Why New Zealand Needs Vertical Farms

One of the many ways to view the Auckland skyline: jumping off the Skytower.

One of the many ways to view the Auckland skyline: jumping off the Skytower.

by Clive Cornford

Vertical farming has recently been discounted as a viable option for New Zealand horticulture. I often hear that this is because land is relatively cheap in New Zealand, sunshine is plentiful, existing growing conditions are the envy of much of the world, set up costs for vertical systems are too high, and the energy prices for indoor growing are prohibitive.

The real case for vertical systems in New Zealand has never been about replacing existing quality horticulture systems. Urban horticulture is instead about creating new opportunities for New Zealand horticulture.

It can provide hyperlocal plant production in the heart of the city; add value and new experiences into retail and tourist environments; enhance residential and commercial areas and, generate novel educational opportunities for city youth. It offers new business opportunities such as the precision production of plant products for the pharmaceutical, nutraceutical and cosmetic industries. Vertical growing systems also provide architects and smart-city planners the ability to integrate food production within existing or new green infrastructure initiatives, helping to make cities even smarter.

As it stands right now, horticulture in New Zealand is dynamic, inventive and prospering. It is also a strong export industry: about 60% of New Zealand’s horticulture produce (excluding wine), worth US$2.43 billion, is exported each year.

Annual exports of Kiwifruit from New Zealand are valued at US$1.29 billion. Kiwifruit represents the most valuable NZ horticultural export, sent to over 50 countries.

Annual exports of Kiwifruit from New Zealand are valued at US$1.29 billion. Kiwifruit represents the most valuable NZ horticultural export, sent to over 50 countries.

This success story is not, however, front of mind for many city dwellers and the closest many get to the rural economy is when they visit the fruit and vegetable aisles in their local supermarket. The nearest one to where I am writing this post is a place in the central business district of Auckland surrounded by office buildings, multi-storey car parks, a vacant building site and a multitude of retail and fast food outlets.

If I want to see where ‘local’ produce is grown, I have to battle my way through motorway traffic for an hour or so to reach Auckland’s rich and beautiful rural fringe. This is an unpredictable journey at the best of times due to traffic congestion, and despite improvements to public transport and cycleways getting there without a car is not practical.

The journey also gets longer each year. Auckland’s insatiable appetite for housing is leading to some of New Zealand’s most productive horticultural land surrounding Auckland being converted to houses and lifestyle blocks.

New Zealand field grown lettuce.

New Zealand field grown lettuce.

Despite these challenges there are many people in Auckland and across NZ that are highly motivated to protect biodiversity in our cities, support and maintain the city’s green infrastructure and actively participate in community gardens and local farmers markets. There are for example over many primary schools that participate in food projects such as Garden to Table and the rich cultural diversity of the city has resulted in an explosion of food outlets that are amongst the best in the world.

Kelmarna Gardens  — a 4.5 acre city-owned farm and organic community garden in Ponsonby, Auckland — is dedicated to building a healthy community and environment and promoting sustainable living. (Image courtesy of EcoMatters Environmental Trust)

Kelmarna Gardens — a 4.5 acre city-owned farm and organic community garden in Ponsonby, Auckland — is dedicated to building a healthy community and environment and promoting sustainable living. (Image courtesy of EcoMatters Environmental Trust)

New Zealand has an enviable reputation for the quality of its horticultural produce that is exported around the globe. The Horticulture industry is dynamic, quality focussed and innovative. Vertical farming will be an exciting addition to this rich ecosystem. It is therefore encouraging to see the arrival of indoor production initiatives such as Shoots in NZ. Initiatives such as this are complimented by a growing and increasingly well coordinated AgTech sector.

But, a key issue is that the industry struggles to attract talent, particularly from metropolitan areas where young people are often spoilt for career choices. There is no single solution to this challenge, but city-based vertical, controlled environment production systems can play a crucial role by exciting a new generation of food and grower entrepreneurs who are equipped to take advantage of the opportunities in our increasingly urbanised world.

Now is the time for New Zealand to embrace, not resist this global opportunity.

About the Author:

Clive Cornford is an experienced academic and plant scientist, and now independent consultant based in New Zealand. He is interested in how urban horticulture and in particular controlled environment growing can excite a new generation of tech-savvy food entrepreneurs and address issues of food security in urban environments.

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