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Technology breathes new life into farming

Cities produce crops as Korea looks for green ways to boost food output

A farm in Yongin on the outskirts of Seoul is ripe with salad greens. But rows of lollo and romaine lettuces are not sprouting from the earth. The plants are thriving on plastic shelves inside a seven-story office building.

The “vertical farm,” run by Insung Tech, cultivates indoor crops by artificially supplying air, water, light, minerals and other necessary conditions for plants to grow.

This new type of urban farming has emerged as a viable solution to food shortages and agriculture-driven pollution.

The method does not require much land, and no pesticides are used. The man-made facilities mimic the natural ecosystem by employing solar panels, recycled water and diode lamps.

Inside Insung’s artificial farm, surrounded by large residential complexes and office buildings, rows of green leaves flourish with their roots soaking in nutrient-infused water below plastic molds on the shelves.

“In terms of output per pyeong (3.3 square meters), we produce probably seven to 10 times more than traditional greenhouses,” director Ahn Hyung-chu told The Korea Herald.

“We plan to raise the amount by upgrading plants and diversifying the lineup,” he said.

The farm yields up to 1.2 tons of vegetables per month, including lettuces such as lollo, the Dutch-originated multigreen, romaine and kale. It also produces popular herbs such as basil and sage in the 169-square-meter area.

Plants normally take 50 to 60 days from seeding to harvest depending on the type of seed, he noted.

Insung, formerly a manufacturer of self-service car wash equipment founded in 1991, transformed itself into an agriculture pioneer in 2009.

“You know, they’re not much different,” Ahn said. “Car-washing machines use air and water when they spray detergent, rinse and dry off a vehicle. We applied the same air and water to crop farming ― but just automated the system.”

Vertical farming is growing in popularity as the world is suffering soaring food prices amid severe cold spells and outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease.

“Vertical farms so far have been used by companies for commercial purposes but now there’s room for the government to step in regarding increasing global food concerns and the kimchi crunch Korea went through last year,” Kang Hee-chan, a senior researcher at Samsung Economic Research Institute, said.

Food security has been making recent headlines. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization’s food price index showed in February that global food prices hit an all-time high since it began tracking the wholesale cost of 55 commodities including wheat, corn, rice, sugar, meat and dairy products in 1990.

The world is facing greater challenges as the number of people is expected to cross the 7 billion mark in 2013 and 9 billion by 2050, about 80 percent of them in cities.

Scientists say the combination of agriculture and high technology can enable year-round crop harvests even in the most arid areas while minimizing environmental damage.
Workers tend crops at Insung Tech’s vertical farm in Yongin, Gyeonggi Province. (Insung Tech)
Workers tend crops at Insung Tech’s vertical farm in Yongin, Gyeonggi Province. (Insung Tech)

Dickson Despommier, a Columbia University professor who introduced the idea of growing food in skyscrapers in 1999, claims a 30-story vertical farm can feed up to 50,000 people a year.

But high facility costs and low profitability still hampers vertical farming from becoming a mass market industry.

In Feb. 2010, the company began supplying lollo and multigreen lettuces to local department stores such as Shinsegae, Hyundai and Lotte, and retailers like Lotte Mart and Lotte Super.

Despite price tags twice as high as regular products, about 80 percent of customers of Lotte Super’s Jamwon branch returned to buy the greens again, Ahn said, quoting a Lotte official.

“It appeals to the taste and health concerns of middle class consumers in southern Seoul,” he said. “Customers say our veggies taste more tender. And the crops never see agricultural chemicals, so are clean and safe to eat.”

Combined monthly sales came in at 10 million won ($889,100) last year, Ahn said. But the business is yet to go into the black due to high startup costs and operating expenses including lighting, air-conditioning and power.

The largest slice comes from lighting, for which Insung uses LED bulbs and compact fluorescent lamps as well as solar photovoltaic panels.

“No artificial lamp can replace sunlight, of course,” he said. “But speaking of the other two, fluorescent lights tend to make leaves flourish with only about a third of the money needed to put in an LED system.”

Indeed, those under fluorescent bulbs appeared healthier and greener. The greater quantity of light reaching them makes a huge difference, Ahn pointed out.

“We are flexibly using all three light sources together,” he said. “Though some developers and government officials insist on using LEDs, I can tell you that LEDs are not always the answer given the fact that lighting is the most expensive part of the bill.”

The problem stems from a lack of publicly available data on plant growth, Kang said.

“Each crop needs different sorts of light sources, but we don’t have information on which plant wants which spectrum and how much,” he said.

Compared with full-spectrum fluorescent lighting, LEDs allow operators to pick out the specific colors of light needed to optimize plant growth, Kang noted. For instance, they can exclusively use blue and red light, which are vital to photosynthesis.

“LEDs have higher energy efficiency in terms of heat and light,” he said. “With the price issue taken into account, vertical farmers would primarily utilize fluorescent lights and move to LEDs once LED prices go down and the market matures enough to provide relevant agricultural data.”

Insung is also about to launch a smartphone application in a farm automation project with KT Corp., Korea’s telecommunications giant, which allows farm owners to remotely control light, temperature, humidity and nutrition when they are away, Ahn said.

Automation will be the mainstay of vertical farming, SERI’s Kang underlined. A more desirable model would bring about total automation of farms facilitated by robotics technology.

“Although we don’t know which direction the market would take, farms could adopt an automated management system with robots to raise efficiency, since most farming tasks including culturing and nutrition control are simple and repetitive,” he said.

By Shin Hyon-hee (