World’s largest vertical farm grows without soil, sunlight in Newark

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August 14, 2016

By: Malavika Vyawahare

An ambitious, almost fantastical, manifestation of agricultural technology is expected to come to fruition this fall. From the remains of an abandoned steel mill in Newark, New Jersey, the creators of AeroFarms are building what they say will be the largest vertical farm, producing two million pounds of leafy greens a year.

Whether it even qualifies as a “farm” is a matter of taste. The greens will be manufactured using a technology called aeroponics, a technique in which crops are grown in vertical stacks of plant beds, without soil, sunlight or water.

“I ate some of the arugula here,” said New Jersey governor Chris Christie after a recent visit to a smaller AeroFarms facility in the neighborhood. “It tastes fabulous. No dressing necessary.”

The farm, built in the economically depressed New Jersey city promises new jobs, millions of dollars in public-private investment, and an array of locally grown leafy greens for sale. The company has spent some $30m to bring to reality a new breed of “green agriculture” that seeks to produce more crops in less space while minimizing environmental damage, even if it means completely divorcing food production from the natural ecosystem.

AeroFarms and other companies developing similar controlled growing climates claim to be transforming agriculture. Proponents of vertical farming call it the “third green revolution”, analogizing the developments to Apple and Tesla. They tout the potential of such technology to address food shortages as the world population continues to grow.

AeroFarms touts their products as free of pesticides and fertilizer, an attribute that investors think will attract customers who buy organic produce. “We definitely see the need for healthy food in the local area and Newark in particular,” said Lata Reddy, vice-president for corporate social responsibility at Prudential Financial, one of the investors in the project.

But, food that is not grown in soil may not be palatable to many, even those who are opting for organic substitutes. “If you take the soil out of the system, is it a legitimate organic system?” questioned Carolyn Dimitri, director of the food studies program at New York University. The US Department of Agriculture does not consider the question of organic certification for growing methods that do not use soil, according to AeroFarms’ website.

“Urban farming is trendy,” Dimitri said. It remains an open question, she said, whether it will be economically viable. Prudential Financial has invested “patient capital” in the venture, which is used to finance social impact projects that are unlikely to yield benefits right away. There are no aeroponics projects of this scale but AeroFarms has piloted the technology at Philip’s Academy charter school in Newark, where students are served greens grown at the school.

In the last decade a few bold schemes have built on this seminal idea, with the first commercial vertical farm set up in Singapore in 2012. Japan boasts of its own semiconductor factory-turned-lettuce farm, an idea that gained some traction after the Fukushima reactor meltdown in 2011 exposed the susceptibility of arable land to long term contamination. In the UK Growing Underground has converted a second world war bomb shelter in London into a hydroponics farm.

In the US at least five new commercial vertical farming operations have emerged over the past five years that use a range of controlled growing technologies to allow year-round harvests of crops that typically have a short growing season in Michigan, and more efficient water use in California. At Ouroboros Farm in California, for example, hundreds of fish are fed organic feed, the waste produced by them is used to nourish seedlings and plants floating on raft beds above the fish tanks.

Some experts like Dimitri believe that such large urban farms are so far afield from traditional ones that “farm” may not be the word for them. “It is more like a factory than farm,” she said, “almost like broiler production, very controlled and regimented.”

“People want to be hopeful, they want a solution that works,” Dimitri said. “Some people think it is the way of the future. I think it is just another production technology, I don’t think it is going to turn agriculture on its head.”

New agricultural technologies like aeroponics are unlikely to make a dent in the global food crisis, for now. Countries which face the highest food insecurity don’t dabble in expensive new technology, and even if they do, the produce may not reach underserved populations. “It is a technology whose time has come for the rich,” Despommier argued, noting that “it is already popular in Japan, and countries in the Middle East that want to reduce dependence on food imports have also shown interest.”

Reddy was also measured in her assessment: “What we see here will not disrupt the entire farming industry but a particular niche.”

But proponents like Despommier see enterprises such as AeroFarms as a way forward. “There is no limit to what you can do,” he said, while acknowledging that one of the biggest challenges going forward will be growing other crops like rice and wheat, crops that could feed the world.

See the entire article at www.theguardian.com.

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