In a Munich, Germany office, 27-year-old CEO and co-founder, Maximilian Loessl, opens what looks like a small, stainless-steel refrigerator: instead, inside water circulates through stacked seedling boxes. High-powered LED lighting focuses on burgeoning plants like dill and basil, with distinctly crisp scents. This equipment allows a consumer to grow produce within a home kitchen; an App provides operating support. The product’s inventor, ‘agrilution’, is one of the companies leading the world in vertical farming.
Vertical farming is the production of food in vertically stacked layers or inclined surfaces, sometimes integrated within other structures; it is often used in urban areas with limited arable land. As the world’s population is projected to reach more than nine billion people by 2050, with particular growth in urban areas, sustainable and supplemental farming solutions are being searched for – and vertical farming is proving its potential.
The Munich Revolutionaries
User-friendly, sleek equipment based on visionary principles – Maximilian Loessl describes agrilution as a company that provides a technical approach for a grassroots movement in the food industry. “Our company name, agrilution, combines ‘agriculture’ and ‘revolution.’ We’d like to raise awareness for healthy food,” says Loessl. He adds that while the agrilution system cannot ‘solve’ the challenge of global food security, it can make a contribution in reinforcing overall health and sustainability: “Our vertical farming method uses up to 95 percent less water than conventional agriculture, as well as up to 60 percent less fertilizer.”
While the plants grown in this system are comparatively low calorie – including microgreens like coriander, parsley, chives, varieties of lettuce and herbs – they make up for this in nutrients: “Microgreens have up to 30 times higher nutrient levels than mature plants,” Loessl notes.
The company’s home growing devices – plantCubes – use broad spectrum wavelength LED lights. “This leads seedling plants to develop more biomass, attain faster growth, and develop richer nutrient levels,” states Loessl. Using a hydroponic method – growing plants in sponges, sand or liquid rather than soil – the system is a closed-water culture.
Our company name, agrilution, combines ‘agriculture’ and ‘revolution’. We’d like to raise awareness for healthy food.
With a firsthand perspective, and experience as one of the founders of the non-profit Association for Vertical Farming, Loessl predicts that “vertical farming will become mainstream in higher-population cities within the next ten years. This ability to produce food year-round can provide more stability regionally and even globally.” Controlled Environment Agriculture (CEA) - a method of growing plants, including vegetables, inside closed systems like greenhouses to create a stable plant environment - along with related technology and LED lighting, according to Loessl, will provide the basis for vertical farms to flourish.
The Orchards on Orchard Road
In the 19th century, Singapore’s Orchard Road was an area of lush plantations – today, some of the greenery has returned. The skyline rooftops of Singapore’s Scape building are stacked eight rows high with seedlings and plants. Niyati Gupta is the CEO of Comcrop, Singapore’s first rooftop commercial farm. Up to 90 percent of Singapore’s food must be imported. “We don’t have a lot of land or space in Singapore. Our vision was to create a resilient local eco-system,” Gupta notes.
The Rise of the Vertical Farm
The current Comcrop system is divided between hydroponics and aquaponics. In their aquaponics system, tanks of Tilapia fish feed their waste, in the form of nitrates, to the seedlings and plants in the hydroponic system, which then feed their plant waste back to the fish. As Gupta observes, “this system creates a nice micro-ecosystem.” The other half of Comcrop is a pure hydroponic farm where the nutrients are fed to the plants rather than coming from Tilapia fish. After this, there is a simple process: Sprouted seeds are transplanted into sponges placed into a vertical frame system. Each group of frames has eight to ten slanted rows stacked one above the other; pipes circulate water through the system. Solar panels power the water pumps. The hardware is neither strongly technical nor complicated, notes Gupta.
The World's Largest Vertical Farm
Comcrop specializes in area markets looking for vegetables with premium quality, due to reduced transportation and storage time. Soon, Comcrop will open another rooftop greenhouse nearby, focusing on leafy green vegetables. Recent Singapore legislation has mandated environmentally-friendly policies like green roofing, which is leading to growing local interest. Gupta herself is optimistic: “We see ourselves owning and operating a network of farms. People forget that agricultural possibilities include all types of spaces – even tunnels and parking lots. There are plenty of marginalized spaces in urban areas.”
Vertical farming does have limits, Gupta observes: “With hydroponics, for example, you can’t do grains or things that grow on trees, like citrus or avocados.” Crops that work well include leafy greens, tomatoes, and cucumbers. Overall, vertical farming has a valuable place in the food chain, says Gupta. Singapore’s traditional food suppliers – China, Thailand, and Malaysia – have become more prosperous, Gupta notes. “But they have their own populations to feed. So part of our answer has to be a local solution.”
From the Singapore Skies and Beyond
In 2009, Jack Ng, a Singaporean engineer and businessman, began looking toward semi-retirement – and he became more conscious than ever of his hometown’s dependence on imported food: “Singapore has achieved self-sufficiency in water but not in food. My passion is to change this.” The Sky Greens vertical farming system began as a prototype in 2010 with support from Singapore’s Agri-Food & Veterinary Authority (AVA). Sky Greens has now been in operation for four years.
The Sky Greens system is soil-based, though it can also be adapted for hydroponics. It resembles a slow nine-meter tall Ferris wheel, completing one revolution in 16 hours. Vegetable trays rotate down to obtain sufficient water and then up to the top of the tower for maximum sunlight. Overall, each tower needs only 40 Watt of electricity, the equivalent of one light bulb.
So far, Sky Greens has been able to grow “anything that could be planted in pots,” explains Ng. A majority of their plants are commercial Asian leafy vegetables and kale – at ten times the volume of a traditional open field farm in the same space.
As an engineer and businessman, Ng provides an analytical assessment: “Vertical farming solutions can address challenges of urbanization such as encroachment of farmlands.” The company continues to grow: overseas projects have been completed in Thailand and China. Sky Greens is also exploring opportunities in Malaysia and around the world.
Ultimately, Ng compares Sky Greens to a building or engineering project: “Hydroponics, which is common in vertical farming, has new automation processes, like controlled mixing of nutrients, but we always have to consider the cost viability for specific crop cultivation in different markets.” Ng pauses reflectively. “Vertical farming needs to make business sense and preserve the environment. We actively work with other greenhouse technologies and continually innovate to create solutions for sustainable food production.”
Singapore has achieved self-sufficiency in water but not in food. My passion is to change this.
Horticulture in the Sky
What are the most modern ideas in vertical farming?
Today’s vertical farming looks at controlling environmental factors within these systems, like light, water, and climate control. Whether on a micro or macro level, indoors or outdoors, such as on a rooftop, vertical farming may include greenhouses, where light is boosted via LEDs.
As the project manager for a vertical farming project with Fraunhofer UMSICHT, did you have a special Ag background that led to this project?
I’m a process engineer. Most of the time I was working with water and waste-water treatment processes, so it’s not too bad to now be working on hydroponic systems. In the project’s first year, my colleagues and I decided that we shouldn't only look at the greenhouses, but at the whole system – what we are calling inFARMING, ‘integrated farming’ – and develop efficient systems consisting of closed loops between greenhouses and the buildings, for example.
What are some of the advantages of vertical farming?
Shorter transportation paths are beneficial for the environment. The crops are also fresher, with high nutritional value for the customer. However, vertical farming is only one module of future farming. The future will also combine the knowledge resources of professionals in many fields to support established farming methods.
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The future will also combine the knowledge resources of professionals in many fields to support established farming methods.