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Vertical Farming: The Innovative Solution to Food Shortages

How do you define entrepreneurship?

I think we can agree that a skilled entrepreneur does the following: Spots a gap or a problem in a given market, and then invents a product/solution that solves the problem, is in high demand, or is essential to survive.

Meet Jack Ng – an entrepreneur who’s doing just that to boost production of a basic, yet critical, human necessity…

Food.

So Much Growth… Yet So Little Food

Think of food shortages, and you probably think of poverty-stricken African and Asian countries.

You probably don’t think of Singapore – a nation that boasts the world’s highest percentage of millionaires and where poverty is rare.

It’s one of the world’s biggest financial centers, oil refiners, gambling markets, semiconductor producers, shipping ports and tax havens. It’s the easiest place to do business, according to the World Bank. And it also has thriving education and tourism industries.

Yet among all this wealth and prosperity is the fact that 90% of Singapore’s food is imported. Only one commercial farm remains and it’s a mere 250 acres. That’s about one-third of a square mile.

But Jack Ng has an innovative solution to Singapore’s agricultural scarcity – and in one of the first ventures of its kind, he’s pulling off what architects and scientists have only theorized about…

He’s planting up…

Meals on Wheels

Ng’s company, Sky Greens, is pioneering a new way of farming: vertically.

Trained as an engineer, Ng has designed unique, four-storey glass structures that operate like giant food ferris wheels. Plants are racked in aluminum trays and are automatically rotated using water-powered wheels. Powering each construction uses no more energy than one 60-watt incandescent light bulb and costs about $3 a month.

Moreover, because Ng’s innovation requires less water, less labor, and fewer pesticides, total operating expenses are about one-quarter of what a traditional farm in Singapore would be.

And because of these advantages, Ng can price his produce competitively, compared to food imports from China and Malaysia.

Does it work, though? You bet.

Sales recently jumped by 40% over a two-month period.

The next step for Ng is to boost capacity. And he hopes the proven viability and momentum of his food innovation will help secure enough public and private funding to quadruple Sky Green’s volume over the next 18 months. And in the spirit of Singapore’s export culture, he hopes to transfer his farm design to other food-crunched countries.

But Singapore isn’t alone in food innovation…

Step into the “Plantagon”

Sweden is taking on its own ambitious vertical farming project.

Based in Linköping, a company called Plantagon hopes to build a 12-storey, triangular food facility. Once built, the farm will be the tallest of its kind in the world, and will use innovative ways to generate extra revenue. In addition to selling its food, Plantagon will also lease office space on most floors of the building.

Needless to say, this building will be quite a feat of engineering. It will feature a mechanical track, enclosed in its own layer of glass, which will carry growing plants from the top of the building to the bottom. This unique design exposes the plants to an even amount of sunlight and allows Plantagon to perform its planting and harvesting on the ground floor. The company plans to produce 300 to 500 metric tons of leafy greens per year.

But what about the United States? What are we doing to boost food production?

Pink is the New Green

You’ve heard of greenhouses… but what about “pinkhouses?”

This is a “new age” farming method, based on the fact that plants mostly need the red and blue colors of the spectrum to thrive. The more they get, the faster they grow. So vertical farmers are installing tracts of computer-controlled LEDs to maximize plant growth.

In addition, LED is cool to the touch, so you can nestle it right up against the plants without harming them or wasting energy through heat. (For more on the positive prospects of LED technology, see my article here.)

As Barry Holtz of Caliber Biotherapeutics says, “A photon is a terrible thing to waste. So we developed these lights to correctly match the photosynthesis needs of our plants. We get almost 20% faster growth and save a lot of energy.”

For its efforts, Caliber is rewarded with a 10-fold increase in the number of farming cycles compared to traditional land farming.

Ultimately control is the name of the game when it comes to vertical farming. No pests, droughts, temperature swings, frosts, or other invaders to worry about when your farm is in a windowless suburban warehouse.

It remains to be seen if vertical farming will fully take off in the United States as it has in other countries. While we’re not stifled by land restrictions like some other nations, drought, frost and natural disasters are persistent threats to annual crop yields. Plus, the population is rising, which puts pressure on existing food production methods.

And as the success of natural and organic, environmentally conscious retailers like Whole Foods (WFM) proves, consumers might be willing to pay a little more for carbon-neutral, vertically grown produce free of pesticides.

Ahead of the tape,

Elizabeth Carney