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Vertical organic farms: will Plenty be enough?

US-backed startup Plenty is rolling out large-scale, hydroponic vertical gardens to provide veggies and next fruit to city-dwellers in California.  Plenty will be opening hundreds of similar vertical farms in China too.

It’s great to see importance placed on providing food locally—the website claims so that the food is fresh, but of course a major benefit is the reduction in carbon emissions from transporting food not only across the country, but across the world.

Freshness and taste is the more tantalising pitch to the consumer, and the food is organic (chemical-free) and non-GMO (genetically modified). Plants are grown under LED lights and fed a cocktail of nutrients, which will ultimately be adjusted by artificial intelligence. Costs will be brought down to compete with mainstream products by automation.

I hope it succeeds for climate reasons, but can food ever contain the nutrients and characteristics we are evolved to need if they are not grown in biologically alive soil with its thousands of organisms? Or will this be another high-tech form of the hidden hunger that came from foods produced from an NPK formula?

And why do we try to keep costs down with technology when there are millions of people who need meaningful, healthy employment.  The Chinese have a long tradition of thousands years  of masterful crop cultivation.  Would it not be enough to combine a love and respect for natural systems with the efficiency of Ben Hartman’s The Lean Farm? This is not to reject the benefits technology can offer in sensing and monitoring, and efficient distribution (hopefully with no plastic). Could we not have thousands of microfarms run by master farmers employing people in collaborative, learning teams?

Visionaries like Charles Gruyer of Le Ferme du Bec Hellouin have achieved higher yields per hectare than large-scale organic farms by using no machinery, inspired the practices of the kitchen gardens that once fed the whole of Paris. The permaculture approach he uses does incorporate use the ‘vertical’ in in their greenhouse layout and of course in planting ground cover companions with shrubs and trees, but he is sceptical about what the vertical food factories can deliver.

Like Amazon itself, perhaps we can expect this massive startup to solve these problems as it moves along.  We’ll look forward to seeing and perhaps investing when it comes to market.

Are you an expert in hydroponics? Do you have a local vertical city farm business near you? Tell us all about it.


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