Sunday, July 14, 2024

When Agriculture No Longer Suffers From The Volatilities of Nature…

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You can grow strawberries in Rajasthan and lettuce in a land stained by nuclear residue.

You can harvest enough fresh produce to sell to 20 million people, in a farm of 30,000 sq ft spread over multiple storeys.

You can grow organic lettuces so tasty that they sell for thrice the price of field-grown lettuces.

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You can prevent farmer suicides.

The time is ripe for tech-enabled vertical farming in India.

Vertical farming is not an entirely new concept. Concepts like hydroponics and aeroponics have existed for quite some time now. Hydroponics is basically the art and science of growing crops in nutrient-enriched water, doing away with the need for soil. The water is recycled and used over and over again. Aeroponics is a more advanced type of hydroponics where the nutrients are supplied to the plants through mist or water vapour. Vertical farming builds on these technologies to grow crops indoors, in urban areas, in multi-storey buildings. Several trays or tanks of crops can be grown, arranged next to each other or stacked vertically. The enriched water or mist provides the crop with all the required nutrients to grow well and grow fast to give excellent yields.

When you add technology to the vertical farming formula, it becomes possible to grow healthy and safe crops all year round in any part of the world, unmindful of the weather there. This is called controlled-environment farming (CEF). Basically, an indoor space is made ideal for a crop by controlling everything from lighting to humidity using technologies like light-emitting diode (LED) lighting, air-conditioning, smart control software, and so on.

Vertical farming is very relevant in today’s world, because more and more rural lands are getting engulfed by the cities. It is a pity that we often buy fruit and vegetables grown miles away, and pay through our noses for organic produce. Vertical farming can change all this! Take for example Green Sense, a tech-enabled vertical farm near Chicago. In a farm that spans 30,000 square feet, they can grow fresh produce that can be distributed within 100 miles to 20 million people.

Although India was one of the earliest pioneers of vertical farming (the 1950s book Hydroponics: The Bengal System remains a popular handbook on the subject!), it is sad that the full potential of vertical farming is yet to be discovered here. We can say that vertical farming was a technology that came before its time in India… but its time has come now! Not only is the need for vertical farming very deeply felt by urban dwellers today, the technologies that can make vertical farming more effective have also come of age.

CEF is predictable: Crops grown under such controlled environments produce high yields and quick turnaround. The crop is more or less predictable, reducing the risk of losses due to the vagaries of nature, which is one of the main reasons for farmer suicides in our country. Vagaries in natural conditions like temperature, water availability and photo-intensity affect crops badly. In controlled-environment faming, all this is under the farmer’s control.

Profitable: Although it initially seems like the cost is high, due to investment in building infrastructure, technology, ongoing consumption of electricity, and so on, some experts feel that it will be economical in the long run because vertical farming requires less labour and does away with investments like buying tractors, seed dispersers, sprinklers and other farming equipment. Moreover, the crop – and hence the returns – are predictable.

According to Aerofarms, the world’s largest indoor vertical farm, their aeroponic system is a closed loop system that uses 95 per cent less water than field farming, 40 per cent less than hydroponics and zero pesticides. By controlling the environment and supplying apt micro-nutrients to the crops, they claim that given the same seed, they can grow it in half the time as a traditional field farmer, and achieve 75 times more productivity per square foot than a commercial field farm.

Safe: Indoor farming is clean and hygienic. The sterile environment keeps pests away, and it also keeps unclean farming practices at bay. Dr. Despommier explains in a ThinkProgress report: “It’s a disturbing fact, but nonetheless true, that half the world can’t afford fertilisers and so they use human faeces. It’s the best way to transfer parasites from one person to the next. Of course, indoor farming wouldn’t allow that to happen. E. coli 0157, which is from animal sources, is another big threat. That’s from cow manure. Cow manure is a favourite for fertilisers. And if you’re spraying that on your plants, it’s very hard to get rid of. So it just makes sense to try to avoid these things before you’ve got them.”

Healthy: You might wonder if vegetables grown indoors, devoid of natural sunshine, will be as nutritious as natural field-grown vegetables. In a media report, Caleb Harper of MIT Media Lab, who drives their CityFARM project, argued: “You would think, if it doesn’t have sunlight, it can’t possibly be nutritious, but the reality is that plants only harvest 10 per cent of the sun’s rays, which we can recreate in the lab. There is absolutely no nutritional difference between plants grown in sunlight and under an LED.” Robert Colangelo, president and founder of Green Sense Farms goes a step further and claims that their produce is better than traditionally grown veggies. He said, “Anybody who comes into this farm sees the high level of cleanliness here, and when they eat right off the rack they can see the precise nature in which this has been grown.”

And beneficial in many more ways: Vertical farming can also have less obvious social benefits. Like in the case of Vertical Harvest, a social organisation based in Jackson, Wyoming, vertical farming can be a source of livelihood for physically-challenged people and other less privileged individuals. We get healthy food, they get to live a dignified life, and the organisation gets tax benefits! It is a fabulous win-win.

Tech, from light to air quality

Vertical farming does not necessarily have to be large scale, and it does not have to use technology either. Clover Organic’s idea of a ‘farm in a basket’, for example, enables a family to self-sufficiently grow its own vegetables in a 500 sq ft area. Clover Organic’s solutions are all-natural and rely on natural sunshine. Sanjay Aggarwal, founder and CEO of Clover Organic, a pioneer in vertical farming in India, says that they follow a natural model of vertical farming. “We do not use any electricity or gadgetry in our model of vertical farming. Our model is natural. As far as economics go, our cost is very nominal. It works out to about Rs. 800 per 250-litre tank. One can use as many such tanks as the space he might have on his terrace or balcony. We only use natural sunshine. In the areas of the tank where sunshine cannot reach directly, we grow shade-loving crops like capsicum, strawberry etc,” he says.

That said, a large, commercial-level deployment will surely have to be tech-based. For starters, there are the technologies that go into controlling the environment, like LED lighting, heating, ventilation and air-conditioning (HVAC) technologies, and sensors and software to control the system.

Figuring the light recipe: LED lighting solutions for vertical farming are known by different names: grow lighting, horticultural lighting, engineered lighting etc. Several vertical farming pioneers across the world like New Jersey based Aerofarms, Portage based Green Sense Farms, Netherlands based Deliscious, etc, are using LED lights to provide the plants with exactly the spectrum, intensity and frequency they need for photosynthesis in the most energy-efficient way possible. Aerofarms claims that such a lighting system helps them to control everything from size, shape, texture and colour to flavour and nutritional value of the produce in an extremely productive way. Philips is one of the major players in researching and providing lighting solutions for vertical farming. The company’s GrowWise Center in the Netherlands has eight climate-controlled rooms, each equipped with four multi-layer systems and one germination room. Equipped with 540 GreenPower LED production modules and 6624 GreenPower LED research modules, the centre helps to find the right ‘light recipe’ for different crops. One of the main aspects of their research and development is to make such lighting as energy-efficient as possible.

Conditioning the air to grow veggies even in Alaska: The HVAC system is another critical aspect of a vertical farm. With smart, energy efficient, large area HVAC systems like the one developed by Japanese vertical farming organisation Spread, it becomes possible to grow veggies anywhere in the world, by maintaining the humidity and temperature within a range that is optimal for photosynthesis.

Sensors, data and intelligence: Another popular aspect of tech deployment in a vertical farm is the sensor network used to automatically monitor nutrient levels in the water or air, and replenish it on a need basis. Further, other environmental aspects are also constantly monitored and the data is studied remotely using predictive analysis to control the systems and to minimise the risks associated with traditional agriculture. According to a media report, Aerofarms’ growing trays collect 30,000 data points on parameters like temperature, humidity, carbon dioxide and oxygen levels. Data scientists from universities such as Harvard and MIT analyse this data in real-time using machine-learning software, to predict how future crops will grow and to optimise the growing algorithms of 250 different types of plants. Once the best way is figured out, it can be meticulously replicated every time in the controlled environment!

The CityFARM project, funded and backed by MIT, is working towards an open source platform for managing vertical farms. At CityFARM, open source software is used to calibrate light levels, humidity, temperature and pH to create an easily replicable, soil-free urban farm. Caleb Harper is working with universities and governments in Dubai, Accra, Guadalajara and Detroit to develop vertical farming labs. It is a synergetic relationship wherein Harper helps them with the technology and the labs in turn share the local ‘recipes’ for ideal crop growth. This information can be used to optimise the systems for various conditions like power or water use. In one of his media interviews, Harper famously commented that CityFARM hopes to be the Linux of the vertical urban farm world!

The Indian scene

Growers in many countries like America, Japan and the Netherlands are excited about vertical urban farming, and there is a lot of reason for Indian growers to walk the path too. Broadly speaking, reliability and safety are two of the key reasons why a developing nation like India should seriously consider vertical indoor farming.

There are, however, two key challenges that vertical farming faces in India. One is the high cost of initial setup. The other is unreliability of power supply, which entails backups, which in turn increases the cost further. However, both can be overcome if the government supports the industry in full breath and offers financial aid and subsidies to promote the practice.

Malhotra says, “The Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) has been leading efforts in the direction of promoting vertical farming in urban centres. India’s needs and solutions however, thought contextually, are likely to be richer and considerably more innovative than ‘automation-led’ Western ideas. A good example of an indigenous solution is Clover Organic’s ‘farm in a basket’, which aims at self-sufficiency of a single family as opposed to a large-scale commercial undertaking.”

He adds that last year’s Vertical Farming Conference in Bangalore was a step towards getting hi-tech agriculture within the reach of local farmers. Speaking to the The Hindu at the conference, N K Krishna Kumar, deputy director-general of ICAR, mentioned that the scope of vertical farming goes far beyond terrace gardening. It involves cultivation of various horticultural crops — fruits and vegetables, besides rare varieties of flowers such as orchids in multiple layers, with the help of proper supporting structures. He said it is possible to grow enough vegetables and fruits or flowers even in apartments through vertical gardening. Urban residents can grow their own food, or even take up commercial farming!

Aggarwal of Clover Organic, however, has a different view about the government’s cooperation. He says, “No. In fact, we view the government as an obstacle to innovation rather than being a facilitator! For anything that we might have proved in house, they demand vigorous testing by ICAR, which in turn demands massive fees, three years’ testing time and no commitment for recommendation, even if they find the technology to be working.”

It is clear that theoretically the government is in favour of vertical urban farming but there are still a few wrinkles to be ironed out before the growers and the government are in sync.

 [stextbox id=”info” caption=”Eco-friendly or not”]

The benefits of vertical farming are proven and several countries have started adopting it in full swing. Tokyo, for example, has more than 150 hydroponic growing operations and gets about a third of its food from urban agriculture. However, people are generally worried about the carbon footprint of vertical farming. Vertical farming evangelists argue that this is offset by other ecological benefits like reduction in use of water, greater efficiency in usage of land, and so on.

Take Green Sense Farms, for example. It uses around 7000 LED lights. That sounds like an unreasonable amount of electricity and too much capital investment! However, the cost of LED lighting is dipping while its efficiency is rising. Philips, which is Green Sense Farms’ lighting partner, claims that their light recipes help Green Sense to harvest 20-25 times a year using 85 per cent less energy.” Early vertical farming experiments used fluorescent lamps, which were inefficient. But, with the improvements in LEDs, that concern has been addressed. LEDs have three times the lifespan of a fluorescent, and convert a higher rate of the electricity they take into light, making them more efficient and better for the environment.

According to Colangelo, Green Sense Farms believes in reduce, reuse and recycle. They conserve power, recycle water and nutrients, do not use farm equipment like tractors, and are not emitting any hydrocarbons or greenhouse gas to plant and harvest. The company also plans to install a geothermal heat pump for its air-conditioning and heating systems, and to put solar panels on its roof.

Aerofarms makes similar claims. They say they use 95 per cent less water than traditional field farming. Indoor farming also does away with the use of pesticides, the overuse of which has decreased the beneficial microorganisms in the soil and allowed bad ones to proliferate. Vertical farming also allows you to grow more food using less land, which means we can try to retrieve the Earth’s forest cover. Adding yet another dimension to the eco debate, Aerofarms claims that they reduce harmful transportation emissions by 98 per cent on average, as food is grown closer to the urban areas.

While discussing the eco angle, Malhotra reminds us that the sum of the parts do not always make the whole. He says, “On one hand vertical farming is good because you can reduce transportation, meaning reducing the carbon footprint. On the other hand if you’re using electricity, especially thermal, you’re upping the carbon footprint. Probably need to net things out before touting advantages. Let’s look at the vertical farming concept through the India lens. If you accept the urban argument without questioning it, you’re almost predetermining the case for vertical farming. It’s putting the cart before the horse. The question really is what type of (native) produce can be grown without too much attention and can give a yield that is efficient overall. I wouldn’t make a case for technology or automation or infrastructure without understanding the agricultural ‘portfolio’ of vertical farming. What I’m trying to say is that it’s one thing to grow salad leaves for the Queen’s Banquet and quite another to farm local staple vegetables. I think the concept is powerful for several benefits. I also think we can have several indigenous variations via an optimal balance of renewable energy, mix of vegetables, different sizes and configurations of vertical farms (both indoor and outdoor), farming techniques based on geographical parameters across India. I would study Nature’s model and attempt to mimic her techniques as a first step.”

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Success needs smart design

In India or elsewhere, to succeed in vertical farming, you need to put farming first and technology second. You must stop glorifying technology, and put the right tech to use at the right place. Responsible design can also help you overcome challenges like cost and carbon footprint.

Sunil Malhotra, CEO of Ideafarms, an Indian Design-in-Tech company focused on innovation and social impact sums up: “Responsible design takes a holistic view starting with sustainability and environmental concerns. We have absolutely no excuse for ecological degradation. This brings us to the topic of vertical farming and validation of what types and to what extent we should use the concept. Let’s take a look at the various dimensions that agriculture touches – carbon neutrality, use of fossil fuels, climate change, soil degradation, global warming, rapid urbanisation, food scarcity, water scarcity, health hazards, ill-effects of chemical fertilisers, energy utilisation, transportation, packaging, etc – then think of how design can help resolve these in ways that can bring a balance of priorities between planet, people and profit.”

“Next, let’s look at how to apply technology, how much to apply and for what purposes. Internet of things (IoT), drones, mobile apps and social technologies can be brought together to create value concepts that empower farmers with timely information about crop cycles and health. This is pertinent in the context of indoor vertical farming since ‘walking around’ to check how things are, is rarely an option. Data-driven knowledge, delivered in real-time and based on location context is what farmers will need for making decisions in almost the same way that the Japanese made an art of Just-in-time (JIT) manufacturing since Japan lacked space to build big factories loaded with inventory.”

“Finally, there is a need to do the math on the carbon footprint for decisions about ‘where to grow what’ to stay as carbon neutral as possible. A crazy idea might be to create a farm in a solar-powered or hybrid vehicle that is routed from destination to destination on the basis of how long it would take for something to grow from seed to harvest, thereby eliminating the need for acreage completely! Call it Design Fiction.” Who knows, that design fiction might become real one day – and it might be an EFY reader who makes it so!

 [stextbox id=”info” caption=”A little green product”]

It might not be for large-scale commercial deployments, but Greenopia surely tows the vertical farming line! With the smart pots and plants from Bangalore-based start-up Greenopia, everybody will have a green thumb. Their kits contain smart self-watering pots, enriched soil and the right seeds. Currently, they have flowering plants and herbs. The sensor-embedded pots replenish the moisture in the soil on a need basis, and notify you when you need to refill water externally (once in a few days). The solution comes with a mobile app, which not only helps you to be in control of your plants – be it flowers or herbs – but also to share information with a growing community. For example, if somebody has managed to consistently grow the perfect mint in their kitchen garden, they can share the parameters that led to the perfect crop, so others can replicate it![/stextbox]

Do you like this article? You may also like our another article on vertical farming.


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