The New Gastronome
Vertical Farming & Co
Time to Grow Up(wards)
by Bianca Minotti, Silvia Moroni
by Bianca Minotti, Silvia Moroni
In a world with a constantly growing population and unpredictable climate phenomena, finding new solutions to grow fruit and vegetables seems more than necessary. On one hand, demand for food and consumer preferences stress planet resources. Cities and megalopoli need different solutions to minimize water waste, reduce food shipping costs and pollution while looking for quality and healthy products at the same time.
On the other hand, citizens are much more aware of the benefits of being in contact with nature. In particular, during the Covid19 emergency, citizens have rediscovered an interest in gardening and urban agriculture. The trends of “going back to the land”, eating healthily and knowing where your food comes from, are becoming more and more popular.
Vertical farming and “land to fork” relationships are some of the best practices to transform cities into greener and smarter areas.
Vertical Farming: the Future of Agriculture?
Vertical farming is “the urban farming of fruits, vegetables, and grains, inside a building in a city or urban centre, in which floors are designed to accommodate certain crops.” There are three types of vertical farming techniques, depending on the three soil-free systems that can be used to provide nutrients to the plants:
Hydroponics. This method does not use any soil and is most commonly used: the plant roots are immersed in a solution that provides them with all the needed nutrients and gets monitored constantly.
Aeroponics. In the 90s, NASA was interested in finding a way to grow plants in space, in an environment without soil and with very little water. Still very experimental, aeroponics use up to 90% less water than any other vertical systems.
Aquaponics. For this method, plants and fish are combined in the same ecosystem. Fish produce waste that can feed the plants, while the plants filter the water used in the fish ponds.
Vertical farming systems can be applied in buildings or containers. Many abandoned buildings in cities are used for vertical farms, even redeveloping urban suburbs. Vertical farms in shipping-containers are also very popular: normally used for sending goods, containers with LED lights, irrigation systems and shelves are the new way to be a modern farmer. By cultivating indoors, the productions are protected from sudden weather events such as strong wind, droughts and hail. It also ensures a continuous production even in non-tropical regions and a higher yield, a reduction in the use of herbicides and pesticides, eliminates the use of fossil fuel machines like tractors and large farm vehicles and uses about 70% less water than normal agriculture. As vegetables are frequently shipped close to the farm building it gives great advantages to big cities and can be seen as an example of kilometre-zero-agriculture.
Despite all these pros, vertical farming also has some disadvantages:
An Italian vertical farm: Agricola Moderna in Milan
Agricola Moderna “grows salads, but vertically”. The project was born in Milan and is now developed in a building in Melzo, just outside the city. Everything started with a collaboration between the University of Milan and La Sapienza in Rome, to optimize production processes. Today, the farm grows flavorful baby leaves, all year round and sells them in three mixes: Baby lettuce, Japanese mix (Japanese spinach, wasabina mustard, Roman lettuce and tatsoi) and Spicy baby (curly mustard, red mustard and Roman lettuce). Packaged in recycled and recyclable packaging and priced as an organic product, the baby salads are distributed to 20 supermarkets around the city.
The goal? “Producing fresh and healthy vegetables, for people and the planet” – in Milan and all around the world.
Fish and veggies in Bruxelles: The Ferme Abattoir
BIGH is “Europe’s largest aquaponic rooftop farm producing fruits, vegetables, fish & herbs in the middle of Brussels”. BIGH aims to regenerate existing buildings and reduce their environmental impact, creating a “network of sustainable aquaponic urban farms in major cities”. The goal is to produce fresh food for the city, in a sustainable and pesticide-free way, using the minimum amount of water and energy.
The Bruxelles urban farm is called the Ferme Abattoir and it is built on the roof of the Foodmet market hall. The farm uses an aquaponics system to produce fresh food for the city, combining the fish farm, a high-tech greenhouse and an outdoor garden on the rooftop. Fish, fruit, vegetable and herb production are connected by a “zero waste loop”.
Every year, the fish farm produces 35 tonnes of high-quality sea bass. The water comes mostly from rainwater storage and the old water from the fish farm is used to fertilize the outdoor garden. No chemicals, no GMOs, simply plant-based feeding, high levels of hygiene and animal welfare: for a unique European practice. The greenhouse produces herbs, tomatoes and microgreens in three areas, using biological pollination, without chemicals or pesticides. This combination of fish and tomatoes makes the greenhouse incredibly interesting: Tomatoes are cultivated off-ground, “supplied with water and nutrients by a drip system, a link between the water and the plant. This water is enriched with nutrients thanks to our fish that live in it, then reused for watering.”
The outdoor garden is the largest productive rooftop garden in Europe, and the model can be replicated in any other city. Using the aquaponics irrigation, the garden produces salads, vegetables and small fruits, which then get sold locally. The farm is a clear example of circular economy: it uses renewable electricity from the building and produces high-quality local products without antibiotics or pesticides, creating a zero-waste farm for both pisciculture and horticulture.
Orto 2.0: a garden in your apartment
In recent years, apps have been changing our way of living, even in the agriculture sector, helping in garden management, giving agri-tips and connecting farms with customers. However, only some are well established and interesting to citizens, like the app Orto 2.0.
Orto 2.0 is an innovative city-farm. Through an app and a web platform, it offers a way to monitor and manage a real vegetable garden despite not having space, time or the necessary skills. With the Orto 2.0 app, the user can configure their own vegetable garden, control the team’s farm work and participate in the community by exchanging production surpluses. Thanks to a subscription (monthly, quarterly, half-yearly and yearly) the customer monitors the entire cultivation service: from fertilizing the garden to the installation of the irrigation system; from seed selection to transplanting, pruning and harvesting.
The Orto 2.0 team takes care of each batch day by day. When the products are ready, the batch owner can receive the harvest at home or pick it up from the farm. Orto 2.0 also deals with social inclusion and respect for the environment. It helps disadvantaged people to integrate into society, collaborates with social cooperatives and non-profit organizations. The farm also proposes internships to help students in future jobs or universities.
The farm wants to be transparent in every aspect of the production. The consumer becomes a co-producer, completely aware of and responsible for the entire food chain. No certification processes are needed, as the consumers themselves are guarantors for the quality of their products.
Orto 2.0 promotes sustainable developments, creates solidarity among economic networks and it has proven to be capable of promoting the rediscovery of social ties between people. A real way to promote inclusion, retrain suburban areas and develop biodiversity.
And so what?
Technological innovations, agri-tech solutions, “farmers-to-be” apps; these are the digital agri-innovations for the near future.
Can vertical farming feed cities? Can aquaponics solve the upcoming water shortage? May we boost the connection between city and countryside using an app? Maybe. What’s for sure is that the future will bring ever more innovations and improvements. In the meantime, vertical farms can be an attractive and achievable option for big urban areas, while apps will get more and more useful and user friendly.
Keep in mind: we are constantly living in an “urban paradox”. Cities have always had all the power and for a long time, citizens forgot what the relationship between city and countryside should be: productive landscapes are often thousands of miles away, based mostly on monoculture and intensive agriculture, in order to satisfy the city’s wants and needs. No matter how and what.
Strengthening the link between urban and rural environments should be the future goal for healthy and fair city life. Technology in the agriculture sector can boost the transaction through an urban food revolution, especially if it is available for small businesses and for a large majority of citizens.
The point is not only feeding an urbanizing world but how the urbanized world is fed and with what.
There is still a long path to go, but we are moving in a good direction.
 Miriam Clare Dobson, Christian Reynolds, Philip H. Warren, Jill L. Edmondson, My little piece of the planet: the multiplicity of well-being benefits from allotment gardening, British Food Journal, 3 November 2020.
 Dickson Despommier, The Vertical Farm: Feeding the World in the 21st Century, Macmillan, 12 ott 2010.
 MalekAl-Chalabi, Vertical farming: Skyscraper sustainability?, Imperial College London, United Kingdom; University of Oxford, United Kingdom, 2015.
 Jeff Birkby, Vertical Farming, NCAT Smart Growth Specialist, Published Jan. 2016.