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INTERVIEW: Urban Agriculture’s Evolution in the Past Decade and the Rise of Hydroponic Feed

Source: Feedindo Logo Final

9 July 2021 - Over a decade ago, we spoke to Dr. Dickson Despommier, a professor of environmental health sciences and microbiology at Columbia University in New York City, on the occasion of his book called "The Vertical Farm: Feeding the World in the 21st Century."

He explained how the vertical farm could have an incredible impact on agriculture and how future generations may grow their food. Dr. Despommier expected that these farms would provide local food sources for entire cities. Indeed, as these cities develop and modernise, they tend to push agriculture outside of the city. And so, it's important that some part of the food supply is kept in cities to make them more resilient.

Dr Despommier developed the idea of vertical farming in 1999 after finding inspiration from urban rooftop gardening. He undertook a series of projects with his Columbia students and investigated how renewable energy sources could provide enough power to grow all sorts of fruits and vegetables on upper floors of a vertical building and to chicken and fish facilities subsisting on plant waste on the lower floors.

His skyscraper farm ideas sparked the interest of scientists and investors around the world. They saw the appeal of the vertical farm which has the potential to surpass the productivity of existing agricultural spaces while using less water as it would be sourced using hydroponic methods, cutting mileage and energy costs, and delivering food security.

At the time when we spoke, the obvious beneficiaries of vertical farming were vegetables, fruit and other plants. The potential was much less obvious for farm animals or animal feed production.

While the concept of the vertical farm has since evolved and isn’t necessarily always associated with the high-rise skyscraper (urban agriculture has become the common term), agricultural technology and progress in AI have been significant in the past decade. And over the past several years, the notion of sustainability has certainly taken centre stage too.

More than a decade after speaking to Dr. Despommier, we reached out to Agritecture, an urban agriculture advisory firm. Its founder, Henry Gordon-Smith, is a sustainability strategist focused on urban agriculture, water issues, and emerging technologies. At Columbia University he studied under Dr. Despommier. Gordon-Smith’s colleague and Agritecture’s Lead Agronomist, David Ceaser was happy to answer our questions related to the evolution of urban farming has evolved and whether or not some parts of the animal production and animal nutrition sectors may benefit from these changes more than they could 10 years ago.

David Ceaser
Lead Agronomist

[Feedinfo] Mr. Ceaser, the vertical farming model may not seem like the right fit for farmed animal production, especially within the urban landscape. But with the growth of aquaponics and land-based fish farming systems, do you think there is more potential for aquaculture development perhaps?

[David Ceaser] Agritecture is bullish on the development of aquaculture systems, both at the large commercial scale and at the home subsistence level. Small scale farming in urban areas is and will continue to be a key component of urban food production at the household level in many parts of the world. Aquaculture can be an important component that fits nicely into mixed use production systems at the household level, providing an opportunity for protein production on a small scale. There are many companies working on developing aquaculture technologies with fish as well as other aquatic species and we foresee a bright future for this industry.

[Feedinfo] Companies like Cubic Farms and Grōv Technologies have developed vertical hydroponic technologies to grow fresh livestock feed in a controlled environment, thus ensuring 365 day/year supply. What is your understanding of the hydroponic feed sector?

[David Ceaser] There are several drivers for hydroponic feed among livestock producers. First and foremost is customer demand for natural pork or beef. Grain fed to livestock is often supplemented with animal protein for faster development and meat produced in this manner cannot be sold as “natural”. Hydroponic feed, made from sprouting different grains, does qualify as natural and commands a higher price. Another driver is the quality of the meat produced. While taste is subjective, many producers have reported that their customers prefer the taste of meat from hydroponically fed livestock. Obtaining a higher price point based on the quality of the meat may be more applicable to small operators selling direct to consumer than large operations focusing on wholesale production. Finally, there is now milk that is branded as “produced from grass fed cows”. While the exact benefits of grass fed vs grain fed milk production may not be known, the fact that it is appearing on the shelves of mainstream stores shows that there is growing demand for these products. Hydroponically produced feed will be an important component of growing this market.

[Feedinfo] If Cubic Farms and Grōv Technologies are able to scale up and licence their systems to livestock farms to grow feed directly for their own animals, how cost-efficient can hydroponic feed become?

[David Ceaser] Agritecture is not intimately familiar with the economics of livestock feed. That said, there are numerous trends that will make hydroponically grown feed more competitive moving forward. These include the continued reduction in the cost of lighting, sensors and related technologies required for hydroponic feed production. Additionally, with drought conditions in California, Chile and many other parts of the world that are key livestock producers, water scarcity will move producers who require a “grass fed” label to invest in these technologies. For urban production on a household scale, numerous studies have shown that low tech hydroponic fodder production can be done economically. This presents an important option for small scale producers in harsh climates to offer feed to their livestock.

[Feedinfo] How has investor interest for vertical farming evolved in recent years? Are they also interested in the potential of hydroponic feed?

[David Ceaser] Investor interest in vertical farming has increased greatly in recent years. There are many reasons for this, but they are largely consumer driven in the United States. Consumers want a consistent supply of high quality, fresh produce and supermarkets are responding by asking their suppliers to provide that consistency. Investors see this demand and understand that vertical farming is a platform that can be easily automated and scaled and applied to other areas of production. Investor interest in hydroponic feed hasn’t been demonstrated to a large degree to date, likely because there isn’t consumer demand for it. To create that demand, the industry must prove, through reputable scientific research, that meat from livestock produced using hydroponic feed is better in some way than current offerings. That could be from proof of better quality, better taste, better for the environment or healthier for human consumption. If it can make this link and market it successfully, then we should see the industry take off moving forward.

[Feedinfo] Do you think that with time, more studies, and with companies increasingly sourcing hydroponic feed, the questions around the nutritive value of the feed itself will be answered?

[David Ceaser] The question about nutritive value is a complicated one because nutrition isn’t a result of only one parameter. Yes, grain feed provides more calories for livestock than hydroponic feed, but hydroponic feed is a valuable source of additional vitamins and protein. If these vitamins help livestock from getting sick, then maybe that value is greater than the extra cost of the feed for caloric purposes? More studies that look at different types of feed comparisons and across a greater array of livestock will help producers make more educated decisions about what type of feed will provide the most value to their operation. Additionally, it is important to remember that hydroponic feed allows for more consistency and control of the livestock diet, and in turn, the product outcomes. An operator who is purchasing alfalfa or grains can’t be sure what that feed contains, where it comes from, the nutrient contents and that it has consistent characteristics. Raising livestock using hydroponic feed can provide that consistency that many operators want which will help them deliver more consistent outcomes to their customers.

[Feedinfo] China has constructed multi-storey “hog hotels”, which can be a viable way to aid domestic pork production in China, while also limiting the spread of African swine fever - the disease that has been hitting the sector hard, thanks to better biosecurity measures. With the growth in interest for vertical farming, do you think the “hog hotel” concept could be replicated in other countries outside of China?

[David Ceaser] Agritecture sees vertical farming as a platform, for many types of food production. Not only are many companies using it for production of numerous plant crops, it is also a platform for producing mushrooms, insects and other products that can value from added space efficiency. Vertical farming allows for a much more highly efficient use of spatial resources, and this is especially valuable in expensive urban areas or is critical in areas where the outdoor environment is inhospitable for production. Vertical farming may not be ideal for all types of food production though. While ideal conditions can be created for excellent crop performance with plants, Agritecture is not familiar enough with the optimal conditions required for mammalian and avian livestock production and whether those conditions can be met in an indoor environment. Regardless of whether these can be optimal environments for livestock production, it will likely be the public perception of this concept which will dictate whether the hog hotel concept takes off outside of China.