We conserve the water, the nutrients, we don’t pollute or generate emissions.» Robert Colangelo

Aerofarms, founded in 2004, now grows and sells 20 different leafy greens, including kale, arugula and romaine lettuce.

The company’s mission is to set a new standard for controlled urban agriculture and “address the global food crisis by building and operating indoor farms in cities across the United States and around the world, fundamentally transforming the business of agriculture to enable local food production at scale”.

Business analysts predict that indoor farming can become expansive. The world’s largest vertical farm is Aerofarms’ in New Jersey, but similar businesses are sprouting both in the USA and abroad.

 

Benefits of vertical farming:

* Year-round production, high quality growth with higher yields
* Faster, 12–16 day crop cycles give 22–30 crop turns per year
* A closed-loop system that uses 95 percent less water than outdoor agriculture
* Reusable growing cloth medium
* No pesticides, herbicides, fungicides
* No harmful run-off into the environment
* Significantly lower transportation kilometers due to farm proximity to markets served
* Better food safety controls and standards
(source: Aerofarms)

Environmental costs of agriculture:

* According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), the greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture, forestry and fisheries have nearly doubled over the past 50 years and could increase an additional 30 percent by 2050

* Agriculture is responsible for 70 percent of total freshwater withdrawals, which mainly goes to irrigating fields. (source: FAO)

* Agriculture is the prime cause of loss of species and main source of nutrient overload in aquatic and marine systems and a large chemical polluter.
(source: World Economic Forum)