If the idea of millions of cockroaches squirming around in a confined space freaks you out, perhaps you’d better not read on. They are part of the vertical farming revolution, a solution to feeding the planet without trashing it.
Urban indoor farms are a huge growth industry. Inside some of these sheds insects are being bred, some for human consumption and some for pet food.
We know from the IPBES Global Assessment on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services report
that farming is responsible for huge environmental damage, especially when natural forests are destroyed to grow animal feed such as soya beans, for intensive animal rearing.
Vertical farms can help to relieve the pressure on the environment from intensive farming, and unlike outdoor farming, the yield is 100 per cent due to the absence of parasites and disease.
Damage done by pets
In underdeveloped countries, animals aren’t kept as pets. But that changes as a country develops and people can afford to keep and feed pets.
But pets come with a huge environmental footprint. For example, it is estimated that pet food forms a quarter of the environmental impacts associated with meat production.
Increasing pet ownership, together with a worldwide trend for pet food to contain more and better quality meat, will only make matters worse and could even negate the environmental benefits linked to the growing number of people adopting a vegan diet.
Insects part of the solution
Insects are highly nutritious, containing essential proteins, fats, minerals and amino acids, and are easy for humans and animals to digest.
In some parts of the world – and China is leading the way – indoor farms breed cockroaches, crickets and other insects for pet food. In China’s 100 cockroach farms, the insects are fed food scraps. News Corp recently reported that Beijing churns out more than 25,000 tonnes of rubbish every day, making this is an economical and environmentally friendly solution.
When mature, the roaches are boiled and dried before being processed into nutritious foods and protein sources for pigs and other livestock. It’s “like turning trash into resources,” says Li Hongyi, chairwoman of Shandong Qiaobin Agricultural Technology Co, in Jinan, in Shandong province, where a billion cockroaches consume about 50 tonnes of waste every day.
Other insect farms around China are cultivating roaches as ingredients in medicine and health products.
It’s not confined to China. A new pet food went on the market in the UK earlier this year, 40 per cent of which is comprised of insects.
“Animals and humans have been eating insects since the dawn of time” says Yora founder Tom Neish.
“Yora enables dog owners to take the lead in giving their dog a nutritious, tasty food while having a positive impact on the environment.”
Their bugs are the larvae of black soldier flies (Hermetia illucens), reared in Eindhoven in the Netherlands by a protein nutrient company called Protix, where they are fed on waste vegetable matter.
Other dog foods made from bugs have been launched in the US and Germany, but with a lower insect content.
Indoor farms mushrooming
The mushrooms you find in the supermarket have been grown indoors for decades. Increasingly other foods are being produced that way.
For example, Europe’s largest vertical farm, the UK’s Jones Food Company in North Lincolnshire, started growing its first crops – leafy greens and herbs – in November, last year, in a 17-storey building stacked with plants grown hydroponically in a super clean environment.
Vertical farms produce food all year round and take up less space that traditional farms. Vertical farming expert, Dickson Despommier, a professor of public health at Columbia University, sees it like this: “In the context of a densely-populated city, vertical farming is the equivalent of apartment-houses, and greenhouses are similar to single-family houses”.
However, vertical farms are susceptible to failure. Rhydian Beynon-Davies, head of novel growing systems at horticultural research organisation Stockbridge Technology Centre (STC), thinks he knows why.
“Startups come into the industry with too little knowledge of it. There isn’t enough knowledge transfer between different sectors, so they aren’t capable of building appropriate business models”.
Vertical farmers need to understand lighting, humidity, air flow, irrigation, and much more. STC runs two small vertical farms where developers can try out different approaches.
It’s important to keep electricity costs down, by making the most of passive lighting and heating and generating electricity and heat from renewable sources, says Beynon-Davies.
Where AI meets market gardening
Square Roots is a vertical farming start-up that hopes to disrupt the food production industry. Founded by Elon Musk’s brother, investor Kimball Musk, and tech entrepreneur Tobias Peggs, two years ago, it grows Genovese basil seeds hydroponically in nutrient-rich water inside shipping containers.
“Rather than ship food across the world, we ship the climate data and feed it into our operating system,” says Peggs, who has a deal with one of the US’s large distribution companies, Gordon Food Service, to site herb-growing containers in some of its 200 warehouses.
The global value of vertical farming is projected to reach about US$6.4 billion (AU$9.5 billion) by 2023, according to Jeffrey Landau, director of business development at Agritecture Consulting.
Investors rushing in
US firm Plenty has backing from Softbank chief executive Masayoshi Son and former Google head Eric Schmidt. Its new farm, Tigris, demonstrates an ability to grow delicious produce (strawberries) using less than five per cent of the water and less than one per cent of the land used by outdoor farms.
Ikea’s parent company Ingka Group recently joined others to raise US$100 million for AeroFarms, which grows lettuce and other leafy greens.
Meanwhile, Google Ventures and Uber boss Dara Khosrowshahi helped Bowery Farming secure US$122.5 million in 2018.
“We’re doing for farming what Henry Ford did for the automobile,” says Jake Counne, founder and CEO of Backyard Fresh Farms, which plans to open 100,000 square foot plants near every major metropolitan area in the US.
Following the US lead
In Russia, a vertical farming company called iFarm operates farms and supplies the technology for growing vegetables, berries and edible flowers. Construction of three farms near Moscow began last month, and the first harvest will be at the end of October.
One farm is inside a former car dealer showroom, which now contains 1000 square metres of growing space in 90 stacks of eight layers each, three kilometres of wiring, and 1000 metres of pipes. Six types of leafy greens will be grown: romaine lettuce, kale, chards, leaf lettuce, basil and bok choy.
UK food delivery and robotics company Ocado is investing in indoor farming too and the first fully automated hydroponic indoor farm is being planned by a company called 80 Acres, in Cincinnati, Ohio.
All that’s missing are the pollinators and a broader range of produce.
David Thorpe is the author of the books The ‘One Planet’ Life and the new ‘One Planet’ Cities. From October he is teaching an online Post-Graduate Certificate in “One Planet” Governance.