Nurturing My Greens with High-Tech? Reflections on Vertical Farming and the PlantCube

by Marlen Elders

When I first saw designs for the plantCube, a smart, fully automated machine for producing perfect vegetables, it seemed more like a high-fashion kitchen device than a sustainable alternative for growing vegetables. The plantCube was created by Munich-based start-up agrilution, whose cofounder, Maximilian Lössl, spoke with us at a Tuesday Discussion at the RCC last July. The company is developing and manufacturing an automated small-scale vertical farming machine meant to enable urban citizens to grow their own food at home. With the plantCube, you don’t need a balcony or garden—not even sunlight or soil. The only thing you need is a white machine that looks like a freezer, electricity, an Internet connection, and a mobile phone. Via app you can remotely control everything from ordering seed mats to the development of your plants inside the cube.

The plantCube developed by agrilution. Used with permission.

Although it has obvious benefits—it avoids long transportation, is free of pesticides, produces little waste, and is nearly non-perishable (thanks to a “holiday mode” that allows you to put your plants to sleep for a while)—I was skeptical about this invention. I was concerned by the idea that the fresh healthy vegetables I eat would not have touched juicy chilly dark soil, nor felt fresh breezes; I was concerned that they are not even able to experience a single ray of real sunlight. Could a plant growing on a nutrition mat in a clean white cube that automatically provides it with LED light, maintains a suitable temperature, and dispenses water in precise doses really be healthy at all?

I found myself drifting off for a second in thinking about what plants actually need to live a happy life while Lössl was using phrases like “the perfectly controlled environment,” “growing food independently from nature,” and “no insects, snakes, or other vermin” which made me feel even more uneasy. These ideas did definitely not fit into my daydream of a plant paradise: a chilly spot bathed in sunlight, with breezes of fresh air every now and then and nutritious soil containing microorganisms, worms, and other cooperators, where a plant could live a happy life amongst other relatives. Leaving aside the dilemma that the machine is not dependent on nature and sunlight but on electricity instead (a switch of energy source that does not seem to be desirable), is extinguishing unwanted species and taking even more control of the environment really the way we are going to solve our ecological problems? Isn’t anthropocentrism the ideology that brought us to our current situation in the first place?

Aquaponics bed. Photo: Rachel Swenie (Plant Chicago), via Flickr.

Then I thought about the sad stories of conventional agriculture and the harm it is causing to our ecosystem and how miserable the life of a supermarket vegetable appears to be (not really a romantic vegetable utopia either, to be honest). Thinking about alternatives is definitely a good idea, and maybe we do need new solutions. As some scientists and visionary people are actually positive about the idea that technology can solve our environmental problems, I thought the idea was worth giving a second thought. So I pushed aside my general techno-skepticism and romantic backyard garden permaculture ideas of growing food (that are probably not going to feed the world), and took a closer look at the larger context of this issue and Lössl’s aims.

Indeed, the plantCube, besides its stylish, clean and classy appearance, arose out of his efforts to create a globally sustainable future. The name agrilution, a combination of “agriculture” and “solution,” is an attempt to “find a solution for one of the most pressing challenges of our time: the destruction of our planet by humans. One major factor is conventional agriculture,” the founders write.

vertfarmbook.jpgInspired by the idea of vertical farming, the plantCube is a technologically based solution for the food supply problem that people like Dickson Despommier argue we could be facing a few years from now. In his book, Despommier suggests that the increasing human population and a scarcity of arable land is forcing us to search for alternative ways of farming. Using high-tech inventions to grow a large number of vegetables vertically above each other in skyscrapers is the basic idea of vertical farming: Food is grown inside a building with the help of artificial lighting, climate control, and hydroponics (plants growing without soil). Building on this, some envision creating a closed functional loop in which water is recycled in pools with freshwater fish, bio-waste is converted into a useful resource as compost, and methane is collected and turned into heat. Waste from poultry and pig farming can be used as an energy source and resident bees pollinate the plants. Rotating systems and elevators moving the plants support year-round production and harvest. Due to the technological control to maintain perfect conditions for the plants, growth rates are faster and yield is optimized, less water and fertilizer are needed in comparison to open-field agriculture, and food miles are considerably reduced, enabling a local and thereby fresher food supply.

These are just some of the praised advantages of vertical farming, and, indeed, even I find this vision impressive. Compared to the damages conventional agricultural business is causing to our ecosystem (polluting waterways with fertilizers and pesticides for instance, not to mention the hazards they are providing by experimenting with genetically modified plants), vertical farms seem to be a more appealing alternative—even to a techno-skeptic like me. The challenging part of these ideas is that a huge amount of research and investment is needed. To make plants grow indoors you need the right software to monitor pH values, the amount of nutrients, dissolved oxygen, air temperature, humidity, light intensity, and CO2.

Vertical farm in the Chicago O’Hare Airport. Photo: chipmunk_1, via flickr.

Coming back to the plantCube and regarding it as part of a larger plan, as one step towards developing the idea of vertical faming rather than an alternative to gardening, the white machine shimmers in a different light. You can argue about the requirements and sustainability of the tool itself, but besides providing users with fresher greens than the ones you can buy in the supermarket, it implements new technologies as part of a search for alternatives. In collecting data and developing plant growing recipes, agrilution is furthering vertical farming technologies and has designed a relatively affordable version of a mini-vertical farm for the kitchen.

Maybe we need to get used to technological solutions to our ecological problems and maybe anthropocentrism is not only a problem, but can also be part of the solution. Maybe this is the future we are heading towards. And who knows, maybe the plants enjoy living in ideally arranged surroundings. Still, thinking of a perfectly controlled environment and high-tech nurturing my food leaves a bad taste in my mouth. It may be romantic and idealistic but I would prefer cooperation with the organisms we raise instead of taking over control.

Further reading:

For more information on vertical farming have a look at the page “What is Vertical Farming?” on the agrilution website. Or a short video on YouTube of Dickson Despommier explaining vertical farming.

Banerjee, Chirantan, and Lucie Adenaeuer. “Up, up and away! The Economics of Vertical Farming.” Journal of Agricultural Studies 2, no. 1 (2014): 40-60.

Despommier, Dickson. The Vertical Farm: Feeding the World in the 21st Century. London: Macmillan, 2011.

Ehrenberg, Rachel. “Let’s Get Vertical: City Buildings Offer Opportunities for Farms to Grow Up instead of Out.” Science News 174, no. 8 (2008): 16-20.

Vogel, Gretchen. “Upending the Traditional Farm.” Science 319, no. 5864 (2008): 752-753.


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