Optimal use of space, guaranteed production, less use of water and plant protection products, reduced transport costs: the list of advantages of vertical farming is impressive. Will we soon see skyscrapers full of tomato and lettuce plants in every city, everywhere in the world? Will this be the answer to the global food problem? In this article, Martien Penning of Hillenraad Partners discusses the vertical farming sector with Leo Marcelis, Professor of Horticulture and Product Physiology at the WUR.
Leo, where do we currently stand with vertical farming?
"We are still at the very beginning of this development. The concept is already quite popular in Japan, and yet the question is whether it will be profitable."
Will it then remain just 'a lucky shot', or is there enough progression in it, and can you conclude that there are serious opportunities? After all, the share of products coming from vertical farming is still very low.
"That is absolutely true, but developments are moving very quickly. If we look at the cultivation companies, the number is increasing, particularly outside the Netherlands. In our country, we are actually seeing only start-up cultivation companies. However, the Netherlands is a major player in the development and supply of cultivation systems for vertical farming. It is good to realize that suppliers in other countries are not sitting still. If we want to play a significant technological role in vertical farming in the Netherlands, we must not ignore this development."
In the Netherlands, greenhouse farming is extremely well developed and optimized. Moreover, our climate is ideal for greenhouse cultivation, and vertical farming has to compete with it. So is it realistic to expect this form of cultivation to be used on a large scale in the Netherlands?
"The advantages of vertical farming are indeed greater in other countries. That's why you see much more happening in this field in Asia and the US. In Japan and China, the image of a cultivation environment with maximum control - almost a laboratory environment - is very appealing to consumers. Products from a vertical farm have a food-safe image. European consumers, on the other hand, sometimes have a negative image of what they see as 'artificial' products. However, I have noticed that young people often have a different experience and a more positive view of vertical farming."
In terms of cost price, vertical farming is less interesting for producing crops in the Netherlands. But I am surprised that it is not used more widely by plant breeders. Their crops are intensive and short-cycle, and the logistics involved are enormous. Why don't they opt for vertical farming?
"I have exactly the same question. It may have something to do with the fact that the investment in such a system is considerable and that you, therefore, want to use it 365 days a year. Spreading the system out over the year is a challenge for plant growers. On the other hand, a few percent more production in this crop makes a huge difference. So I certainly think vertical farming can be attractive."
"So the bottleneck is probably still the cost price: the investment and the operational costs. The investment can be a factor of 10 cheaper than an ordinary greenhouse."
"That is correct. And the extra energy consumption does not only mean higher costs. It also has a sustainability aspect. Do we as a society consider it responsible to use so much more energy?"
"Although I expect the cost price of vertical farming to fall in the years ahead, it will always be relatively expensive. The point is that a grower must be able to create added value, for example, by supplying a better quality product, by offering certainty of delivery, or by using the cultivation method as a marketing tool. Vertical farming also allows you to control the cultivation as much as possible, which means that you can also control the ingredients, such as vitamin C and antioxidants".
I also believe that there are opportunities in the cultivation of cosmetic or medicinal substances, such as medical cannabis. These are relatively expensive products, with high demands on consistent quality.
"I can see opportunities there, but it's certainly not happening on a large scale at the moment."
In summary, we can conclude that vertical farming will become established in Dutch production horticulture but that it will not yet become commonplace. Looking at the world as a whole, where does it have a better chance of existing in the short term?
"In an area with a poor climate for greenhouse horticulture or with expensive land, vertical farming offers serious opportunities. In urban areas, in other words, close to the consumer, it is very interesting because you don't have to fly in as many products. Countries such as Singapore and the United Arab Emirates, which are currently highly dependent on foreign imports for their food, are also showing considerable interest. An important factor is always the power supply: cheap power is needed to make it profitable. It is impossible to predict exactly where all the quarters will fall in the right direction. But I have no doubt that vertical farming is here to stay. It's just a question of how quickly we can halve the costs by introducing new techniques and technologies."