On 14 October 2016, InnovationQuarter organised a meeting at Koppert Biological Systems with the theme ‘Vertical Farming, in or out?’. More than 90 representatives from the sector listened to speakers such as Martien Penning (Hillenraad), Arnold van Liempt (Philips) and Jasper den Besten (HAS) talk about the opportunities, threats, benefits, costs, opportunities and challenges of vertical farming. Rien Panneman from Staay Food Group announced that a large construction for a vertical farm project in Dronten was all underway.
Martien Penning from Hillenraad gave a presentation on whether vertical farming (VF) can become horticulture’s ‘KODAK Moment’. His answer was yes. He substantiated this with an analysis of the most recent developments in the US and Asia, where dozens of VF initiatives have been rolled out. The big question was: When will VF perform as well as or better than conventional farming in greenhouses? Cost, quality, food safety and delivery speed are all key criteria here. His conclusion was not whether VF is feasible, but where and when.
Arnold Liempt from Philips Horticulture LED Solutions gave an overview of the many international vertical farming projects currently underway or being implemented. His presentation also made it clear that many there are many different models of vertical farming; from vegetable gardens under glass to cleanroom factories. An example was shown of an in-store farm with LED lighting at Metro Group in Berlin. VF in the Netherlands is still limited to research centres (Brightbox, Grow Wise Centre and PlantLab), and the propagation of seedlings, such as at lettuce grower Deliscious.
Jasper den Besten of HAS University of Applied Sciences talked about which technological developments vertical farming might accelerate. He proposed that conventional greenhouses would remain important for growing vertical crops such as tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and aubergines, while greenhouses with intermediate LED light could be seen as ‘The New Cultivation’. Just like Martien Penning, Den Besten noted that many technologies such as LEDs, sensors and robots are rapidly decreasing in price, and that this will accelerate the financial viability of VF projects, even though the cost of lettuce and herbs from VF is still considerably higher (2 to 8 Euros per kg) than those from a conventional greenhouse. On the other hand, VF projects can be better controlled in terms of colour, flavour and substances in plants. For example, the brix category of strawberries can be improved.
Ruud Kaarsemaker from Groen Agro Control discussed how nutrients could be used to control substances in plants. He said that the maximum possible returns are defined by the objectives, which might be dry matter content, substances in the produce, potassium or nitrate content, absence of residues or shelf life. The variety selection, cropping system (e.g. NFT) and recording analyses of nutrients can be used to achieve the desired objectives.
‘Alternative Thinker’ Peter Jens sees VF as an opportunity to grow medicines, and therefore prefers the term ‘vertical pharming’. According to Peter Jens, we have to look at consumers differently in order to decide if VF is a beneficial cultivation system.
After the presentations, it was the turn of those working in the field, represented by Priva, Vitro Plus, Rijk Zwaan, Certhon, Plantlab and Staay Food Group. The expectation of a number of experts was that vertical farming will soon be offering plenty of opportunities for some crops and segments (the luxury segment and specialty shops and restaurants). Many flower crops and vertical crops such as tomatoes are unsuitable at the moment, but breeding and other growing techniques may eventually offer opportunities. VF definitely offers perspectives for special segments and niches in the market, but it is not yet able to compete with conventional cultivation.
Staay Food Group
To everyone’s surprise, Rien Panneman from Staay Food Group announced that a large construction for a vertical farm project in Dronten for the cultivation of lettuces to supply large supermarket chains was underway. The project involves cooperation with various partners (Philips, Rijk Zwaan) and knowledge institutions (HAS, Wageningen UR). This farm will be up and running no later than June 2017, which means that VF will soon be a reality in the Netherlands. Growing in climate cells is seen as clean and food safe, something which consumers are willing to pay more for.
Anne-Claire van Altvorst from InnovationQuarter looks back on a successful day, “Many insights were presented from various quarters, as well as opportunities in many market segments. The openness we were able to create with each other was an essential element for ensuring the positive atmosphere. It was a fantastic day, and looks like it will be repeated. What is true, especially after the eye-opener from the Staay Food Group, is that vertical farming is ‘in’.”
Text/photos: Mario Bentvelsen.