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A wooden Vertical Farming solution tailored for the cold and dark Uusimaa - how to be self sufficient and sustainable in a harsh climate

Vacuum Insulation System, our innovation, enables us to build this new system in a truly sustainable way - from wooden construction elements

Photo of Pasi Herranen
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Written by

Lead Applicant Organization Name

Aalto University

Lead Applicant Organization Type

  • Researcher Institution

If part of a multi-stakeholder entity (i.e. team), provide the names of other organizations and types of stakeholders collaborating with you.

-

Website of Legally Registered Entity

https://www.aalto.fi/en

How long have you / your team been working on this Vision?

  • 3-10 years

Lead Applicant: In what city or town are you located?

Espoo

Lead Applicant: In what country are you located?

Finland

Your Selected Place: what’s the name of the Place you’re developing a Vision for?

Uusimaa - a region of Finland covering roughly 10 000 square kilometers and with a population of 1.7 million people

What country is your selected Place located in?

Finland

Describe your relationship to the place you’ve selected.

Our whole team has either born or lived most of our lives in this place. All of us have studied here and all of us are currently working at Aalto University, located in the Uusimaa region.

Describe the People and Place: Provide information that would be helpful for an outsider who has never been there and may have no context about this Place to better understand the area.

Uusimaa is the center of science, culture and economic activity in Finland. Finland’s capital, Helsinki, is located in the Uusimaa region. Although the region itself is only around 3 % of Finland's area, roughly 33% of the Finns live here. A significant number of the people living here today have moved from rural parts of Finland in search of work and education: the population of Uusimaa has over doubled in the last 60 years. Although Uusimaa region is the biggest population center in Finland, the population density is still quite low compared to global metropolitan areas (186 people/square kilometer). As many of our people have only recently moved to Uusimaa, our people’s origins are from all around Finland and Karelia (Area partly lost to Soviet Union in WWII). Most of us speak Finnish, but we also have a minority of Swedish speakers.

Even though most of us live in cities, everyone has a connection with the nature - by either our own personal history, the family tree or the “mökki” (summer cottage, usually in the woods near a lake). Forests, and wood as a material are an integral part of our traditions and culture. Forests are something that calm us down and make us think of our history. Everyone here knows and appreciates that wood and the lumber industry has been the backbone of our economic miracle in the post WWII era.The climate in Uusimaa varies a lot between the seasons: During our short summers, we have ample amounts of sunshine. In contrast, for almost half a year we see very little sunshine and it is actually typical that we might not see the sun once in November or December. From November to March, the monthly average temperatures are beneath 32°F. Long winters and the cold weather make it extremely hard and costly to grow vegetables for our people. Our people often have to rely on Dutch/Spanish vegetables or greenhouse-grown vegetables from rural parts of Finland, meaning the food we eat has usually travelled a very long distance.

The people in the Uusimaa region love fish, potatoes and a great variety of vegetables. (especially putting those in the grill). Here at Uusimaa the freshness is the key - we have a beautiful nature and people expect their food to be as fresh as the nature surrounding us. People here yearn local, healthy and sustainable food but especially in the wintertime, local ecological, nutritious and tasty vegetables are hard to come by. Due to harsh climate and a shallow gene-pool, hereditary (cardiovascular etc.) diseases are prevalent in our region and it is extremely important to improve our dietary customs. During the past decades, the number of farmers has gone rapidly and steadily down. The harsh climate makes it extremely hard to make a living cultivating cereals or vegetables. Despite the fact that our agricultural sector is shrinking down, the demand of vegetables has been growing recently, both due to climate and health concerns.

What is the approximate size of your Place, in square kilometers? (New question, not required)

10000

What is the estimated population (current 2020) in your Place?

1700000

Challenges: Describe the current (2020) and the future (2050) challenges that your food system faces.

The current and future challenges that our food system faces are myriad, ranging from climate factors to policy problems. Our cold, dark and long winters cause both environmental and economic problems for the local food production. These harsh winters mean that if you wish to cultivate anything here year-round, artificial lightning plays a key role. For example, according to the National Resources Center of Finland, in the year-round cultivation of cucumbers in Uusimaa, almost 75% of the light energy for photosynthesis comes from artificial lights and only 25% from the sunlight. Another problem in our region is, that the go-to cultivation solutions, the greenhouses, are very poorly insulated. When you combine bad insulation with the fact that the yearly average temperature in the Uusimaa region is roughly 40°F, a lot of oil, wood and peat has to be burned to keep our greenhouses warm during the winter. To give you a very revealing data point, it takes roughly 25 kWh of energy to grow one kilogram of lettuce in Uusimaa. For the sake of the producers, consumers, nature and generations to come, this number should at least be halved in the near future.

As far as policies go, the local government does not have much say in what happens. Our agricultural policy is dictated on EU level and the Finnish government could not give extra support to local farmers even if it wanted to. This makes it very hard for our farmers to get their voices heard. As handouts nor subsidies will solve our problems, we must strive to make the most out of what we got in these challenging conditions. Creating and sustaining profitable food production in Uusimaa requires technological innovations, bold thinking and above all seamless cooperation between different stakeholders of the food value chain.

Cardiovascular diseases are very common in Uusimaa due to genetic, dietary and environmental factors. Eating a healthy balanced diet is extremely important here, as the lack of sunshine and cold winters already have an adverse effect on our health. Creating a more efficient, sustainable and dynamic food production system would make it cheaper, tastier and easier for our people to keep striving towards a healthier and more diverse diet.

Ongoing climate change will surely alter the weather here in years to come, and likely not for the better. Extreme weather phenomena will become more common (colder winters - hotter summers). This means that in 2050 we are likely facing worse climate conditions for growing vegetables year-round than today and at the same time all the indicators show that we will have less and less agricultural workforce available, both due to the aging population and young people being less and less interested in agricultural professions. Overcoming these challenges without compromising supply, quality and sustainability will require new ways of thinking. We need to get all the different stakeholders to plan and act together to a more efficient food system.

Address the Challenges: Describe how your Vision will address the challenges described in the previous question.

After gathering data from relevant food system stakeholders, analyzing it, and taking into account local environmental, economic and cultural factors, we have envisioned a new system that we believe would most improve the lives of our people. We shall build well-insulated, warehouse-like wooden buildings, where plants are cultivated under green-energy-fueled LED-lights in multiple vertical tiers. These vertical farms should be built within or in the immediate vicinity of cities to get rid of food miles and to integrate these facilities better into the food system and circular economics-models. A data-driven mentality is required: we must record every little detail and utilize both human intelligence and AI/machine learning solutions to help us keep reaching the next level of sustainability and productivity. We have been closely working with plant research experts, strategic technology suppliers, AI and machine learning experts, Greenhouse growers associations, global and local food retailers as well as construction technology and circular economy experts in creating this vision.

Creating a truly sustainable future requires a holistic approach. It is not enough to minimize the energy needed for cultivation but we must also take into account what materials we are using to build this new system. Only that way can we truly minimize the footprint of the whole system. Currently, because of how taxing indoor farming is to the building's envelope, the vertical farms of the world are mostly built out of concrete and steel. Using these unsustainable and soon-to-be-scarce materials does not fulfill the vision of sustainability and cost-effectiveness. For both our environment and the nature loving people of Uusimaa, it is paramount that this new system will be built out of wood - and we just happen to have developed the technology (VIS) to make that happen here at Aalto University.

We have been paying great attention to synergies every step of the way - from the material choices of these facilities to how we can heat nearby buildings with the excess heat collected from our well-insulated vertical farms. Hyperlocal, controlled environment food production means that we can meticulously plan everything from seed to when and how the food hits the consumers’ plate.

To sum it up, here is our vision: a network of sustainable wooden vertical farms built and operated in close co-operation with the retailers, while paying close attention to the consumers’ preferences. This system built on co-operation will bring farmers closer to the retailers leading to higher profitability, less food miles and less waste. Our people will be able to enjoy a great variety of local healthy and sustainable food year-round with reasonable costs. Above all, we will achieve this with zero impact on the environment: no pesticides, no fossil-fueled energy, no runoff waters to the rivers, nearly zero water usage and most importantly, with zero use of concrete.

High Level Vision: With these challenges addressed, now provide a high level description of how the Place and the lives of its People will be different than they are now.

Uusimaa people will be able to produce and consume better, more economical, sustainable and healthier food with smaller impact on the nature and at the same time, new business and better paying jobs are created for our people. Currently a kilogram of lettuce grown in Uusimaa consumes 25 kWh of energy. In VIS Vertical Farms, we can grow a better tasting kilogram of lettuce with 40% of that energy. This new food system means that we need no longer to rely on the vegetables transported from Spain (where the local farmers are running out of water) in the winter. We can now eat hyperlocal, affordable and nutritious products year-round. As the whole food system becomes more interconnected and evolved, we require less of manual agricultural workforce, which seems to interest the people of Uusimaa less and less. Part of our vision is truly connecting the agricultural sector to the urban society - we plan to make these VIS vertical farms visitable by anyone interested. We believe that city dwellers will truly value the chance of visiting and enjoying the sea of green that lies within our facilities. In our vision, food production becomes a natural part of every city in Uusimaa. We believe that from this interconnected and integrated system, efficiency and sustainability will emerge in ways that have been out of our grasp.

In addition, we can make this all happen in a sustainable way - by using our technological innovation to build wooden vertical farms. This is not easy, as the relative humidity in indoor farming is often close to 80 % and this will make most of the insulation materials decompose. Thanks to our innovation, we can build our vertical farms with wooden elements and still keep them dry for decades - or even longer. Uusimaa people, who strongly dislike the unsustainable concrete buildings and love wood as a material, will most likely welcome our wooden vertical farms with joy.

Full Vision: How do you describe your Vision for a regenerative and nourishing food future for your Place and People for 2050?

In 2050 we are able to produce locally a wide variety of vegetables and cereals with zero or net-positive effect on the environment. As the whole cultivation process runs 100 % on clean energy and is completely separated from the outside world, we leave no footprint to the nature - we need zero pesticides, zero heating and all waste and water is reused and collected. The cultivation facilities are located near the consumers and fully integrated into the ecosystems of cities. The whole food system runs with nearly zero food waste as the farmers and retailers coordinate everything from the start to the end. And as we are cultivating plants in multiple vertical layers, we produce 10-100 times more food per square foot of land than the current system. This means that no forests have to be cut down to make room for new farmland - in fact, thanks to the efficiency of this system, we can start converting old farmlands to forests, sequestering CO2 from the air in the process. By building our vertical farms out of wood, we further help our region and planet by creating long term CO2 storages. 

The new food system that we have visioned, makes us less dependant on agricultural policies and transforms our currently subsidy-dependant agricultural sector towards a healthier, market-based system. Our farmers no longer have to beg for handouts from the European Union but instead they are able to sustainably and profitably cultivate a wide variety of plants even in this harsh climate. This new food system, where boundaries between different stakeholders are brought down, means that farmers can make a honest, decent living in a truly market-oriented way. (currently subsidies make roughly 20% - 50% of the income of farmers). The new integrated system also means that the capital risks will be more evenly divided between farmers and retailers in the future - and this means that new efficiency will emerge, as retailers are better equipped for carrying capital risks than the farmers. As lower-paying manual agricultural jobs vanish, more value-adding, higher level job-opportunities emerge in the planning, AI and machine learning development, monitoring, maintenance, research etc. sections of the automated vertical farms. In addition to dividing the risks more equally, this new system disconnects us from the extreme weather phenomena. This means that no matter what the weather is outside, the cultivation environment inside our well insulated vertical farms stays the same, optimal, every day of the year. This makes the whole food system less risky and enables all stakeholders to make bigger investments, as the risk of ruin diminishes significantly. 

While it is paramount to do everything in one's power to slow down the climate change, we also believe in preparing for the worst. Extremely moisture-tolerant cultivation facilities, that are completely isolated from the outside world, ensure that our food system will survive in any future climate scenario and we can keep producing food no matter what happens. This means that our planned system is antifragile - in other words, it is a hedge against the climate change and since this is an inherent attribute of the system, no sustainability is compromised in achieving this climate change adaptability.

In 2050, gene editing technologies, such as CRISPR/CAS9 have given birth to new cereal cultivars that are tailor-made to be grown vertically under LED-lights. We can now produce both the healthy vegetables as well as the calorie-rich cereals efficiently with zero impact on the nature. As all our food is grown within ten miles from population centers, the food waste will be minimized as it is only takes a couple of hours for the food to get from the cultivation site to the consumers plate.

Fully automated, AI and machine learning optimized, vertical farms require less manual labor than any other cultivation method. This ensures that we will be able to keep producing food even with the ever-diminishing agricultural workforce. As by 2050 we have learned infinitely more about vertical farming techniques, we will have found cultivar-specific, optimal cultivation “recipes”. According to these recipes, we will adjust the temperature, humidity, CO2-content of air and the LED-light spectra so that we can produce better tasting and more nutritious food with fewer resources.

Part of our vision is to empower the consumers and bring them closer to the cultivation process. These vertical farms will be built in a way that makes it possible for every member of the community to visit them and see for themselves how their food is being produced. This brings transparency to the whole system and also enables consumers to give feedback to the producers in person. This system will be more inclusive and holistic than the old system, where producers, retailers and consumers are far apart from each other both geographically and mentally. As the production, retail and consumers are all working as one in the system, new ways of increasing the performance of the whole system will be found.

Change rarely comes without hard work and financial investments. Securing the capital needed to realize this vision will surely be one of the main challenges. We must clearly formulate our vision and build an undeniable business case. We must be transparent and show everyone the numbers so they can verify themselves the efficiency of the new system. Only and if only we can clearly communicate our vision to all the stakeholders, can we find the investments needed to make all this happen. We must bring everyone in the community together - farmers, governing and legislative bodies, retailers and consumers to make sure that we can find the capital at the lowest cost possible. We believe that one way of making this happen is to get the retailers and wholesalers more involved in the financing part of agriculture. It would be more efficient to have the wholesalers and retailers also pitch in to the investment of building these new high tech farms, as bringing added value to the customers in the form of healthy, tasty, local vegetables is also in their interest. We believe that this system brings farmers closer to the retailers and the consumers, creating new co-operation and co-innovation. We believe that this new food system will be more than the sum of its parts: when everything is planned from before building the food production facilities to how the product ends up to the consumers plate and when everyone involved in the process works together toward the common goal, we can find new synergies that will drastically cut waste and improve resource use efficiency.

As by 2050 we are producing a wide variety of ecological and economical local food, the people will have started to consume more vegetables and less meat. These dietary changes will be extremely beneficial for our region, our people and the planet as a whole. We are sure that by making this agricultural revolution be all about wooden vertical farms, we ensure that the people of Uusimaa are wholeheartedly onboard with this new system. The material choice cannot be stressed enough, as “puu”, as we call the wood, is the most important aspect of our culture and by far the most appreciated construction material in the hearts and minds of our people. 


The technology:

VIS (Vacuum Insulation System) is a completely new technology that makes it possible to build energy efficient, sustainable and long-life-cycle construction elements that perform well in humid environments both in cold and warm climate. The main idea behind VIS technology is to form a vacuum inside a wooden construction element. This lowers the thermal transmittance, the U value, of the element and helps keep the element constantly dry and healthy. The state of vacuum drying can be achieved inside the element by coating the element with airtight barrier layer and by connecting the element to a vacuum pump. When told so by the sensors inside the element, the vacuum pump removes the moisture and therefore element frame cannot be biodegraded and mold cannot appear inside the element.

According to the Water pressure saturation curve, the lower the pressure the lower the temperature at which water saturates. At normal pressure (14,5 psi), water saturates at 212°F, but for example at 0,29 psi, at 68°F. When the water pressure saturation point is achieved inside the element, water transforms into vapor that is easy to remove with a vacuum pump. The elements are equipped with moisture sensors that will start the vacuum pumps when needed. This technique is called vacuum drying and it ensures that the elements stay constantly dry and healthy.

In addition, VIS elements are designed to emit as little of VOCs (Volatile Organic Compounds) as possible: the vacuum pump removes all VOC emissions from inside the element and the outer surfaces of the elements are coated with VOC-free materials. By doing this, we are able to minimize the need of ventilation inside the plant factory (plants produces the oxygen needed), which plays an extremely important role in order to achieve excellent energy efficiency in indoor farming business.

How did you hear about the Food System Vision Prize?

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Hi, I want to create a network with you.
Email;- vdcrangpur@gmail.com

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