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Vertical farming may be about to take off

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by July 19, 2017 General

As nations endeavour to produce higher-value crops and land availability becomes ever more scarce, looking forward is beginning to mean looking up for the most plugged in farmers.

A report earlier this year from Global Market Insights suggested the market size for vertical farming would exceed US$13 billion (NZ17.7b) by 2024.

The technology involves stacked layers of produce in an indoor, controlled environment – often skyscrapers, but also warehouses and even disused bomb shelters in one case. This means farms can be found in urban areas and food may be produced in some of the least traditionally agrarian economies.

For example, Singapore has been a leader in the development of vertical farming as it attempts to reduce its dependency on overseas food sources despite the challenge of being just 720 square kilometres in size.

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New Zealand does not face such challenges in terms of land mass. However, Jason Wargent, Associate Professor at Massey University and Chief Science Officer of BioLumic (a start-up that develops yield-stimulating light treatments for agricultural crops, and which has vertical farming on its radar) says New Zealand could still profit from the technology.

“One of the clearest opportunities for New Zealand is in the development of technology, which may support indoor farming system development, and have world-wide value,” says Wargent. “New Zealand has a great ag-innovation landscape and developing cross-sector ag-innovation, that may be applicable or originally aimed at indoor, is a win-win for New Zealand.”

Jaskirat Matharu last year wrote a research paper on the topic from an architectural perspective, and suggests New Zealand farmers should be exploring the technology too.

“I believe that vertical farming in New Zealand is not needed at this stage,” says Matharu.

“Having said that, we should not wait to become a dense country for vertical farming to be used.”

“It’s more about being future-proof and laying the groundwork for the future. Like with most new things, society needs to educated for it to be taken seriously and it needs to happen sooner rather than later.”

The advantages of vertical farming are manifold. Foremost, it enables precise control of environmental conditions to increase yields and maintain year-round production.

Additionally, vertical farming can reduce the distance crops have to travel to reach the end consumer and increase consistency between crops.

Wargent says this offers an opportunity for Kiwi producers to deliver niche products and cater to particular market segments.

“High-value culinary herbs would be an obvious example,” he explains. “For New Zealand, smaller grower companies who wish to farm high value crops, at lower production volumes, could benefit from indoor technology.”

“In the winter, for example, some higher value crops cannot be grown without a certain amount of risk in terms of access to optimum climate.”

The advantages of urban farms could also extend beyond the production process to the very communities they inhabit.

“There are physiological advantages of living at close proximity to plants, such as fresh air and solar control,” says Matharu.

Wargent points to education opportunities that are “wide open” for New Zealand via urban farming: “Living classrooms are already springing up overseas in major cities such as in the US, so the next generations can see how plants grow to provide food.

“Those next generations then have the incentive to become growers, scientists, and entrepreneurs themselves. This is the ‘innovation pipeline’ New Zealand must keep feeding in order to stay competitive.”

Opportunity abounds, but last year’s KPMG Agribusiness Report also sounded a stark warning, suggesting traditional farmers are no longer the world’s sole food producers.

“Urban farming businesses will be established with multiple social and commercial objectives,” said the report. “But they will all be focused on delivering sustainable local food, making them strong competitors for traditional producers.”

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