Although the image above might look like something straight out of Candyland — drat, my age is showing — I am pleased to inform you that it is part of our world. These aren’t sugar creations, but nutritious plants. In fact, if you lived in South Korea, you could enjoy these leafy greens from the comfort of the Sangdo metro station in Seoul.
These vegetables are not only sold there, they’re also grown there in a vertical smart farm taken care of by artificial intelligence-equipped robots, which control the environmental factors needed for the plants to grow. Managed by smart agriculture startup Farm8, the farm at Sangdo metro station is only 394 square metres, or teeny tiny compared to the average outdoor farm.
However, it is an example of how we can use technology to make agriculture more resilient in the face of climate change, which can wreak havoc on our food security.
The Seoul Metro’s Empty Space Problem
Referred to as a “futuristic version of agriculture” by the Seoul Metropolitan Government, and known in general as vertical farming, the Sangdo farm opened in 2019 and was the first smart farm to be installed in a subway station in South Korea. According to Nikkei Asia, the farm was born out of the Seoul Metro’s desire to utilise vacant spaces inside its stations and diversify its revenue sources.
Before the farm opened, the area where it now resides used to be an unattended exit and meeting point for folks. Transfer hubs and big stations in South Korea are normally home to restaurants and shops, but locations like Sangdo are often unused because retailers aren’t interested in them.
How to Grow Vegetables in a Metro Station
Unlike other retailers, Farm8 didn’t seem to mind about not being in a transfer hub or big station. It signed a 10-year lease with the metro for its smart farm, which also consists of a café where it sells its fresh produce as well as an educational area where visitors can learn about smart agriculture.
Farm8 doesn’t use sunlight or soil to harvest its vegetables at the Sangdo station. Instead, its greens are grown in hydroponic trays and are lit by LED panels. Robots control water, light, temperature, humidity, and carbon dioxide levels, and data is analysed by artificial intelligence to help manage the farm. Using this method, the company can grow plants twice as fast as a conventional farm.
The Impact of Climate Change on Agriculture
Rising temperatures, extreme heat, drought, wildfire on rangelands, and heavy downpours are expected to increasingly disrupt agricultural productivity in the U.S., according to findings in a landmark 2018 report. The findings show that increased temperatures in the Midwest during the growing season are projected to be the largest contributing factor to declines in U.S. agriculture productivity.
This isn’t a far-off future impact either. In the past few years alone, monster floods and a derecho in the Midwest have caused billions in losses and left decades of recovery for soils. Meanwhile, the West faces a megadrought that could spark widespread water restrictions due to dwindling snowpack and reservoir levels.
Globally, food security and livelihoods are also on the line. Approximately 2.5 billion people, many of them poor, are dependent on agriculture for their livelihoods. When there are climate-induced disasters, such as drought, agriculture sectors absorb 26% of the economic impacts. For drought alone, the impact increases to 83% in developing countries. Groundwater depletion and changing rainfall patterns are also adding to the pressure on farmers.
Using Smart Farms to Respond to Climate Change
Farm8 CEO Dae Hyun Kang told Bloomberg in March that climate change is the reason the company started to integrate technology into its business.
“You need the right amount of everything from water to light, and the weather has to be perfect, which is increasingly hard to predict,” said Kang. “We started as a traditional farming company 16 years ago, but we’ve learned to incorporate technology because we needed to protect ourselves from the changing climate.”
The South Korean company currently produces 1.2 tons of vegetables used for salads on less than an acre of land in three locations, including the metro station, in the country. Farm8 is one of the top lettuce producers for local Subway, Burger King, and KFC restaurants.
That’s Not to Say That Smart Farms Are the Holy Grail, Yet
Although this all sounds great, vertical farming isn’t a perfect system. Bloomberg points out that vertical farming can use as much as 90% less water compared to traditional methods and also reduces emissions created when ploughing fields, weeding, harvesting, and transporting crops. On the flip side, it uses a lot more energy than traditional methods.
In vertical farms, lights need to be on for 12 to 16 hours a day. In the winter, companies must keep the heat on as well. This means that this type of farming can be a lot more expensive than traditional methods. One way to lower energy-related carbon emissions — and ease the financial burden — is by relying on solar power, which has become more widespread and cheap in recent years. Distributed systems like rooftop solar, in particular, could be tied to vertical farms. But the world has a long way to go when it comes to installing enough solar, wind, and other renewable energy capacity to meet everyone’s needs, let alone the needs of vertical farms.
Vertical farming is also not suited for feeding the entire world. Structural changes are needed to prepare agriculture to meet the food demand of a growing population as well as the rising threat of climate change to production. Researchers have proposed a series of fixes from the field to the dinner plate to shore up our food system. Among them are reducing fertiliser use, cutting down on food waste, and increasing the role of vegetables in our diets.
As for Farm8, It’s Going to Grow Cosmetic Plants and Hemp
Kang said that most of Farm8 is focused on producing salad greens at the moment, but that the company is looking to ramp up its production of cosmetic and medical-based plants, such as hemp, to increase its profits.
Farm8 also wants to export its smart farm system. Earlier this year, the company sent a 12 metre farm to South Korea’s research centre in Antarctica. The Antarctic smart farm will be monitored from South Korea and provide about 2 kilograms of vegetables per day, including chiles, zucchinis, and cucumbers. If you can grow cucumbers in the Antarctic, chances are you could grow them anywhere.