Robert Colangelo is an environmental entrepreneur who is fervent about sustainability. He’s the founding farmer and CEO of Green Sense Farms, where he is working on building a global empire of hydroponic farms. During this online session, Growing Up, Robert discussed his ideas and ambitions for Green Sense Farms and the vertical farming industry.
The session was packed with little gems. Here are some of the areas Robert discussed which interested me the most.
The rest of agriculture
Many vertical farming zealots would suggest that controlled-environment agriculture is the only way forward (I know I have in the past). Even though the current model needs to transform, Robert Colangelo said that Green Sense Farms isn’t aiming to put field farming out of business. Industrial crops grown on a large scale are better done outdoors.
With the price of LEDs falling, vertical farms are increasingly becoming a viable alternative to greenhouses, as I learned from Bright Agrotech. Greenhouses are expensive structures which aren’t necessary if indoor lighting is cheap. Despite this, Robert believes greenhouses will still have a role to play in the future. They won’t become fully obsolete. Whilst vertical farms are good for leafy greens, greenhouses will remain useful for crops like peppers, cucumbers, and tomatoes.
In short: tailor technology to crop type.
Throughout the session, Robert emphasised the impact vertical farming will have on the distribution model. As food becomes grown closer to where it is consumed, days become hours. That isn’t to say that urban agriculture as such is a good idea. It needs to be done in the right way since land is expensive. Robert said that it would be best to put vertical farms either near large consumption centres like hospitals or near distribution centres, on the outskirts of a city. This way we can reduce travel time for the crop in a lucrative way.
Just like not all crops are worth growing in vertical farms, not all places warrant vertical farming. Green Sense Farms had to look into this when expanding. Here are 4 features which make vertical farming in a region more worthwhile:
1. Stratified income
Leafy greens are a luxury product, especially when from a vertical farm. At least some of the local population should be willing to pay for this.
2. Large, dense population centres
This makes it easier for crops to be fresh when they are consumed, meaning people are willing to pay more.
3. Restricted outdoor growing seasons
Being able to grow indoors under artificial lighting becomes much more advantageous if you’re limited outdoors. This might be because of short growing seasons, or a cold climate. Usually, food would have to travel long distances to reach these areas.
4. Resource-constrained market
Space and water availability can limit conventional agriculture. Vertical farming produces a much higher output using fewer resources. Air pollution is another constraint which affects crops less if they are grown indoors.
No wonder Green Sense Farms is expanding to places such as Illinois, Shenzhen, and Norway.
Also, the sheer size of China’s population means that if just 10% can afford leafy greens, you already have a huge market.
The road ahead
As well as building multiple farms in North America, China, and Europe, Green Sense Farms has other plans:
Firstly, Robert said that many American universities are funding corn and cattle, which means few people are being trained for indoor agriculture. Yet new ideas need people to operate them. This is why Green Sense Farms has taken matters into its own hands by creating its own training centres. About 10-15 students are to be trained every 6 months.
On top of this, Green Sense Farms is working on attaining net-zero energy use, and zero waste. How? By using waste products from the farms. These can be converted into fertiliser, compost, and methane. This will improve sustainability and drive down costs. Green Sense Farms is aiming for farms to become off-grid one day. Robert challenged the idea that organic fertiliser is more sustainable than regular nutrient solutions. It’s also harder to tweak optimally, and a film of bacteria tends to form on top of the water. His idea is to create a comprehensive rating system like LEED to assess the sustainability of agriculture.
Lastly, Robert sees Green Sense Farms growing more than leafy greens in the future. The vertical farms could also be used to grow biopharmaceuticals (weed, anyone?), as well as helping meet the world’s protein needs by growing plant protein.
Those were some of the new perspectives I gained from Robert Colangelo at the Disruptive Innovation Festival. Thanks for this fresh food for thought.
And now, I leave you with a quote from Robert:
“When you’re green, you grow. When you’re ripe, you rot.”