The vertical farming industry, which practices growing food inside buildings or greenhouses, is likely to triple in size by 2017, according to the Association for Vertical Farming.
While more developed than in Europe, the US still lags Japan and other Asian countries by the number of known vertical farms in existence today. But this is rapidly changing as a growing number of entrepreneurs and businesses turn their attention towards the space.
While the strategy behind each vertical farm differs — Green Collar Foods, which recently launched a campaign on AgFunder, is focused on constructing grow facilities at low cost to help empower inner city farmers — one of the main missions of the industry is to reduce the negative environmental effects of traditional agriculture.
These effects largely relate to wasted water, overuse of chemicals, and the carbon footprint of transporting food across countries and continents. The ability to produce local, clean food is a major draw for many indoor growers in the US.
But vertical farming is not automatically better for the environment and there is very little research and analysis around the environmental costs of vertical farms. Farms that rely heavily on lighting could use large amounts of electricity, for example. And the sustainability of the industry from an economic standpoint has also been little explored as the true costs of establishing and running vertical farms are slowly emerging.
Realizing this gap in information, standardization and regulation, the Association for Vertical Farming has initiated a project to create a sustainability certification scheme. The association is set to announce the work it’s done so far for this scheme, along with the publication of an in-depth whitepaper about the industry and its challenges, at a conference in Amsterdam next month.
“We believe strongly that vertical farming can be a driver for sustainability in cities, but it’s a young emerging industry with a very green face, focused on growing local, pesticide-free food, using less water, and creating potentially green jobs,” said Henry Gordon-Smith, vice chair of AVF. “There are lots of great benefits, but in the background there are some things happening with hydroponic greenhouses that have questionable impacts on sustainability and, as an organization, it’s important for us to stay ahead of the curve, and drive sustainability; not to be the subject to greenwashing.”
The Association for Vertical Farming is still a very lean organization, meaning creating a sustainability certification scheme in-house was a tall order. So Gordon-Smith and his colleague Max Loessl pitched the idea of researching the scheme to Columbia University’s sustainability management program.
Some 14 students took it on as a whole semester project. They researched a range of similar certification schemes that currently exist to find any potential parallels. And they interviewed several AVF members to learn about their operations and consider which metrics are essential to sustainability.
Some of the categories they have decided to measure and collect information on are: farm characteristics, operating hours, type of growing medium, use of nutrients, health and safety, and average food miles post-production, according to Maya Ezzeddine, one of the students.
The full findings of their research and interviews were presented to the Assocation for Vertical Farming and are detailed in this report.
It will be some time before any scheme is officially launched, but AVF is now ready to go out to a selection of vertical farming businesses to start collecting data from them, according to Mark Horler, AVF’s UK representative and lead on the certification project.
“We need to get a baseline of information before we can decide what is sustainable and what isn’t, and we need at least one year of baseline information before we can go any further,” he said.
It’s unclear at this stage how operations would be certified, whether it’s a single certification, or if there are varying degrees such as bronze, silver or gold, he added.
You can find out more about the certification scheme and related white paper at the AVF Summit in Amsterdam on June 13, 2016, in Amsterdam.
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