Safeguarding the long-term supply of food and resources to urban areas is a growing challenge – particularly in densely populated cities with limited access to surrounding agricultural land. Furthermore, intensive farming practices and heavy use of chemicals are putting increasing pressure on natural resources and land. In this context, several initiatives are working on pilot projects to develop innovative cultivation methods and technologies and bring the production of food and resources back to the place where they are consumed. Conducted by the Fraunhofer Institute for Industrial Engineering IAO as part of the Morgenstadt initiative, the new study examines existing initiatives and demonstration projects concerning technologies for cultivating food and microalgae in cities and highlights their potential for both municipalities and companies.
We talked with two of the authors - Marielisa Padilla and Sophie Mok - recently in an interview for morgenstadt.de about the released study and the potentials of urban farming for the city of tomorrow.
Urban farming can be defined as the cultivation, processing and distribution of food and other products for commercial purposes through crop production in urban areas, mainly for the nutrition of the local population. It includes many different forms from home grower movements, via community gardens to high-tech farms. For the purpose of this study, we especially focused on commercial indoor farming practices, which are often also referred to as vertical farming approaches. We also looked at microalgae production as potential future source of food and resources.
The core principle behind this farming approach is to achieve a high productivity and yield per area by ensuring optimal plant growth conditions throughout the entire lifecycle. Furthermore, it seeks to achieve environmental and health protection through resource optimization such as more efficient use of water, energy, space, capital and labor, and mineral fertilizers, as well as the elimination of pesticide use. These methods are particularly interesting for scientific purposes, as the use and development of appropriate technologies can help to achieve promising results, such as a significant reduction in the use of harmful pesticides, improved freshwater management, and a high areal biomass productivity throughout the entire year.
In recent years, the popularity of urban farming has increased due to rising concerns and awareness on climate change and food security in urban areas. A significant shift is needed as the increasing global demand for food and livestock products, as well as bio-based resources lead to further intensification of agricultural cultivation, conflicting demands on land and water resources, natural resource degradation and the loss of natural habitats and biodiversity.
Already now the effects of climate change have led to crop failures, and optimal conditions for organic farming have been affected by rising temperatures and changing precipitation patterns. In many parts of the world, the rise of urban food deserts has led to investments in new cultivation methods to meet the demand for urban food. If such solutions are well-integrated in the urban fabric, they hold a great potential for new distribution and collaboration forms and improved food logistics in the city. Furthermore, it is seen as a way to strengthen and diversify the local economy and self-sufficiency of a city and to reconnect its citizens with food production and processing processes.
In terms of cultivation techniques, there are several practices which form the basis of indoor cultivation: Most dominantly, hydroponics is being used which is the process of growing plants in a nutrient solution where no soil is needed. Many initiatives also work with aquaponics, which combines the hydroponics technique with aquaculture and uses the nutrient rich water from fish cultivation as fertilizer for the plants. In the US, aeroponics concepts have been developed where plant roots are only sprayed with a mist of water and nutrients to further reduce the amount of water needed.
In addition to that, complementary technology used has a direct impact on the output of the farms and the types of technologies applied are vast. Most commonly used technologies include controlled irrigation, heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC), water recycling, automatic nutrients control, temperature and humidity sensors, as well as flexible light brightness and color controlling. Furthermore, artificial lighting was identified as one of the core elements in modern indoor farming. The study showed farms using LED lighting; most of them applying a LED mixer, followed by the white, red and blue lights.
Apart from these technologies, several urban farms are experimenting with more advanced and biotechnological methods for farming such as phenotyping, 2D / 3D plant scanning, as well as nutrient modelling algorithms, to monitor, predict and control the growth of plants, microbes or the conversion of organic compounds. ICT Platforms as the IVAS software are used for production planning and control.
The increasing demand for locally produced, healthy and chemical free food is one of the determinant growth factors in the urban agricultural market. Fast-growing population, the rising health consciousness of consumers, and the increasing per capita income are driving the growth of the worldwide vertical agricultural market. Top products therefore also include health supplements and food additives. The indoor farming industry is increasingly using IoT technologies as complex sensors that allow for a complete screening of the plants, which has an impact in the efficiency, but most important in the productivity of the farms.
Urban farming will in the future definitely pay an important role in environments with heavily polluted soil, water, air. Cities are getting more and more in contact with these concepts. Infarm is for example installing its modular shelves at supermarkets, in Strijp-S Eindhoven a formerly abandoned industrial buildings is used for on-demand food production for local restaurants close-by, and in Aachen, the Fraunhofer Institute for Molecular Biology and Applied Ecology has established a cooperation with the local university to deliver food produced in their research farm to their cantina.
The development of sustainable and innovative urban food and resource production approaches such as vertical farming or microalgae technology are suitable and promising options for future development. Almost all initiatives we have spoken with, agree that there is a huge potential in terms of creating a more sustainable food system for the future.
Urban farming is especially expected to grow in cities of heavily urbanized countries with limited surrounding agricultural areas, such as Japan, Singapore, and in countries suffering from high levels of air pollution and soil depletion. By 2050, more than 66 percent of the world’s population, approximately 6 billion people, will live in cities – making it ever more difficult to provide food to all. To address this challenge and further promote indoor farming, greater investment in urban farming and food production, the development and testing of alternative financing strategies, interdisciplinary trainings, and targeted research and development especially in the areas of improving productivity and the energy efficiency of the system are required.
When well established, indoor farming concepts have the potential to directly contribute to the adaptation and mitigation of climate change. Also, there is a good market potential for the integration of innovative farming concepts in new and renovated buildings, for the use of roof tops, the production of high value products like pharmaceuticals, food additives, super foods, protein etc. Furthermore it presents very interesting opportunities for the development of sector-related technologies such as energy efficient LEDs for the specific products, supervision cameras, irrigation technologies etc.
To unlock the full potential and avoid negative side effects, the future of urban farming will depend on strong research partnerships, innovative companies, political and municipal support, and the willingness to collaborate with different actors ranging from technology providers, conventional agriculture, retail, gastronomy, logistics, to real estate, etc. As a lot of interesting development is already happening at the moment, it is a good time to get involved and help shaping and developing the future of urban food and resource supply.