By Al Taubenberger
The roots of our nation can be found here in Philadelphia. It's fitting, then, that the roots of a promising new agricultural industry - vertical farming - are taking hold right here, not in soil but in water inside an unassuming warehouse in South Philadelphia.
I recently hosted a City Hall news conference to promote the expansion of vertical farming, with the goal of establishing Philadelphia as the world's preeminent training center for this burgeoning business.
Vertical farms grow vegetables, herbs, fruit, and more, indoors and year-round, in stacked rows that reach to the ceiling without natural sunlight or soil, in half the time it takes a traditional farm. These futuristic indoor farms use artificial lighting, climate control, and, in many cases, hydroponics. The vertical farming business will change the way produce is grown.
In Philadelphia, we're fortunate to have a visionary young vertical farming enterprise that makes a compelling case for us to become an international teaching hub for this nontraditional agricultural technique. Metropolis Farms has established the city's first indoor vertical farm inside a nondescript brick warehouse in South Philadelphia.
After touring the facility and speaking with Metropolis Farms president Jack Griffin, I became convinced that vertical farming will become increasingly important, both as a source of nutritious, pesticide-free produce and as a growth industry that can create hundreds of job opportunities in the city. Philadelphia, with its many empty warehouse spaces and wealth of colleges and universities, is well-positioned to become an international training hub for this growing industry.
The world's food supply is being strained to the limit. As the global population continues to expand, the demand for new sources of food - especially safe, nutritious, sustainable food products - will grow commensurate with the population. Vertical farming provides one very viable answer to solving the world's increasingly desperate food shortage problem.
I am strongly advocating that Philadelphia and the city's corporate community support and invest in this important new industry. Philadelphia has the available infrastructure, the world-class institutions of higher learning, and the homegrown expertise to establish our city as the international hub for vertical farming.
Vertical farms like Metropolis grow high-quality food year-round without pesticides, herbicides, or many of the other health risks that affect the food that reaches consumers' tables. Seasonality isn't a factor for the business, and there's no risk of poor weather conditions or seed contamination - a worry that comes up when growing non-genetically-modified seeds in an open field. Lower transportation costs and less spoilage are also advantages.
A network of vertical farms in the city could harvest and, on the same day, deliver fresh produce to local stores and restaurants. Local consumption is a key tenet of vertical farming.
Metropolis' vertical farming technology yields as much produce as an immense outdoor farm. It can grow more food in less space using less energy and water. The result replaces 44,000 square feet of traditional outdoor space with 36 square feet indoors.
Another advantage of indoor vertical farming is that there is significantly less impact on the environment, conserving water and nutrients, and it doesn't result in pollution or harmful emissions into the atmosphere.
Also, consider that one in six Americans suffered a food-borne illness last year. The biggest culprit is the manure used to grow produce traditionally. Vertical farming does not use manure to grow its produce, instead using combinations of hydroponics, crushed lava rock, and coconut core to plant and grow food. It's also pesticide-free, further reducing the risks of contamination.
The germination rate for vertical farming is 100 percent. The cost of vertical farming is significantly less than that of traditional farming as well. Metropolis Farms uses 95 to 98 percent less water than an outdoor farm and 75 percent less energy than traditional indoor farming technologies.
There is also nobility in this endeavor. As a proud graduate of Penn State who holds a bachelor of science degree in agronomy, I remembered the words of my late agriculture professor as I learned more about vertical farming. He once told me:
"The most noble thing a human being can do is produce food for others."
He was right. Vertical farming is very special, and it fits like a gardening glove here in Philadelphia.