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The Borlaug Blog

High-rises for Better Nutrition

By Per Pinstrup-Andersen
2001 World Food Prize Laureate

Micronutrient deficiencies are a very important part of the world food problem.  Current estimates are that about 2 billion, more than a quarter of the world population, are affected.  There are no indications that the number is falling, but it is likely to be tilted increasingly to urban populations.  These deficiencies cause very serious health and economic problems, particularly for poor households with very limited access to vegetables and other foods with high content of vitamins and minerals.

While agricultural research and other efforts to increase productivity of basic food staples, particularly wheat, rice and maize, have been successful in expanding production and reducing unit-costs of production, such success has not be achieved in vegetables and other foods high in micronutrients.  As illustrated by past and current priorities in CGIAR research as well as FAO’s definition of undernourishment, emphasis has been and continues to be on calories. If this continues, we will end up with an obese and nutrient deficient world population. In fact, we are already on our way.

Changing agricultural research priorities from more calories to more micronutrients per unit of land and water would be a step in the right direction.  Another action is fortification of staples. Biofortification is showing great promise in this regard. Consumer education to consume a more diversified diet would work in those cases when fruit and vegetables are available at reasonable prices.  Unfortunately, because unit-costs of vegetables have not decreased, neither have prices. Worse still, a large number of low-income households do not have access to fresh vegetables. Widespread urban food deserts are a case in point.

So what to do?  In addition to the actions mentioned above, I believe it is now time to take large-scale vertical indoor production of vegetables in high-rises located in urban and peri-urban areas seriously.  Surely, large scale commercial production of vegetables with artificial lighting in tall buildings sounded like a pipedream only a few years ago and still may to some people today. However, recent technological advances, including dramatic price falls for  LED lighting and increasing light efficiency, as well as new opportunities for low-cost renewable energy, along with recently gained practical experience from an increasing number of vertical indoor food production facilities around the world, has turned a pipedream into a potential  economic opportunity. Furthermore, delinking some of the vegetable production from the impact of climate change is another consideration of increasing interest.

So what are the advantages of vertical indoor food production?  Here is a partial list[3]:

1.       It makes fresh vegetables available to urban consumers throughout the year;

2.       It produces very high yields per unit of land (basically the footprint of the building);

3.       It uses no soil and therefore causes no soil contamination and land degradation;

4.       It uses very little water (about 5 % of that used in production on open land) and therefore places less pressures on limited water supplies;

5.       It eliminates risks from biotic and abiotic factors without the use of pesticides and therefore reduces production losses and fluctuations as well as health risks for humans and the environment;

6.       It is not affected by climatic fluctuations and global warming and therefore provides a constant supply of vegetables through the year independent of climate change; and

7.       It shortens the supply chain and therefore reduces costs and emission of greenhouse gasses in transportation.

Relevant knowledge of the economics of vertical indoor food production is very limited.  Some of the existing facilities appear to be profitable, others are going bankrupt. There is an urgent need for more analysis, including case studies, pilot schemes and assessment of government policy options, to help understand the economic viability and to explore the extent to which the additional vegetables would in fact be consumed by those currently deficient.   But to continue to consider vertical, indoor production of vegetables in urban areas nothing but a pipedream would be a mistake. Vertical indoor production of vegetables could become a very important tool to reduce micronutrient deficiencies together with – not instead of - more emphasis on fortification, including biofortification, as well as unit-cost reducing agricultural research for vegetables and consumer education.



[1] Blog Post submitted to World Food Prize September 26, 2018

[2] Professor Emeritus, Cornell University and Adjunct Professor, University of Copenhagen

[3] For a more detailed discussion see:  Per Pinstrup-Andersen (2018). “Is it time to take vertical indoor farming seriously”.  Global Food Security 17 (2018) pp. 233-235.



10/22/2018 8:00 AM |Add a comment |Comments (1)
Thank you Professor, thought provoking, insightful comments. With increasing urbanisation and more megacities, we need to avoid "urban food deserts" and instead put these places into production of healthy, nutrient-dense food. For several years I have been collecting and analysing (for minerals and carotenoids) leafy vegetables/food trees in Pacific countries and N Australia. Lately we have focussed on atolls, which have high pH (often about 9), salty, coralline "soils" with low water-holding capacity, and drought is common. In June we launched out latest fact sheet series in Kiribati. Most of the featured nutritious leafy vegetables are natural biofortifiers of various mineral nutrients/micronutrients and vitamins/pro-vitamins. My favourites are Drumstick (protein, sulphur, selenium, iron, lutein, b-carotene, B vitamins, polyphenols, etc), Chaya (protein, iron) and Purslane (iron, zinc, magnesium, n-3 fatty acids). In addition to their nutritional value (much higher than most commercial "leafies"), they thrive on poor soils with minimal fertiliser and have anti-diabetes effects, important for the Pacific region, where NCD rates are high. I think these plants would grow well in urban settings, as long as winters are mild (not an issue if they are grown indoors). Could be grown vertically/hydroponically or in beds, with water use minimised by a "wicking" system.

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