The Brussels Vertical Farming Workshop – A Summary

What a fantastic two days.

Last weekend, the first ever AVF Workshop took place in Brussels. There were people from all sorts of backgrounds – architects, agronomists, and even a caricature artist – all with a fervency for farming and food. Our task was to design a vertical farming system at the site of The Abattoir, an urban farming hub in Cureghem, southern Brussels.

Here’s what happened.

Day 1 – Friday, June 30

The sun rises. An hour later, the first people tiredly but eagerly arrive at The Abattoir for some coffee and a meet and greet.

Afterwards, we have a tour of The Abattoir – its slaughterhouse, and the rooftop garden. Most of the people I spoke to agreed that, although the slaughterhouse was a shocking sight, it was good that we had visited. There is something virtuous about being a meat-eater and having witnessed the work required to produce it, taking the bad with the good. It’s a down-to-earth way of thinking which is common in farmers, but sometimes lacking in idealists. Glad we had it.

After we got back, Zjef Van Acker gave us some words of wisdom on the sessions to come. We’ve all heard (or propagated, as I have) the ‘9 billion people by 2050’ narrative, but there are problems today for vertical farming to solve. We would be coming up with a systemic vision of the situation, and working with new people – simple, but not easy.

Then we listened to some presentations by the following speakers:

Jo Huygh (architect of The Abattoir) – a history of the site of The Abattoir, the masterplan, and current activities. Also outlined the constraints for our design at zone Manufakture.

William Feberi (Cultureghem) – presented the social activities of Cultureghem in getting the 80+ nationalities living in the area involved in good food. This is a crucial element of a child’s development.

Mathias De Vos (BIGH) – about the current situation of urban indoor farming. There are many opportunities, such as the enthusiasm of supermarket chains and using waste streams. There are many hurdles too – legislation, technical challenges, and a stubborn horticultural sector.

Hadrien Velge (Champignon de Bruxelles) – presented the company, growing mushrooms on breweries’ waste.

Then, we were shown around the impressive growing systems of Champignon de Bruxelles by Thibault Fastenakels, co-founder, in a cavernous cellar under The Abattoir. We also played a game to better understand the role of mushroom production in a circular economy. There are still challenges in realising this, like the plastic bags which have to be used for mushroom cultivation. At the moment, they get thrown away.

The humid underground mushroom-growing facilities.

Afterwards, we had a few more insightful presentations:

Ir. Tycho Vermeulen (Wageningen University) – about how conventional greenhouses and urban indoor agriculture can coexist. The ‘Uber effect’ is reaching agriculture, allowing us to make use of small spaces. Urban agriculture is a service provider – not just a producer of food. Challenges include logistics and energy. The industry is emerging, so failures are welcome.

Prof. Danny Geelen (University of Ghent) – on space crop farming. Presented various lessons in biology from growing in space, and the implications for indoor farming down here on Earth. Microbes are crucial.

Bart Mertens (Millibeter) – Millibeter produces black soldier flies. Insects love being packed vertically. Black soldier flies eat just about anything, allowing Millibeter to upcycle thousands of tonnes of waste per year.

Mark Horler (AVF, Re-growth) – presented the AVF, and the achievements and opportunities of virtual co-location.

After a delicious lunch provided by Cultureghem, we travelled to Schaerbeek, in the north of Brussels, for an afternoon of brainstorming in groups.

The conception of the Leafy Vatican, future residence of Pope Dickson I.

Eventually, we came together and each group presented their findings. Some groups tended towards the technical side, whereas others focused on the business model or the farm’s social role. A project was voted for as a starting point for combining these ideas the next day.

The winning group presents their initial ideas.

The day ended in one of the many bars in Brussels with a wide range of Belgian beers (to add a cliché). Dave, James, and I discussed our views on human nature, Jeremy Rifkin’s third industrial revolution, and the interplanetary future of our species.

Day 2 – Saturday, July 1

The next morning, we met in Schaerbeek to get into groups to focus on different aspects of our farm – food production, waste management, finance, marketing, and the social aspect. The group I was in, waste management, came up with flowcharts to get an overview of the different resources in our system. The market outside The Abattoir throws away 21 tonnes of food waste per week. By lunch, we had a detailed overview of the possible ways of using this. Unfortunately a biodigester was out of the question. Apparently they can explode. Instead, we decided to hire a workforce of a few thousand black soldier flies. Our system would also use leftovers from fish processing – a product fishmongers pay to have taken away – as a source of protein.

Yay, flowcharts!

Of course, it’s not just black soldier flies which can eat wasted food. Thanks to CollectActif, we could enjoy a lunch cooked using food that would have otherwise gone to waste.

After lunch, Ralph Becker presented his company, Urban Greens, based in Manila. In the Philippines, urbanites are malnourished. A third of children under 10 have type II diabetes. Urban Greens aims to improve peoples’ health through making fresh, high-quality vegetables more accessible. They make hydroponic towers, controlled by Arduino-based systems. Currently they are looking into big data and augmented reality to make it easier to improve yields.

Then, each group from before lunch presented their findings. This helped each group understand their context within the project. Useful – because now, it was time to refine our ideas. The group I was part of, doing waste streams, worked with the food group on some business model canvases. Then the number-crunching began. What would the turnover be? The return on investment? How many black soldier flies, fish, and plants could be housed? This was tricky, but after a few hours, we got some estimates. Just in time for a quick dinner before the conference.

The conference was on policy challenges for vertical farming. The following speakers presented:

Thomas Zöllner (AVF) – background and context of the conference. We are subsidising cheap cookies with expensive healthcare! How do we get the need of change across?

Christine Zimmerman (AVF) – many current policies make it harder to implement vertical farming. The AVF has been lobbying to change this. Also, she explained the AVF’s pivotal role in bridging different parties in the industry, who felt uncomfortable sharing information directly.

Peter Jens (Koppert Biological Systems) – in the eyes of policymakers, vertical farming is just a technology. But it’s much more than that. The narrative of ‘9 billion by 2050’ is a product of a scarcity mindset. Our goal should be more than just feeding people. We should nourish them, focusing on the next generation’s health and microbiome. There’s more to it than yield. Thankfully, things are changing. Since 2008, Big Food has been losing market share.

Finally, after tinkering in PowerPoint in the back of the room, it was time to pitch the final outcome of the AVF workshop: Brusselaer Circulaer. Brusselaer Circulaer is to be an integrated resource management system at site Manufakture. It would use inputs from the city to produce high-quality food. It would also be a place for local people to participate, learn, volunteer, and work. Of course, these are all ideas we’ve heard before. Now come the challenges of implementing this plan. The workshop does not end there. A number of people are interested in working out the details for this farm. Looking forward to our meeting on Friday!

Dave Lucas’s visual impression of our design.

Had it not been for Bert van ’t Ooster, my lecturer, I would not have been able to participate in this exceptionally amazing workshop. Thanks a million!

Many thanks to Zjef Van Acker, Mark Horler, Glenn Van Roey, and others for their photos.

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