Vertical farming is a rapidly growing industry, and there are many challenges and opportunities. In this interview with Christine Zimmermann-Loessl, Chairwoman at the Association for Vertical Farming, she discusses the latest trends and developments within the vertical farming sector worldwide.
What are the latest trends within vertical farming?
Zimmermann-Loessl stated that there is a very clear trend in automation and fully automated systems. Especially in the USA, Japan, and Europe. “The main trend here is that we see robotics and AI machine learning that will even play a bigger role than it does now. Another trend is scaling, as people start to understand the necessity of vertical farming. I still hear from the majority of greenhouse growers, to have a fully automated greenhouse, the vertical farmers say: no we can be more efficient and it can be much more controlled. However, there are so many input factors that cannot be perfectly controlled in a greenhouse. In order to have reliable minimal resources and yield, vertical farming is a better solution.”
Zimmermann stated that once the energy problem issue is solved, they can connect the issue with solar and teach students about it in the AVF demonstration center. Using solar is possible and there are the costs to have the proof of concept.
Have you seen positive developments in vertical farming regarding COVID-19?
As there are strict hygiene standards, higher than in any other farm, there is a very clean environment. “We are beyond ahead COVID-19 measurements and this needs to be communicated even better.” According to Zimmermann, a great advantage of indoor farming the high hygiene standards. Working with a hygiene room quality and improving these standards. “We have seen a lot of growth, also at the AVF as we gained 11 members. Start-ups have the ambition to grow out of that start-up phase.”
She also notes that vertical farming has had more understanding of politics and politicians, but also on a national- and municipal level. They understand that there is a need to secure the future, being less dependent on external factors. “We had to communicate all these advantages even better. The majority doesn’t know them yet and we have to improve that”, she adds.
What is the quickest growing country in terms of vertical farming techniques?
“That’s a tough question. I think that in Germany really took off in the past two years. We have Fraunhofer Institute in Aachen with two brand new systems that haven’t been on the market before with that high level of innovation. The Orbiplant, from Fraunhofer, shows how economical VF can be today. It is built from material on the market for automation or transport systems highly automated and allows cheap production prices. Another company, Lite+Fog, where I see innovation at a level of experience with a new system design and water-saving fog for the roots instead of hydroponics.
Zimmermann continues that Japanese farming company Spread, its Techno farm, is really the state of the art. It’s a proven operation and they produce for the market. “However, Orbiplant and Lite+Fog are still in a demo size compared to the commercial farms of SPREAD and the fully on-demand farms now. We have a differentiation to make between these three.”
And in terms of newly constructed farms?
"I have visited Farminova, Turkey, and it’s very interesting to see how in such an agricultural country a company takes on the innovative food business. Cantek Turkey, the owner Hakan Karaca decided to go into vertical farming and built a system in one of his warehouses, near Antalya, to bring the topic forward. They see the need of sustainability and innovation.” Zimmermann said that Italy is also becoming an interesting country for vertical farming. Companies such as Planet Farms and Ono Exponential Farms that have fully automated new constructions. “People need to build up their trust in technology and the produce from it. In Europe they have a prejudice against artificial environment by technology, but in Asian countries such as Japan and Singapore they don’t. They’re much more open to it, also in the new farming technology because it offers safe, fresh, local products. They see the shrinking traditional farming in their countries and growing imports."
Are we at a maturity stage in vertical farming yet?
“Not at all. When we started we were in an infant stage. Now we are at age 12 to 14. From an age perspective, we are not mature enough yet. It would be really good to have official government backing. Not just money-wise, but also policy-wise. We want more agriculture sustainable methods. One of these is indoor vertical farming. Once that statement comes, it would help VF implementation a lot.”
Why do you think that governments haven’t done that yet?
“It’s all about the necessity. ‘Why do we need it? We have greenhouses. We have industrial agriculture. Now, with severe droughts, even in Europe, more politicians see the need. I am part of the dialog forum for the 'Future of Agriculture', where all major stakeholders gather in Berlin twice a year. I get to meet all the associations from traditional farming and few of them have heard of vertical farming. Not to talk about embracing, saying it could be a part of agriculture production. However, it’s still a long way to go for communication, marketing and raising awareness.
"We need more innovation- and vertical farming centers around the cities and rural areas to enable our hands-on learning and demonstration. If we do that, farmers will see it and understand it better. We start with the farmers. More young people are coming in the industry. We will rely on vertical farming systems to maintain reliable food production. It will play a major role if we want to protect the ecosystem when we have over 10 billion people on this planet.”
What would you address as the most frequent struggles within the industry?
“Investment is still a major struggle. Either banks don’t understand the business model of high-tech farms, because they have only know traditional agriculture business models. Or investors don’t have a sufficient understanding of vertical farming. They want a quick ROI and don’t know that they need patience. So, in order to find the right investor and money, it’s not that easy. If you want to scale, you have to have a proof of concept. But more money is needed to go to that next level.
"It ‘seems easier’ in the USA and Asia. Looking at the UAE, which is taking off with vertical farming, partially because the government is supporting it now too. Their food supply chain is in the hand of a couple of people and they were used to importing all food. It takes time to build a new food chain and trust in new suppliers."
In what underdeveloped countries do you see the most potential for vertical farming?
"Absolutely, we just founded our regional chapter by our team. We cannot serve the interest in India anymore, so we decided to have a local team there. It’s taking off like crazy. Now, we have two members in Africa and we get at least two requests per week. In South Africa, it can be seen that there’s a lot of equipment development. Which gives them the highest level of technology compared to the rest of Africa.
"We see a lot of the need to train farmers and really implement vertical farming in Africa. We just received new proposals from Cameroon to train 1200 farmers on vertical farming in the Northwest. So far, our partner in Cameroon has built the center already and we only need the equipment yet and training can start. It’s great to see what they do. If we really want to make a change, we should intensively invest in innovation and technology in Africa. We can grow forest there, instead of turning more land into agriculture and reduce CO2 even more. They are willing to do that and know what they need. It’s not up to us to tell them what they do. If AVF would have the financial power, we’d be there tomorrow to help them."
Where do you see the most positive reactions towards vertical farming?
"In Asia, we can find mature markets, especially in Singapore and Japan. People are willing to buy and understand the concept. China is an important market from a global perspective. A lot of projects in vertical farming are happening there, but the government policy to protect traditional agriculture has such a big importance for the government. Therefore, it’s very tricky to launch vertical farming in the right way. They have megacities and over 1.3 bln people so the demand is huge. But, they only have 12% of land and so there are many opportunities for farming. However, there’s a huge challenge for vertical farming as it’s very hard to implement it in a bigger scale."