Saturday, December 10, 2022

When Agriculture No Longer Suffers From The Volatilities of Nature…

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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.

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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.

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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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