Do you know where your food comes from? For most of us, we pick up our groceries at the supermarket and don’t give a second thought to its life prior. Urban, vertical farming is changing that relationship with our food, however, by making it possible to grow and source our food locally. And thanks to voices like that of Greta Thurnberg and shipping SNAFUS brought on by COVID, many of us are increasingly aware that there are changes to be made in how we shop.
There’s still a lot of unsustainable agriculture going on across the world as demand increases with a fast-growing population. From intensive agriculture with the use of pesticides to perishable produce coated in preservatives to be able to withstand long journeys, as well as the energy all of those processes take, there’s significant room for improvement. Not only for the benefit of the environment but also for the quality of our food and our health.
“Any solution for our global challenges must be beneficial across multiple dimensions. More and more, we are understanding the interconnectedness of food, water, energy, people, nature, and the necessity to look for answers from a systems perspective. The concept of vertical urban farming, in all its diverse forms, offers unique opportunities to explore this” says Maria Espírito Santo, Chief Science Officer at Raiz.
Using less ground space, therefore making it possible to grow your food locally in cities, vertical farming could be the solution we’re looking for. And in a city like Lisbon, with abundant sunshine, it’s the perfect place to get started. One start-up with the vision to bring higher quality, more sustainably-grown food to local citizens of Lisbon is Raiz. The business is planning to bring life to unused spaces in the city, transforming them with interconnected vertical farm systems. I caught up with the team during the launch of their crowdfunding campaign to find out more about their vision.
What is Raiz all about?
Emiliano (CEO): Our mission is to transform the way we connect with food. We want to bring production back into the city and grow vegetables in a conscious and innovative way.
For anyone that might not know, how does vertical farming work?
Maria (Chief Science Officer): Vertical farming is about growing crops in racks, towers, walls, or any other structure that uses vertical space. To be able to do this, hydroponic, aeroponic or aquaponic systems of irrigation and fertilization are typically used — these are all soil-less or substrate-based methods to feed the plants. Raiz is developing a modular system combining hydroponics with precision vertical agriculture and the use of solar energy.
What plants can you grow?
Stefano (Head Grower): Maybe the right question could be, with which wonders do we want to serve people? One side of our mission is to educate our communities on approaching different kinds of rare greens they don’t know of. Have you ever heard about the Japanese flowering kale for example? Or the bright and nutrient-packed red Aztec’s amaranth with extra iron and protein, that you can substitute your classic spinach with?
If you are looking for a smooth, juicy, and crunchy flavor to add to your salads or stir fry, why not opt instead for a pack choi, tatsoi, or bok choi to replace your precious kale? All over extraordinary is what we are aiming for.
Can people build their own vertical farms at home?
Emiliano: We’ve started exploring modular solutions to install at venues such as restaurants, co-working spaces, or retail stores to take the connection one step closer to the final consumer. In terms of home growing, we’ve partnered with Click&Grow to bring the growing experience home. You can actually get the home growing system as a reward on our crowdfunding campaign!
What’s the best thing about vertical farming?
Maria: It’s right there in the name: the number one advantage is the possibility to explore the vertical dimension of space. By taking the production up, literally, we can grow a higher quantity of biomass per square meter, so the yield is significantly increased. The benefit is that we will be able to meet higher food demands in the future, as the global population rises and agriculture-free land shrinks. But also, this allows us to make use of spaces that would otherwise be obsolete. The possibility of growing nutrients where the demand is, without food miles or incurring in deforestation, is really exciting.
Tell us about your Flagship Farm.
Lucía (Chief Marketing Officer): Our first vertical farm is going to be built at Arroz Estudios, a cool cultural space in Beato’s neighborhood. The farm will be for everyone to enjoy, with a special focus on the communities around Beato: neighbors, restaurants, and social impact-focused communities. Everyone will be able to visit and harvest their desired veggies to take home. We will also run workshops at our farm, allowing everyone to learn more about where our food comes from.
If enough people support us, thanks to the campaign running this month, we are aiming to start building the farm in the first trimester of 2022.
What technology will you use to run the farm?
Simon (Chief Technology Officer): To design the farm and model energy consumption, we take the most basic physical and biological equations, and use them to calculate the growth of our plants, and the amount of energy needed to maintain an optimal environment for them.
We then use a multitude of sensors (temperature, humidity, CO2, sunlight intensity and spectrum, pH, electrical conductivity, etc.) to record the conditions inside and outside of the farm every second. And to achieve maximal growth for minimum cost, we use advanced reinforcement learning algorithms to predict optimal control strategies.
And finally, for fun, what’s your favorite leafy green?
Lucía: My favorite is mustard leaves. They have a rich flavor that goes well with salads and appetizers, they are also packed with nutrients!
Aidan: Basil! It originates from India and has been used in medicine for thousands of years. It’s great on a pizza, pasta, or even in a gin basil smash. However, my favorite? All blended up in a fresh creamy pesto, I love pesto.
Simon: Pea shoots, because they’re crunchy, have a subtle taste, and are very nutritious. I like them as an addition to any kind of salad, or on a bagel sandwich.
Maria: I’d have to say pea shoots as well. They taste so good I can just eat them as a snack. An interesting fact about pea shoots is that they’re packed with protein, making them a great meat alternative.
Emiliano: I have to go with red basil — I discovered it by growing it at Raiz! I enjoy it all the way from pesto or in pasta, to smoothies and yogurt bowls. Its color gives a special touch to every plate.
Stefano: Even though oyster leaves are definitely appealing, I will have to say nasturtium, because of its naughty and spicy flavor, crunchy texture, and colorful edible flowers. I love to add it to almost everything, burgers, pasta, salads, creamy soups, or just as a healthy snack.
To find out more and invest in a truly green future, donate to Raiz’s crowdfunding campaign here.