Agriculture is having a (vertical) field day

Israeli start-up GreenWall’s unique solution to rising urbanization.

Israeli start-up GreenWall (photo credit: SHAI ADAM)
Israeli start-up GreenWall
(photo credit: SHAI ADAM)
By the year 2050, much will have changed. Some 70 percent of the world’s population will be living in urban areas, and the world will need to produce 50% more food than it does today to feed Earth’s ever-growing population. Viewed together, these predictions present a problem: People are venturing away from the natural world, yet will need to rely on it more than ever before to survive. Our dependence on the agricultural industry will increase, yet we will have little to no contact with agricultural surroundings. The answer appears to be urban farming – to move the agriculture industry to the majority of the people in the cities. The question is: How can this yield the staggering amount of produce that will be necessary to feed us? Otherwise unused spaces such as rooftops have taken center stage in urban farming efforts in recent years. They have been turned into gardens or communal growing spaces, a trendy upgrade for an unexploited area. While such projects succeed in bringing nature into concrete jungles, their focus is on education and community, as opposed to making a profit, and lack of available space prevents these initiatives from offering a solution on the scale necessary.
There is, however, another seemingly more efficient solution: vertical farming. And Israeli start-up GreeWall is leading the way. GreenWall, or Vertical Fields as it is known abroad, aims to “restore nature back into the urban areas where empty and gray vertical walls will become green without seizing valuable space.” The latter statement is key. Urban land is expensive, the soil is often tainted with various toxins that are inevitable in such polluted environments, and elusive arable land is often sacrificed to build accommodation or roads. GreenWall constructs gravity-defying vertical fields or gardens that grow on interior or exterior walls, which may seem an impossible feat. Guy Barness, GreenWall’s founder and CEO, is on hand to explain.
Barness’s roots are in real estate. While planning a project, he became enchanted by the concept of installing a vertical garden as an esthetic feature but found that in practice, the technology available was clunky and deficient and used large amounts of water. Not content with the options available, Barness chose to develop a new system, along with a humble team of three, researching the relevant science and gaining knowledge about the agricultural industry along the way. The team has now grown to 15, including various agricultural and technological specialists in addition to students.
“No one learns how to grow vertically; [we] teach them to think vertically... to bring back nature to the city,” says Barness, which explains why students of the younger, technology-focused generations, are highly prized within the company.
Starting the business in Israel proved extremely helpful.
Being in a country accustomed to little water, GreenWall’s primary concern was conservation, meaning that their new system uses 10% of the water that other vertical garden systems use. Additionally, Israel’s strict regulations against the use of chemicals ensured that GreenWall’s systems are chemical-free. The country’s range of climates, from desert heat to crisp coolness in the North, proved useful when testing their product and adapting it for other countries.
Vertical Fields boast many advantages over traditional cultivating methods, too. A vertical garden uses 1,500 liters of water to produce one kilogram of rice, while conventional crop-growing methods use 3,000 liters. Rice, however, is not the only product one can grow on a vertical wall in large amounts. Vertical Fields’ walls can grow almost any small root plant, from flowers and succulents to tomatoes, strawberries and even pumpkins.
They began to gain worldwide recognition when they showcased their unique system at the Expo Milano 2015, where companies from around the globe offered their contributions to the theme of ‘Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life’. Vertical Fields constructed the largest vertical field ever built, featuring wheat, corn and rice in addition to other crops, which they proceeded to harvest, demonstrating that their company has the potential to address the agricultural challenges arising due to increasing urbanization, most importantly in the huge scales demanded. Israel honored this achievement by issuing a commemorative stamp that described VF’s vision to prevent worldwide hunger.
While the primary problem arising both with increasing urbanization and population is how to feed the masses without negatively affecting the environment through transportation costs, the movement of agriculture to cities offers additional and significant benefits. If produce is grown in the city, it is delivered to stores far faster than if it needed to be transported from distant farms. This ensures a much fresher product for the consumer.
It is VF’s carefully curated technology that sets them apart and attracts the younger Start-up Nation generation, despite their tendency to be “scared of agriculture.” VF’s 4K dippers ensure that each vertical garden receives the correct amounts of water, air, light and mist. For indoor vertical gardens, LED lights can be added to aid photosynthesis. Irrigation is easily controlled by mini computers, developed specifically for the cause. Barness ensures that VF’s R&D department remains active and a priority. They are currently building a system to filter and enhance the air quality of a building through an exterior vertical garden wall, a feature inspired by their increasing work in China, a country that suffers intensely from pollution. There, local companies require air cleaning devices to aid office welfare.
Vertical Fields are gaining a worldwide reputation not only in the agricultural field. Prominent global companies are embracing the concept of the green wall and installing them in their offices. Facebook, Apple and Microsoft, to name a few, all boast an interior VF wall to bring nature into the workspace and to add a unique design element.
Each wall is designed alongside the customer by a team of VF architects, landscapers and designers to ensure that the finished product is practical, suited to the environment and, of course, beautiful. And the walls are beautiful, striking pieces of natural art offering a pleasing burst of color and freshness in a corporate environment, which have proven to improve the nature of such a space.
Many VF installations are Active Walls, which are not only esthetically pleasing but also improve the environment around them. This includes filtering the air, increasing the oxygen within the office and producing beneficial bacteria through VF’s use of probiotics, which offer similar benefits to those consumed in food supplements and serve to inhance the environment for both workers and vegetation. Active Walls also include acoustic and thermal insulation.
After installing a VF green wall in Intel’s offices, the conference room next door has barely been used, as employees prefer to conduct their meetings next to the vertical garden because it offers a more pleasant atmosphere.
This has certainly been Barness’s experience, he tells a visiting delegation composed of people from various racial and religious backgrounds who visited the VF HQ in Israel, which appeared to be a potentially volatile situation.
It was, in fact, a calm and happy meeting, which Barness attributes to the power of nature. “When you speak about plants,” he explains, “nobody speaks about war or terrorism... [nature] changes the status quo.”
If Vertical Fields is the solution for bringing agriculture into the urban domain, the thought of a future with greener cities and peace brought about by plants isn’t half bad.