Petr Kirpeit is what you call a “Digital Native”: he was born in 1994. After working in the solar industry, he now works at AVF- Associaltion for Vertical Farming. His aim is nothing less than to contribute to satisfying the hunger of the growing world population. Together with his colleagues, he wants to give people the knowledge they need to run a modern agriculture: For example in a disused building in a city.
Petr, you work at the “Association for Vertical Farming”: what exactly do you do there?
I work at the AVF in the Education group. Our team is working to incorporate new content and teaching materials into our training platform, the Academy. In addition, I support internally in building an archive and develop a tool for vertical farming.
What does the tool do?
It should enable interested people and start-ups to plan their own vertical farm and give investors reliable information. But this is still in an early state.
What does the Vertical Farming Academy offer to people who want to start a vertical farm?
On our training page there are mostly videos and texts on various topics, which can be used by interested parties to inform themselves.
Visitors can learn all sorts of things about “vertical farming” and learn what is behind terms such as CEA, hydroponic cultivation, aquaponics and much more.
Which people visit the site?
Most visitors come from the USA and India. Germany is in fifth place in the visitor ranking. On average, the Academy site has 500 page views per month.
You will inform about “Standardization in Vertical Farming” – What does that mean?
The industry has not been around for long, and a development has only been emerging for a few years. Accordingly, we are pioneers and have yet to commit ourselves to certain standards. We are working to develop uniform standards for the industry. For example, a data format that can be used for the exchange between different vertical farms.
Big data analysis for vertical farms: What can I imagine by this?
Currently, huge data sets are being collected in large corporations. Small businesses and medium-sized companies are not yet benefiting from this. Although there are some companies that use Big Data for vertical farms, their data is not accessible to others. This includes surveys of environmental parameters such as temperature, humidity, light, water, nutrient concentration and so on: these values are needed by vertical farmers to be linked to controlled cultivation, called “CEA – Controlled Environmental Agriculture”.
Why should more vertical farms be established?
I would make a sweeping statement about the changes caused by climate change. A vertical farm can bring regional advantages, provide people with food and protect nature at the same time. Due to the long-term rise in sea level, the amount of arable land available for cultivation will shrink. Seawater will penetrate the earth and reach the groundwater needed by the plants in the fields. Another point is weather extremes, which have increased. In Asia, typhoons have destroyed large agricultural areas. Vertical farms are a solution, because here weather conditions have less influence.
So a vertical farm is active environmental protection?
The ecological footprint of vertical farms or indoor farms is considerably better in water ecology than that of conventional farms. With the latter, water simply evaporates back into the atmosphere. This protects fauna and biodiversity.
If vertical farms are so beneficial to the environment, why are there so few?
Unfortunately there are also disadvantages, because vertical farms are energy hungry.
Suppose a farmer wants to grow 25 lettuce heads in his greenhouse and uses LED lamps with a total of 500 watts in addition to sunlight. In this case, these LED lamps shine for eight hours overnight. The lettuce can be harvested here after about 30 days. However, during the 30 days 120kWh – 4kWh per night – are consumed. With the German electricity price of 0,29€ per kWh this costs 34,80€ per month. If you divide this by the number of heads of lettuce harvested, the price is €1.39 per head of lettuce.
This is a simplified bill, but compared to the conventional salad in the shop it is a loss. Compared to organic lettuce, however, which costs about 1.79 to 2.50 euros, this type of cultivation is cheaper.
So the question of whether to run a vertical farm is also an ethical question?
Yes – but in order to take the idea of sustainability further, you also need to know where the electricity that is used comes from. If you use 120kWh of electricity from fossil fuels, the energy balance – all in all – is worse than with imported organic salad from the Netherlands.
Does this mean that the ecological added value of vertical farms is significantly related to their energy source?
Yes, in order for vertical farms to operate sustainably and cost-effectively, the electricity must come only from renewable energy sources. It is best if a solar field is built around it when building a vertical farm. Or if you can get renewable energies regionally – in northern Germany, for example, it would be logical to choose an energy provider that offers wind power, whereas in southern Germany hydropower would be the better choice.
How could vertical farms in cities be supplied with energy?
In general, vertical farms are very practical in cities, but as soon as you build them as a glass skyscraper in the sky and someone builds a skyscraper right in front of it, the efficiency of the sun is lost. Vertical farms must be heated constantly to ensure that they have an optimum growth temperature for the plants. Depending on the type of plant, sometimes you need more and sometimes less heat. However, solutions can be found here, for example, waste heat from industry or companies can be used to create efficient cycles.
So cooperation with industry and vertical farms would be a win-win cooperation?
Yes, in many production processes and in the chemical industry heat is generated, which is undesirable. These could be used efficiently. CO2 is also important for commercial vertical farms. What for us humans is a substance that pollutes the atmosphere is a growth booster for plants. For example, a vertical farm could work with a cement plant where CO2 is released as an unwanted by-product of cement production. Instead of releasing it into the atmosphere, it can be diverted to the vertical farm.
Which plants can be grown on vertical farms?
At present, herbs such as basil, oregano, thyme, mint, lavender, lettuce, mushrooms, kale, but also strawberries, radish and tomatoes are mainly used. All plants that do not require a lot of space. Tomatoes and strawberries are already less suitable for a vertical farm in the commercial sector, as they require a lot of light and heat, which in the end would be even more expensive than organic products. Fruits like mangos, oranges or kiwis are currently still unsuitable for cultivation, but there are already first experiments and farms where it is being tested.
What types of farms are there? How should I imagine such a vertical farm? What does such a building look like?
There are different types and no standards, so it is not possible to say which vertical farms will prevail in the future. Basically, everything is possible, from the ordinary large greenhouse that provides light to the plants at night, to plants that grow in the floors of hermetically sealed halls without windows, to the most unusual places. For example, in an abandoned underground car park like “la Caverne” in Paris, or the “Growing Underground”, which is located in a World War II bunker 33 meters below the streets of London and supplies local restaurants with herbs and salads. In conclusion, it can be said that vertical farms exist in many variations and combinations. Who says that a vertical farm must necessarily be a skyscraper in the sky and not go underground?
How do you see the future for vertical farms?
With our company, we are committed to helping people to rethink – because vertical farms are still a pipe dream, a gimmick or not profitable for some people. Here, however, one should not think in years, but in decades. Vertical farms can only solve part of the problem for which humans are responsible. Not everything can be grown in vertical farms. The Germans, for example, love their bread, which makes them dependent on wheat and other types of grain that do not fit into vertical farms. -Except by genetic manipulation, so that the stem is shorter and the ear has more mass.
How must the diet be changed?
For example, this year the EU approved the use of insects as a food additive. Here I see a potentially huge market impact – like when the potato came to Germany from America. It’s impossible to imagine life without the potato. If the supplementation of our food with insects is done correctly, they could become part of our diet. Our consumption must definitely change, otherwise our future generations will pay a high price.
Thanks for the interview!