Before ‘plantscrapers’ can grow food in the city, they’ll need to grow money

plantscrapers
When Hans Hassle imagines the future, he sees urban farms and office spaces growing side-by-side. He sees half-green high rises providing Stockholm with lettuce, spinach, and swiss chard. Herbs grow underground. During winter, heat from grow lamps is recovered to help heat the buildings. Employees might not smell the crops growing across the hall, but they breathe their filtered air and they’ll probably eat them for lunch.

“If we will farm the same way we do today, we will have to grow food in cities.”

Hassle envisions a similar scene in every big city. There might be more bok choy grown in Singapore or napa cabbage in Seoul. Crops may differ depending on a city’s tastes preferences and population density. But no city is exempt for being too tropical or too temperate. Hassle hopes his company, Plantagon, can provide solutions for any climate.

With the right infrastructure, major cities around the world may someday grow a fraction of their produce in towering “plantscrapers,” hybrid buildings that combine vertical farms with residential or business spaces. In fact, Hassle thinks they’ll have to.

Growing crops for a growing world

Agriculture accounts for over 37 percent of all land area use on Earth, according to the World Bank, and that figure is set to increase as the global population continues to rise, particularly within cities, where 80 percent of the population is projected to live by 2050.

platangon wants to feed cities with towering plantscrapers 1

“If we will farm the same way we do today, then the lack of land issue will be one reason to try to grow food inside cities,” Hassle tells Digital Trends. “That would put food as close to consumers as possible.”

Urban agriculture is practically as old as civilization itself, but locally-grown food movements have increased interest, as communities search for more sustainable ways to feed themselves.

Bringing crops closer to consumers means eliminating much of the financial and environmental strain caused by transportation, sometimes including thousands of miles between farm and table. But, since few cities have the real estate available to convert buildings into conventional farms, a handful of innovators are looking for solutions upwards and underground.

One such innovation is multilayered greenhouses called vertical farms, which can be erected in urban areas like skyscrapers.

“There’s little land [in cities] because most is already used,” Hassle says. “And you don’t want to use, for example, recreational areas. So if you start to discuss how to grow food with little land inside a dense city, then you end up talking rooftops, basements, and vertically.”

Unfortunately, real estate comes at premium in cities, even when a building’s footprint is relatively small. And that makes finding a profitable solution difficult.

platangon wants to feed cities with towering plantscrapers thomas zo  llner
Thomas Zöllner

“Making a commercial viability out of growing food in an urban setting is primarily challenged by the expense of the land that your building on,” Thomas Zöllner, Vice Chair of the non-profit Association of Vertical Farming, says. “When you’re doing that calculation and you talk to real estate developers, they’ll quickly tell you that you have to generate quite a good return on investment with whatever you do in order to pay for this square footage.”

Plantagon plans to address that problem with by leveraging the proven side of real estate to support the economically risky urban agriculture side. Rather than developing buildings that are strictly dedicated to vertical farms, Plantagon is pushing for hybrid structures that could integrate with our living spaces, satisfying a number of needs and functioning as a symbiotic system. In other words, the main tenants might be office spaces or residences, while a portion of the building would be reserved for crops. The company uses the term “agritechture” to describe the process of weaving urban agricultural interests into contemporary architecture in an effort to meet local food demands.

The Plantagon approach

There are a lot of startups focusing on urban vertical farming in cities around the world. Besides its agritechture idea, Plantagon brings to the table a series of techniques to make the process more efficient. For example, the company has introduced a vertical production line that rotates crops from floor to ceiling as they grow. Working something like a merry-go-round, the system brings crops back to floor-level once they’ve grown for ease of harvesting. Its other innovations relate to energy and climate control.

“If you can’t reuse the energy that the LED lamps use, it’s difficult to compete with normal prices,” Hassle says. “But if we can reuse the energy, if the supply chain is short enough, then we can compete with wholesale prices.”

“Vertical farming has still not been proven to be commercially viable.”

Vertical farms won’t replace conventional farms any time soon. They’ll be limited by the kinds and quantity of crops they can grow while still turning a profit. For now, Plantagon has focused its efforts on leafy green and herds, but Hassle says, “We don’t want to develop all this technology to only grow herbs for people. That won’t solve the upcoming food crisis.”

Plantagon boasts that its technology has “infinite scalability,” which is to say it’s constrained only by the size of the buildings themselves. Still, implementing such systems is expensive and developers proably won’t be very keen to allocate half of their shiny new building to food production without proof of profitability.

“Vertical farming has still not proven that you can make a living growing food on multiple layers,” Zöllner says. “It’s proven that you can do it on a single layer with the help of LEDs or other lights sources, but it hasn’t been proven that you can do this from a grower’s perspective on a multilayer.”

Other experts agree that vertical farming shows promise but lacks evidence as a sustainable, large scale approach for the future of food. To Hassle’s own calculations, vertical farms may only supply ten to fifteen percent of our future produce needs. While that helps, it certainly won’t feed the planet.

Growing pains

At least two more challenges face Plantagon and the vertical farming industry at large, according to Zöllner — the needs for labor and food safety standards.

“Today, the real challenge for a vertical farm trying to scale is finding people to run, direct, and operate it,” he says. “And to find enough people willing to stick to the job, doing simple things like harvesting.” Still, in the not so distant future, automated machines may well take on the workload.

As for food safety, Zöllner thinks that a vertical farm’s apparent cleanliness could lull operators into a false sense of security.

“The vertical farm space is a very clean space, it will be less chemically intensive than a lot of the conventional agriculture, but it also creates and environment where you have a lot of issues with bacteria growth,” he says. “The moment a company sells something that gets a consumer sick, that will be a real blow to the industry. They’ll have to start planning now with conventional food safety on hand to try to prevent a disastrous outcome like that.”

Zöllner has followed Plantagon for a few years and says he’s been impressed with the company’s unique approach, but is careful not to get too enthusiastic.

“It’s interesting,” he says, “the dimension of a vision combined with resources and translating them into something feasible. The sad part is they haven’t yet built their building.”

Despite the buzz it’s created, Plantagon has struggled to erect its plantscrapers in the real world. The company broke ground on its “World Food Building” in 2012, but the project remains in slow progress. Located a couple hours south of Stockholm, in the city of Linköping, the World Food Building is designed as a massive greenhouse and office space that Plantagon says will produce 500 metric tons of food annually once fully functional. Earlier this month, the company also launched a crowdfunding campaign called CityFarms, a series of underground farming operations in Stockholm.

The world might not yet need Plantagon and its technology, but Hassle plans to be there once it does. “The challenge for us being so early in development, is to implement the technology with the market now before it really needs these big scale vertical farms,” he says. By then Hassle hopes to see his vision bear fruit — or veggies for that matter.

Emerging Tech

Awesome Tech You Can’t Buy Yet: Tricked-out e-scooters and bike lights that lock

Check out our roundup of the best new crowdfunding projects and product announcements that hit the web this week. You may not be able to buy this stuff yet, but it's fun to gawk!
Gaming

From Kefka to card games, here’s our beginner’s guide to Final Fantasy XIV

With Final Fantasy XIV: Shadowbringers right around the corner, now's the time to give the game a shot. From hyper-difficult battle content to relaxing card games, our FFXIV beginner's guide will ease you into all of Eorzea's finest…
Emerging Tech

Ford’s bipedal delivery robot can walk straight up to your doorstep

Autonomous wheeled delivery robots are seemingly everywhere in 2019. Agility Robotics' Digit robot takes a different approach: It promises to carry out its deliveries while walking on two legs.
Emerging Tech

The rise and reign of Starship, the world’s first robotic delivery provider

Excited about the impending delivery robot revolution? If so, you need to get familiar with Starship Technologies, the company which pioneered the whole thing. Here's what you need to know.
Emerging Tech

SpaceX joins internet-from-space race with launch of 60 Starlink satellites

SpaceX has launched a Falcon 9 rocket carrying its first batch of Starlink satellites for its ambitious internet-from-space project. The payload, SpaceX's heaviest to date, successfully deployed an hour after liftoff.
Emerging Tech

What would it take to build a Matrix-level simulation of reality?

What would it take, technologically speaking, to build a real version of the Matrix? We definitely don't have the technical abilities to do that now, but we're rapidly approaching the point that we will. In this article, MIT computer…
Emerging Tech

Motion-sensing shrubs and robo-Venus flytraps: Inside the world of Cyborg Botany

From motion-sensing plants to a Venus Flytrap you control using a computer, Harpreet Sareen is the brains behind a weird field called Cyborg Botany. Here's why he believes it matters.
Emerging Tech

The best solar chargers for your phone, tablet, and other battery-powered gear

Looking for a gizmo that can help you charge your phone while on the go? Here, we've outlined the best solar chargers on the market, whether you're looking to charge your phone once, twice, or three times over.
Emerging Tech

This plane-pulling robo-dog makes Boston Dynamics’ Spot look scrawny

A robot dog created by researchers at Italy’s Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia showed off its impressive ability to pull a three-ton airplane down a runway. Check it out in action.
Emerging Tech

Scientists discover unexpected underwater volcano off the coast of Africa

Geologists first noticed something unusual in the Indian Ocean in November last year, when they detected a massive seismic event. Now further research has revealed that the source of the seismic activity is an enormous underwater volcano.
Emerging Tech

Jupiter’s vast magnetic field stretches over time, driven by atmospheric wind

Jupiter has the most powerful magnetic field in our Solar System, 18,000 times as strong as Earth's. Now scientists have discovered that the field changes over time, in an effect called secular variation.
Emerging Tech

Three rare exocomets spotted in orbit around a nearby star

Scientists have spotted three exocomets, or comets outside of our Solar System, in orbit around a bright young star called Beta Pictoris in the constellation of Pictor using NASA’s Transiting Exoplanets Survey Satellite (TESS).
Emerging Tech

Scientists find organic matter from outer space in 3.3-billion-year-old rocks

Scientists have located organic matter that is extraterrestrial in origin, in 3.3 billion year old rocks. This supports the theory that organic chemicals arrived on our planet aboard a meteorite and created the building blocks for life.
Emerging Tech

This galaxy, Messier 90, appears blue because it’s traveling toward us

A new Hubble image has been released showing Messier 90, 60 million light-years away in the Virgo Cluster. An unusual feature of Messier 90 is it is traveling towards the Milky Way, not away from it.