The world population is growing at around 83 million people a year or 1.1 per cent. Apart from needing space to accommodate such a population increase, there is another major problem facing the planet. The topsoil responsible for supplying 95% of the world’s food is disappearing ten times faster than it is being replaced. According to the UN, the planet could run out of topsoil in 60 years. Not only will the earth be incapable of producing the food required to feed the population but the food that is produced will not be as nutritious since the nutrients, minerals and microbes needed for healthy plant growth are also being depleted. This results not just from natural processes such as erosion but from modern methods of intensive farming.
The solution would appear to be obvious – agriculture needs to revert back to more natural biodynamic methods of production. The problem with that is it is estimated that it takes some 500 years to create quality topsoil but only 100 years to degrade it. Apart from that, the less intensive agricultural methods will produce lower yields which will result, subsequently, in inevitable food shortages. A new method of intensive agriculture is required.
Vertical agriculture is one innovative possibility displaying considerable potential. Although the concept is not entirely new, it is generally held that the present movement dates back to 1999 when Dr Dickson Despommier, a health science academic from Columbia University, required his students to determine how to feed the entire population of Manhattan using only 5 hectares of rooftop gardens. Although the students failed the assignment, Despommier continued to address the problem and by 2001 had developed the first official outline of a commercial vertical farm, based on using all 30 floors of a skyscraper block with the upper floors producing hydroponically grown crops and the lower floors poultry and fish, utilising the organic waste from the upper floors. Since then, despite opposition to the concept, the idea has grown in popularity, and in 2018 it was estimated that the industry was worth some $2.23 billion, while by 2026 predictions suggest it will have grown to $12.77 billion.
Essentially modern day vertical farming is about growing crops indoors in stacked layers without soil, using LED rather than natural lighting, the necessary nutrients being fed to the plants either by being sprayed on to the exposed roots (aeroponic) or via the water in which the plants grow (hydroponic). The first vertical farm is believed to have been developed in Singapore in 2012, but most of the firms engaged in vertical farming are based in Japan and the USA. However, Europe’s first commercial-scale aeroponic vertical farm, “LettUs Grow” (lettusgrow.com), is being developed in Bristol in the UK. It was established in 2015 by three young University of Bristol graduate entrepreneurs in partnership with Dr Anthony Dodd of the John Innes Centre (www.jic.ac.uk), based on the Norwich Research Park. The founders recognised that not only will existing methods of agriculture not be capable of increasing food production by the 70 per cent needed to feed the growing population, but that imported foodstuffs and lengthy supply chains impact significantly on the environment. Accordingly, LettUs Grow has been established to address these issues and help the new farms reach profitability, scale-up and “compete with traditional agriculture”.
There is little doubt that LettUs Grow demonstrates the very considerable potential of vertical agriculture. Sustainability is at the core of the business, and as they are striving for both profit and the betterment of the world, they are aiming to achieve B-Corp status (bcorporation.net and Delves, 2018). Like other vertical agricultural businesses they are:
- guaranteeing yields,
- improving the supply of safe, healthy and nutritious food,
- reducing imports and the length of the supply chain,
- addressing such environmental challenges as soil degradation, pollution and water usage.
However, given the interconnectivity of the ecosystem, the ramifications of innovation such as this are widespread. For example, it seems likely that vertical agricultural systems will:
- make traditional farm work obsolete, eventually, destabilising rural communities and creating further rural unemployment,
- need a trained and technically competent workforce
- require more energy input and fossil fuel consumption than traditional outdoor farming
- hinder the pollination process as they require an insect free environment
- result in increased food costs which would impact significantly on the unwaged and urban poor.
This is why Harmonious Entrepreneurship is important, recognising, as it does, the inter-connectivity of the ecosystem. By adopting a harmonious approach to entrepreneurship, it is possible to identify the system-wide ramifications of innovations introduced to address the sustainability challenge – be those ramifications, economic, environmental, humane or social – and produce a coherent, comprehensive entrepreneurial response.
Delves, A. (2018). ‘What are B-Corps and How can you Become One?, Simply Business. 28 February.
Impey, L. (2019). ‘Why Vertical Farming is growing in the UK‘, Farmers Weekly, 9th December.
© Professor David A. Kirby and Harmonious-Entrepreneurship.org (2020). Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Professor David A. Kirby and Harmonious-Entrepreneurship.org with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.