Recap 2016 Association of Vertical Farming Summit

Circular economy drives sustainability in vertical farming

​Circular economy and true sustainability. That was definitely the theme of the 2016 edition of the Association of Vertical Farming's annual Summit, held in Amsterdam yesterday. The event, which attracted over 200 entrepreneurs, investors, suppliers and other professionals from the relatively new and upcoming vertical farming industry, offered an extensive speaker and session line up that fired up the discussions on challenges in vertical farming; from creating a circular economy to the latest in government policies, jurisdiction, breaking consumption models and using smart design science.

The large group of participants of the 2016 annual AVF summit in Amsterdam yesterday.

After the opening of the summit, Colombia University's Dr. Dickson Despommier's keynote speech discussed the role of the vertical farm as the ecosystem of the city. This theme partly set the tone for the rest of the day as most of the other sessions included a focus on the contribution of the vertical farming sector to a more circular economy. Shortly after, Jose Ruiz of the European Commision's Agricultural and Rural Development Department would explain why it is so important to develop a circular economy with closed cycles and how vertical farming can contribute to it. "A whole new sector needs to be developed, which provides chances for new industries and platforms, and vertical farming is one of them. The EU promotes the circular economy, it has developed the circular economy package which contains an action plan, follows up initiatives and will create legislative proposals on topics such as waste management. Also more industrial symbiosis is needed to create a circular economy, agriculture and vertical farming can be a part of this too."

While the circular economy was a topic during many of the sessions, sustainability aspects were also covered. Vertical farming pioneer Ed Harwood from Aerofarms for example, provided a deeper dive into the techniques that can make vertical farming more sustainable. From figuring out how to use and conserve water with water and nutrient recycling, to other conservation methods like optimizing waste streams with alternatives like composting, vermicomposting and other value added alternative waste stream management techniques. Furthermore, he spoke about lighting, according to him one of the most critical decisions when building a vertical farm. "Farms can become more sustainable and efficient when lighting is optimized, because plants have a lot more going on than just the genetics. Lights play a major role here when you imagine the influence light can have on the organoleptic properties of a crop."

And the fact that lighting plays a crucial role in vertical farming was also confirmed during presentations and panel discussions including Paul Hardej of Illumitex, Lars Aikala of Valoya, Gus van der Feltz of Philips, Jasper den Besten of HAS, and Nick Klase of Fluence Bioengineering. They discussed what is coming up in LED lighting and what the manufacturers and researchers have learned so far.

Other interesting food for thought was provided by the presentation of Peter Bickerton; he asked the industry why they don't start farming insects. Bickerton shared his appetite for insect farming; from locust pizza to waxworm tacos, according to him it's the farming of the future. And would these yummy insects also be something to farm at home? We should have asked Marjolein Shiamatey about it when she expressed Regen Villages' ambition to build self-sufficient ecovillages with vertical farming and aquaponic productions. Regen Villages has the ambition to scale the concept globally, but the construction of the first 100 homes will start in Almere this summer.

But the AVF Summit brought the attendees many more interesting presentations and topics with presentations from Mark Durno of Urban Farmers, who recently opened Europe's first commercial rooftop farm in The Hague, and METRO GROUP's head of innovation Fabio Ziemsen, who explained how the prosumers, foodies and consumers experience vertical farming.

But there was also a critical note, especially during the presentation of Jan Willem van der Schans of Wageningen UR, who shared his vision on the competitiveness of going vertical in the Netherlands. He showed results from a WUR study that came to the conclusion that in Holland, a head of lettuce grown in a vertical farm could never compete with the price of an open field grown product. "But that is in Holland, in other countries like the U.S., where food needs to be trucked in from miles away, there might be plenty of opportunities."

And there was plenty, plenty, plenty more for us to cover. But at the time of writing this article it was high time to catch some sleep before the GreenTech kicks off in Amsterdam too. Please stay tuned for more coverage of the AVF Summit next week!

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