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Is it Possible for Indoor Farms to Reach Skyscraper Heights?

As hopes grow that vertical farms will help solve food inequality, a proposed Shenzhen skyscraper would include a 51-story hydroponic farm.

As soil-free indoor farms become a popular solution for combating food insecurity, one academic has a vision for taking vertical farming to unprecedented heights in China’s megacities: the farmscraper.

Carlo Ratti, the architect who runs MIT’s Senseable City Lab, is proposing a 51-story skyscraper for Shenzhen, China’s technological capital, with a large-scale vertical hydroponic farm inside that can feed up to 40,000 people per year with crops including salad greens, berries, and tomatoes.

The proposed tower is being considered for the new headquarters of Chinese hypermarket chain Wumart, which would include office space, a supermarket, and a food court.

It’s one of several ideas for expanding vertical farms, since advances in hydroponic and aeroponic technology allow these indoor facilities to produce larger yields with less land and water. Vertical farms, which are typically found in metropolitan areas, are designed to produce crops more efficiently by stacking them in trays or vertical planters in indoor climate-controlled conditions and using algorithms and other technologies to maximize light and growing conditions.

Shockingly Fresh plans to grow roughly 2 million heads of leafy greens per year on its first vertical farm in the United Kingdom. And on its 70,000-square-foot facility in Newark, New Jersey, AeroFarms, which was hailed as the world’s largest vertical farm when it launched in 2016, grows roughly 2 million pounds of food each year. Ratti’s farmscraper, by comparison, is expected to generate roughly 600,000 pounds of food every year, largely around the 715-foot-tall building’s facade (218 meters).

Other densely populated areas, such as Singapore and Abu Dhabi, are heavily investing in vertical farming as part of their efforts to produce a higher share of their food locally. Vertical farms are being built in public housing areas in Jersey City, New Jersey, with the goal of addressing food insecurity by combining technology, education, and food access. AppHarvest in Kentucky, for example, produces 45 million pounds of tomatoes per year in a facility that it claims yields 30 times more per acre than open fields while using 90% less water.

Ratti claims that his concept would take vertical farming “to the next level” in Shenzhen. The proposed Jian Mu Tower would not only be taller, but it would also be the world’s first farmscraper, according to him. By incorporating farming around the entire shell of a skyscraper where people are also working, shopping, and dining, it would also be a paradigm for “how to integrate the natural world into building design.” The plants would be placed in a double-skin facade, with windows on both sides allowing natural light to reach both the plants and the interior of the structure. Ratti claims that because of the farm’s architecture and the abundant sunlight in Shenzhen, it will be less reliant on artificial light and heating, both of which consume a lot of energy.

The farm, however, is designed to assist the built environment as well: heat reflected off tall buildings can make a city hotter. Enclosing a skyscraper with a farm, according to Ratti, is a good way to not only mitigate this effect and keep the building cooler without air conditioning, but also to produce food to feed the people who live there.

Our point was, why don’t we try to harvest this energy from the sun on the facade of the skyscraper and turn it into a giant farm, he said. This would not have been possible a few years ago, but it’s possible today, thanks to advances in hydroponics and also robotics.

According to the World Wildlife Fund, global food production is responsible for a third of greenhouse gas emissions, 80% of deforestation, 70% of terrestrial biodiversity loss, and 70% of all freshwater consumption. And, in order to fulfill rising population demands, present food production will have to drastically rise.

Vertical farms are one idea for increasing food yields while using less land. They’re advertised as being eco-friendly, and they do consume less water and pesticides. Most vertical farms, on the other hand, use fully enclosed systems with heating and artificial LED lighting, which can consume a lot of electricity. Ratti’s use of sunlight addresses a common critique of vertical farms, and other farms, such as Shockingly Fresh, rely exclusively on natural light. Sunlight, on the other hand, is not as consistent throughout the year, and dark winter evenings, unlike in artificially lit farms, will result in fewer crops being cultivated.

Ratti sees China as the best location for his vertical farm concept. With 1.4 billion people to feed, the country requires a significant increase in farm productivity, which has been hampered by degraded soil, contaminated water, and excessive fertilizer and pesticide use. After extreme weather in October flooded crops in Shandong province, the country’s largest vegetable producer, the government warned in September that rising energy prices could jeopardize food security, and in November, it urged people to stockpile food for the winter. According to Jefferies Group LLC, the country boasts 21% of the world’s population but only 9% of its arable land.

The big problem in China is a lack of arable land due to really rapid urbanization, said Alesandros Glaros, a food security researcher at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada. Vertical farming is a really innovative approach in this context because one of its big benefits is that it’s really efficient in terms of land use.

Glaros, on the other hand, believes the jury is still out on how to address food security and environmental problems.

The research is too early, I think, to make a reliable claim to saying that vertical farming is a food security solution, he said. There’s just not enough data. So although there are lots of commercial operations in existence around the world, we lack a lot of good environmental data on what the exact, for example, the environmental footprint is, what the potential yield is.

Another present constraint is that vertical farms only grow a few types of crops, generally low-calorie foods such as greens, herbs, and some fruits. So sustaining a population isn’t enough. “You’re not gonna be growing things like corn or soy or wheat in these types of units,” Glaros explained. Until now, many of these farms have sold their products at higher organic pricing, making it unavailable to those with lower incomes.

Ratti views his farmscraper as a self-contained food supply chain, with crops being grown, sold, and consumed all within the same building. His plan is comparable to the French architecture company Vincent Callebaut Architects’ 2013 Asian Cairns concept, which called for six modular, pebble-shaped buildings in Shenzhen known as farmscrapers, each one a self-sufficient community with its own food source and housing.

A farmscraper in the heart of one of China’s most populated cities, according to Daniel Safarik, assistant director of research at the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat, is doable, but the problem may be maintaining such a building.

We’ve been putting green walls on skyscrapers for decades now, and some of the projects do indeed have edible produce, he said. The biggest challenge is not engineering them in the first place — it’s maintenance. After the ribbon-cutting, will the owners and operators of these vertical gardens continue to maintain them at the level that an array of fussy plants will require?

The deployment of an AI-supported “virtual agronomist” entrusted with monitoring the farm’s day-to-day operations, including watering and nutritional conditions, would be a vital component of the Shenzhen facility’s maintenance. The difference, according to Ratti, is in the scope of his latest proposition. “What it really allows you to do is locally source, to produce food for tens of thousands of people just with a skyscraper,” he said.

Ratti plans to build the farmscraper regardless of whether his design is chosen by Wumart, and expects that it will take no more than three years. According to him, his design is one of just two finalists for Wumart’s headquarters, although the company declined to comment.

We’re determined to build it, with Wumart or without Wumart, Ratti said. It’s just about the willingness to do something the world has never seen.

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