Vertical farming – will our vegetables soon come out of the skyscraper? – Knowledge


Vertical farming promises more efficient production of food. Eco trend or a model for the future?

Vertical farming is being practiced on an ever larger scale around the world. Radishes, rocket, sunflowers and corn are grown here in multi-storey greenhouses – highly efficiently and sustainably.

Huge plants are already in place in the USA, China, Russia and the Middle East. Google invested and billionaire Amazon founder Jeff Bezos is also in the business.

The controlled cultivation of vegetables promises to solve some of the problems in agriculture: Nutrients are administered in a targeted manner, the harvests are consistent, harvesting takes place around the clock and the quality can be largely controlled.

But there is one big disadvantage: the electricity costs are immense.

Automation becomes the maxim

Larger operators are trying to lower the high electricity costs by increasing yield and efficiency. The larger a plant, the more automated it is: robotic systems sow, water, clear, harvest, pack and label largely automatically. But that’s not enough.

The question is not whether vertical farming works – that is known and proven.

In addition to their indoor farms, the large companies often operate their own research departments in order to optimize all processes related to cultivation and recipes in plant breeding.

“The question is not whether vertical farming works – that’s well known and proven,” says Mark Zahran, co-founder of the Swiss food start-up YASAI. “The current question is: How can you scale vertical farming?”

The magic word: scalability

In order for industrial vertical farming to be profitable on a large scale, the cultivation method must also work for very large production facilities.

For this purpose, YASAI is building a first highly automated pilot plant in Niederhasli, Zurich. It consists of modules that can be put together to form any size production system. Each of these modules can mimic climate zones for different plants and work independently.

The small company wants to sell its technical system all over the world. For example in areas where water is particularly scarce, because water is recycled in the modules. Or in areas where there is not enough agricultural land available.

More Swiss vegetables – fewer imports

There is so much potential in this approach that investors have already been found for the project in Switzerland. The project is also set up as an “Innosuisse” research project: together with the ZHAW, Agroscope and the agricultural cooperative Fenaco, attempts are being made to optimize all cultivation and work processes on the module.

Opportunity for Swiss agriculture

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It could also be interesting for Swiss farmers to operate part of their production as vertical farming in the future.

Many of the problems of conventional agriculture could be solved: the use of pesticides, mineral fertilizers and heavy machinery that have polluted the soil for decades. For now, however, indoor cultivation is limited to smaller greens, small fruits and vegetables that can grow in a nutrient solution. This makes it difficult to produce large amounts of calories today.

Daniel Schwab from Fenaco accompanies the project. He sees a real opportunity for Swiss agriculture in vertical farming: “There is potential here to increase the proportion of Swiss vegetables and thus replace imports. And that’s one of the goals we’re pursuing.”

Switzerland in the leading role?

Vertical farming is still only making a small contribution to agriculture and it will certainly not assuage world hunger, Stephan Sigrist from the Swiss think tank WIRE is also convinced of this.

Swiss Food and Nutrition Valley

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Since 2020, a kind of new Silicon Valley has been forming for the food industry in Switzerland: the “Swiss Food and Nutrition Valley” – a nationwide initiative from research and industry that wants to promote innovations in the food sector in order to produce food in a particularly sustainable and efficient manner for the future.

He hopes that Switzerland can take a leading role in this area. “Switzerland is said to have a high level of competence in agriculture and we have excellent expertise in technology development,” says Sigrist. “If we manage to combine these two qualities, it would be just as groundbreaking as in the 1970s with the Internet, where an idea from Switzerland also changed the whole world.”

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