Innovation & Trends

The Promises of Indoor Vertical Farming: better Botanicals while repairing Nature

In the technological age we live in, the rise of vertical and indoor farming is no big surprise. Coupled with the endless revelations about the scope of environmental damage soil-based industrial agriculture has been responsible for, it makes perfect sense.
On top of this fundamental problem with traditional agricultural methods rest others like variable plant quality, contamination and adulteration.

For many people vertical farming means urban farming – green walls and converted factories to grow fruits and vegetables, herbs and spices (and even medicinal plants!) mostly in city environments. This kind of activity is worthy and impactful and reveals humans adapting to very real concerns with the industrialised agricultural food production model that has dominated great swathes of the global food supply for so long. People are no longer willing to tolerate the unsustainable side-effects.

The vertical farming revolution is not however confined to cities. It also occurs in other areas like the kind BOTALYS practices from its state-of-the art facility in rural Belgium. We’ve refined the learnings of 30 years of vertical farming and hydroponics to develop a system that is producing the world’s most nutritious, cleanest, greenest ginseng and other cultivars.
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Origins & benefits of vertical farming

Vertical farming began in earnest around the turn of this century as its potential to deliver nutritious and cost-effective plants and crops and reduce environmental harm became too compelling to ignore.

If you run the rule over the chronology of plant collection and cultivation, it’s not hard to see how we ended up at vertical farming. The steps go something like:

  1. Hunting and gathering 
  2. Wild collection 
  3. Early agriculture
  4. Industrialised agriculture
  5. Greenhouses
  6. Vertical farming
Columbia emeritus professor in Public and Environmental Health Dickson Despommier is credited for making the term mainstream. His definition refers to a method of growing crops, “usually without soil or light, in beds stacked vertically inside a controlled-environment building.”
Indoor vertical farming solves many of the problems of traditional agriculture that have worsened significantly in recent decades as the cost of an industrialised approached to farming has come home to roost.

With vertical farming you don’t need much land, you don’t even need soil. Formerly sprawling farms that may have been massively damaging to local ecosystems via tree hacking, soil depletion and destruction, waterway damage and more are condensed into enviro-neutral vertical farms requiring a fraction of the land footprint.

Growing conditions optimised and can be conspicuously controlled. Yields elevated exponentially. Pesticide requirement eliminated. Damage to fauna like birds, insects and other animals minimised. Water and land security enhanced and wetland destruction reversed.

New norms

Compare vertical farming to cultured meat. For many, the initial reaction is revulsion. Eating meat grown in a lab? Sacre bleu!

But the reaction is mostly because the concept is alien from the norm. When reason is applied the reasons to eat cultured meat begin to add up and become compelling. Less animal suffering; more environmentally friendly; a potentially cheaper and tastier end product; potentially more nutritious foods.

And in these fraught times where the world is dealing with the horrors of the COVID-19 pandemic, less foodborne disease risk.
History shows us what is normalised and acceptable can shift rapidly. Once fringe practices become the new norm.

The same goes with vertical farming and plants. Growing foods without soil or sun?! Hard working farmers replaced by robots, software and Artificial intelligence?! But consider the advantages.

A chance for nature to repair itself

BOTALYS is proud to be working at the vanguard of the global vertical farming movement that has received support from the likes of the United Nations High Level Panel of Experts on Food Security and Nutrition. The Panel defines a sustainable food system as “a food system that delivers food security and nutrition for all in such a way that the economic, social and environmental bases to generate food security and nutrition for future generations are not compromised.”

As professor Despommier once eloquently put: “Nature will repair itself if you give it a chance, and indoor farming gives it that chance.”
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It is very clear that nature needs that chance as the climate crisis deepens on a seeming daily basis. As American Botanical Council chief Mark Blumenthal wrote last year in HerbalGram

“Like many concerned citizens, including scientists, policy makers, and others, we are alarmed by the evidence of increasingly overwhelming changes in the Earth’s climate, much of which is attributable to human activity. These changes include, but are not limited to, increasing temperatures, the melting of polar ice caps and glaciers, rising sea levels, changes in weather patterns, and much more. We are now facing an existential threat to not only plants and animals, but much, or perhaps almost all, of the biosphere itself.”

The COVID-19 pandemic is presenting further challenges as trade in wild plants increases due to increased demand for botanicals linked to human health and respiratory and immune function in particular. In China, for instance, about 90% of people who caught Coronavirus used Traditional Chinese medicines (TCMs) in the hope of reducing their symptoms.

With such trends replicated in other parts of the world, pressure mounts on the 3000 or so plant species regularly traded internationally, with many medicinal and aromatic plants under threat of extinction. The wildlife trade monitoring network, Traffic, noted, “the use of these species to provide remedies for the COVID-19 outbreak presents a key opportunity to emphasise the importance of ensuring the long-term sustainability of the TCM sector as a supplier of herbal ingredients.” Traffic added: “While current research focuses on the likely efficacy of herbal medicines to support health care, there is a lack of attention to ensuring the sustainability of supply chains, providing the herbal ingredients, in particular those sourced from the wild.” 

Vertical farming offers much in tackling these issues.

Vertical farming solves ginseng cultivation issues

The fact traditional ginseng wild harvesting and farming is prohibited over environmental concerns in most parts of the world tells you everything you need to know about why there is so much interest in the solutions vertical farming offers.

The move from wild harvesting to intense agricultural methods has not only been incredibly damaging to the environment, it has also meant outputs are no longer able to obtain ‘wild’ quality in bioactive terms. A double whammy of environmental damage and diminished efficacy.

In terms of Korean or Asian ginseng (Panax Ginseng), the holy grail is matching then bettering the biochemical potency of wild-harvested ginseng. BOTALYS’ innovative hydroponic vertical farming methods have met this challenge to deliver a safe, efficacious, clean and consistent Panax ginseng supply. That means world benchmark botanical bioactives free from adulterants like solvents, pesticides, mycotoxins as well as GMOs.

The Panax ginseng plants growing in BOTALYS vertical farms are all derived from the same cultivar, carefully selected for its potent molecular profile and yield potential. That means ginseng that has the highest levels of rare ginsenosides (the component that gives ginseng its nutritious punch), in combination with other synergistic ginseng compounds like Ginsan that are vital in a full spectrum ginseng totum.

Our refined HRG80 ginseng roots possess rare ginsenoside levels many times in excess of other ginseng forms (see comparative analysis here).
We have about 100,000 HRG80 Panax ginseng cultivars growing in our existing vertical farm with another much bigger farm under construction. We will open this farm in 2021 and are excited about its potential to house about 400,000 plants – 4x our existing farm.

A glimpse inside our vertical farm systems

Every aspect of our vertical farm is meticulously controlled and monitored using a combination of human expertise, computing power and AI. The end result? Optimal growth conditions that include the mimicking of seasons to ensure industry benchmark molecular profiles, yields and efficacy.
As an example, if a cultivar peaks in ginsenoside production in early Spring, BOTALYS botanists create that ‘early Spring’ climate and hydroponic nutrient solution to maximise the plant’s molecular profile.
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Employing a semi-automated process ensures sterility within the vertical farm – so important in producing extracts that are both pure and potent in profile and contaminant-free. Most tasks of growth management from the hydroponic blend to the light and oxygen levels within the farm are automated and run off bespoke software and hardware developed for BOTALYS. Rapid advancement in AI power means “machine learning gardeners” are providing more and deeper aid to our “human gardeners” at every step of the way. 

The crucial human touch is provided by our botanical experts who are responsible for:
  • Starting new cultures
  • Maintaining overall plant health via data analysis and visual observation
  • Harvesting and processing ginseng plantlets with “ripe” roots

The result is the planet’s cleanest and most pure ginseng people the world over can rely on to aid their energy, immunity, mood, libido, blood glucose and stress levels (read more articles about pharmacognosy here).

Nature’s call to arms

Can vertical farming really repair nature? Only time will tell of course, but what is certain is that traditional agriculture isn’t fit for purpose anymore. The science is unequivocal: it has badly damaged the natural world just as late capitalism has provoked a broader climate crisis.

As Traffic recently observed: “The future availability of plant ingredients to support human health is dependent on prioritising the conservation and sustainable use of their source species in the long-term. Much greater action is required on the part of private sector, governments and consumers to address the long-term availability of these species.”

The game has to change. Luckily for us, and you, and the precious planet we inhabit, vertical farming is a born game changer.