Our ‘Comprehensive Innovation for Sustainable Development’ (CI4SD) team led by Dr. Lili Wang has won €250,000 in ‘Merian’ funding from the Dutch Research Council and the Chinese Academy of Sciences for a vertical farming project entitled, ‘GREENFARM’. Her team will work with counterparts at Wageningen University & Research in the Netherlands, the Institute of Botany at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, and the Institute of Genetics and Development Biology in China.
Vertical farming is a production system for growing fresh vegetables indoors, driven by new technologies including artificial intelligence, machine learning and the Internet of Things. Essentially, plants are grown under LED lights, with strictly controlled environments and nurturing conditions. This new and highly efficient system aims to keep pace with the food demands of rising populations. In particular, this system can produce fresh food within urban areas far from conventional food production sites.
Extremely sustainable with respect to water, fertilisers, pesticides and land use, vertical farming is able to produce healthy and safe fresh vegetables of high quality, independent of weather and soil – and to do so within cities. However, a key challenge for vertical farming is energy use (and associated costs). In order to provide a long long-term alternative to conventional growing practices, both the energy usage as well as the costs must be reduced.
Crucially, the Dutch Research Council said, “effective and sustainable implementation of vertical farming production systems requires more than just technological solutions” – a point that dovetails perfectly with our recently adopted focus on ‘Comprehensive Innovation for Sustainable Development’ (CI4SD). Vertical farming requires actors from various domains including agriculture, environment, engineering, architecture, economics and other social sciences. The project will therefore use a systematic framework to cover the interrelated economic, technological, environmental and social factors.
Considering the broader context of vertical farming, our UNU-MERIT team will focus in particular on evaluating environmental and energy costs, the social impacts as well as the application of emerging technologies, such as artificial intelligence, machine learning and automation. Moreover, it will align with national research agendas, as well as international initiatives such as the UN Sustainable Development Goals, not only SDG#2 ‘Zero Hunger’ (most notably, Target 3 on agricultural productivity and Target 4 on sustainable food production), but also various other SDGs.
Overall, this project will investigate how vertical farming performs in terms of UN SDG targets when compared with field or greenhouse production. This will be essential to get the message across to policymakers and to ensure the further development and large-scale implementation of vertical farming practices. The project is funded to the tune of €1.4million, of which UNU-MERIT will receive €250,000.
The opinions expressed here are the authors’ own; they do not necessarily reflect the views of UNU.