On the 10th of February an open forum on Vertical Farming was organized in Ghent, Belgium. The Association for Vertical Farming (AVF) collaborated with Urban Farming Ghent on what we thought would be a small info-night for around 50 people. Yet the internet decided otherwise, the event went viral on facebook and soon a bigger venue had to be found. Even after booking an auditorium with 400 seats at the Faculty of Bioscience of the University of Ghent, people were still sitting on the stairs. So, before it had started, the event could be marked as a success. Yet, the story that unraveled during the event was so inspiring that I just had to write a blog post about this.
As an opening speaker there was me, Zjef Van Acker, Chief engagement officer of the AVF. I opened the evening by explaining everyone why we should do vertical farming. No, I didn’t start with “By the year 2050 we’ll be with 9 billion people and 80% will live in urban areas and so on….” Yeah, they are valid reasons, however, they’re really NOT the most important ones. For me, the issues lie much deeper, they lie at the level of our mindset and our world-view. At the moment the majority of people and businesses in our society are still driven by short term financial paybacks and linear ways on how to get there: Resource => Product => Waste.
Even Global warming can be explained by this: Fossil fuels (resource) => gasoline (product) => exhaust (waste). And that, my friends, is inherently not sustainable. Neither from ecological, social or economical perspective.
So, while I was talking to 450 attentive listeners, I explained that vertical farming has the great potential to change the above, linear mindset. This is for the simple reason that vertical farming affects the 3 fundamental pillars of a society: food, water and shelter. If we can change the economy at its foundation, we can change it in its whole. And that’s why vertical farms, in all their beauty and magnificence can become important icons of change.
But, there’s a big but, vertical farming is still a technology and thus inherently not a solution. To prove this I just had to pop-out my smartphone and tell everyone that the computer (smartphone) I was holding in my hand had more computing power than all of NASA in 1969, when they put two people on the moon. A mindblowing comparison I got from the very interesting book “Abundance” by Peter Diamandus and Steven Kotler. The comparison proves that the solution for all the world’s problems lies not in the technology itself, but in how that technology is used by us, humans.
I believe that we, and our society can use our extremely advanced technology in a constructive way, and that we can get back in sync with ourselves, with our fellow humans and with this planet’s ecosystems. We’re with 7 billion people, 7 billion fantastic brains and 7 billion caring hearts. I believe that we can find ways to use technology in a responsible manner, for a true change.
As I’ve been in the Vertical Farming movement for quite some time now, I’ve heard all the arguments against VF’ing. Some of them, like energy and resource use, are really important to address, so for the Open Forum on Vertical Farming in Ghent, I invited some friends that might present a solution for that.
First there was Jasper den Besten, professor in New cultivation system at HAS University (The Netherlands). He started the evening by teaching everyone the basics of indoor Plant Production. And maybe it’s because he’s a professor and not a salesman (or just a good person), he explained indoor farming in a very open and honest way. He pictured it as a very good and efficient system with many, many benefits. Yet he also explained that electricity use is high and that it’s of paramount importance to switch from fossil fuels towards renewable resources. And this just might have been the most important reason why this evening was so inspiring and such a success. Every speaker and every expert in the panel was very honest and realistic about the fact that the systems are not yet perfect. And this got the whole vibe beyond “being pro or con”, it made us and all the 450 people that were present, open to all its possibilities.
You also might think: “Well, the source of electricity-issue is important, but that’s not a job for the vertical farmers, that’s a job for the electricity companies.” Yet, is that really so? As I said, vertical farming touches the foundations of our society, so we should definitely take our responsibility on these matters.
Nikolaas Viaene from Little Food presented a possible solution. Little Food is a Brussels based company that is growing and selling Crickets for human consumption. He explained that insects are perfect for Vertical Farms because they don’t need light. Yet, there is more. In contrast to many other insect-growers, the little food team are true changemakers. They are thinking ahead, as they are applying cradle-to-cradle and circular economy principles. After all, insects are nature’s waste recyclers, why wouldn’t they be used as waste upgraders for our economy? From waste to food, now, isn’t that already starting to sound more energy-efficient?
And for the 10th of February, this was just the start, because we saved the best for last.
Bruno Van Haudenhuyse came to the stage and in his short presentation he connected the dots between plant, insect and mushroom production. Bruno is founder of Gandazwam, consultant to many other mushrooms companies and is one of the biggest experts on turning cities’ waste-streams into new resources for food production. Like insects, mushrooms are also nature’s waste recyclers. Plus, mushrooms are also not in the business of doing photosynthesis and for that reason, they have been grown vertically for ages.
Bruno didn’t stop there. Plants, insects and mushrooms interact for mutual benefit in nature, each generating value from another’s waste-stream. Therefore if each is grown in high tech controlled environment systems, where the input and outputs are perfectly managed. Each of these small controlled ecosystems can be connected, forming a bigger ecosystem. To quickly give you one of the many possible synergies: Mushrooms use oxygen and produce C02, plants need a lot of CO2 and produce oxygen. Can you already see the possible exchanges of inputs and outputs there?
Yes, it’s true: Plants, insects and mushrooms can together produce much more than each separately. And this my friends, is what happens when you bring plant, insect and mushroom-growers together. It’s a first step on the way to close the loops in our city and how we can change our current unsustainable economic mindset, by starting with the basics: Food, water and shelter.
Luckily for you all, this event was just the beginning of this game-changing way of thinking in vertical farming. The subject of this year’s AVF-summit is Vertical Farming and the Circular Economy. Building further upon the mindset that “in order for vertical farming to be a real change, we need to actually change”. The AVF and I hope to welcome you on the 13th of June, at RAI in Amsterdam.
You wanna find out more about the above subject? Check out:
HAS University (Follow an online course with Prof. Jasper den Besten on growing without daylight)
The Plant (an npo experimenting with circular economy and food production in Chicago)
Pctures of the short Info-market that happened after the presentations.