Mission statement

Working towards a future-oriented professional horticulture in a climate-controlled environment in the urban or peri-urban space.

The growing conscience worldwide around climate change and food supply results in an increased attention towards the environmental impact of food production. Food scandals and environmental disasters raise questions with regard to food safety, food quality and transparency in food production processes. Consumers pay more and more attention to fresh and healthy food.

There is and increasing desire for sustainable and self-sufficient green cities. As several advantages are associated with local production, such as freshness, better quality and, being positive for the local economy and the environment, there is a raising interest in locally produced food and urban farming initiatives with food production integrated in the urban environment and the potential to recycle urban waste streams such as residual heat, water and organic waste 1,2,3,4,5,6.

1.   Challenges for the professional greenhouse horticulture

These societal challenges also find their way to Flanders. When we look specifically to the production of fruit and vegetables, Flanders is more than self-sustainable7,8. Taking up only 0,3% or 1979 ha of the total agricultural land area in Flanders, the greenhouse sector realizes more than 15% of the primary production value9. Even though the greenhouse horticulture sector makes up a very efficient production system, the sector is under pressure facing some significant challenges.

Available space is scarce in Flanders

The sector faces challenges to settle new or expand existing greenhouses. Agriculture, recreation, nature and urbanisation compete with each other over space. The spatial policy that was approved in 2016 (Witboek Beleidsplan Ruimte Vlaanderen) aims to safeguard open and unbuilt space. The current land take needs better utilisation by transforming existing built spaces and increase the spatial efficiency.

Energy costs take up an important part in production costs

In addition, the cultivation of some crops within the sector is energy-intensive. The growing energy costs combined with the scarcity of space resulted in Flanders in a systematic decrease of the greenhouse horticulture acreage between 2007 and 2013 (-12% for fruit vegetables, -27% for leafy vegetables and -41% for floriculture)11. Switching to LED lighting when cultivating with additional artificial lighting, can result in energy savings.

This can however pose some challenges for the cultivation method. Cultivation under LEDs requires attention to the choice of varieties and light recipes. As light influences both the plant and pathogens, research is also looking into the possibility to integrate light strategies in integrated pest management.

It remains important to pay attention to the climate

In general this approach will be the same for traditional greenhouses as rooftop greenhouses. Sensors, the climate computer and a ventilation system are required to balance the climate. By using sensors to monitor plants, growth and development can be predicted and controlled. Climate control at crop level will gain importance1.

An integrated crop protection management approach is required

Disease control remains an important point of attention, even though disease pressure usually is lower in hydroculture. Greenhouse cultivation remains sensitive to diseases because a larger number of plants closely reside on a limited surface. In addition, the number of approved crop protection or soil decontamination products decreases and the pressure to further strengthen residue levels increases2.

Can vertical farming offer an alternative?

The concept of the vertical farm introduced in 2010 the potential to produce food for cities in complete buildings up to 30 stories high12. These city farms can be staged in buildings independently of the outside climate or available sunlight. They make use of climate control, artificial lighting and multilayer growing systems.

Vertical growing in the city gains more interest and the number of initiatives is steadily increasing. Not all initiatives or however as successful. Growing produce in buildings is currently estimated to be 3 to 4 times more expensive compared to conventional production13. Both the energy consumption, which remains high despite the use of LEDs, and the integration with urban of industrial utilities impact the price of production and pose a challenge to the sector3, 13. Certain applications additionally require adaptation of existing technologies or development of completely new technologies and/or cultivation methods.

Indoor multilayer growing

Examples of indoor multilayer growing:

  • Left up: Aerofarms14
  • Right up: Growing Underground15
  • Below: FarmPro container UrbanCropSolutions (80 m2 cultivation surface)16

The challenge in realizing building integrated projects

In practice vertical also includes multilayer growing in isolated climate chambers/containers or on top of an existing building. Growing produce on the side, on top or in buildings is often referred to as ‘Building integrated agriculture’ or the coupling of food production to buildings to allow exchange of energy streams between building and food production. This includes both vertical farming and agriculture on rooftops in open air, greenhouses or a combination of both.

Rooftop greenhouses

Examples of rooftop greenhouses for professional horticulture:

  • Left up: first rooftop greenhouse of Gotham Greens in Greenpoint, Brooklyn with a surface of almost 1400 m2 and an annual production of 45.000 kg of leafy vegetables17
  • Right up: Ahuntsic, the first rooftop greenhouse of Lufa Farms with a surface of almost 2900 m and an annual production of 70.000 kg
  • Below: design of Building Integrated Greenhouses (BIGH) for the aquaponics farm in Anderlecht19

Challenges to realize such projects exist with regards to construction or acquiring the necessary permits. When placing a greenhouse on a roof, the material and construction have to be chosen in frame of the maximum allowed load on the roof or to be able to resist more extreme weather conditions such as a higher speed of the wind3. For closed multilayer growing, the building has to be resistant to high levels of relative humidity13.

In addition, there is a requirement for logistical access. Resources such as nutrients and water have to come in fluently and also the produce needs efficient transportation to leave the building. Innovations and adaptations are also necessary to allow the integration in the city or building environment and the use of residual resources as heat, water or CO2.

2.   Vision

Urban horticulture comes in many forms ranging from urban allotments to commercial production and these will continue to exist along each other in the future. With a growing urbanisation and call for greener cities and locally produced food, the commercial initiatives will grow importance.

Invest in technology and sustainable production

A number of challenges still needs to be overcome to make the urban horticulture sector profitable and support its future. High technological urban horticulture concepts and sustainable production methods are needed to lower production costs. Transition to high technological greenhouse horticulture and integration with urban or industrial utilities can on the other hand help in supporting the future of greenhouse horticulture in the highly urbanized region of Flanders.

To achieve this, innovations are required that result in lower energy use, higher production or better utilisation of cultivation space and as such reduce energy and production costs. New forms of automation and climate systems will balance production output and the input of labour and energy. The current land take needs better utilisation by transforming existing built spaces and increase the spatial efficiency.

High technological urban and/or greenhouse horticulture supplement conventional agriculture

Cultivation of vulnerable crops such as soft fruit, herbs or leafy vegetables in the urban or peri urban environment improves the quality of the end product reaching the consumer. Crops that are mainly grown as energy or protein source will not be suited for urban horticulture in the near future. Urban and greenhouse horticulture will thus form and addition to conventional agriculture.

A multifaceted story

Professional urban horticulture can play a broader role than only production, for example in the circular economy. Integration in the city delivers opportunities to close circles and make use of residual resources, such as heat, water and even waste in food production. Urban integration also requires an architectural approach, beautiful designed food production facilities that benefit the food production experience in the city. Intensive production for large markets can be combined with direct sales to consumers. Tours or events at the food production site are an asset and pose an answer to the growing needs of consumers for transparency of the food system. The proximity strengthens the story of the food product and makes up an integral part of marketing strategies. Urban and greenhouse horticulture will form a multifaceted story, whereby different systems collectively produce qualitative food for a growing (urban) population in a sustainable way.

3.   Scope

The endowed chair Agrotopia at the Faculty of Bioscience Engineering at Ghent University focuses on a future-oriented professional horticulture in a climate controlled environment in the urban or peri-urban environment in and around Flanders, including high technological greenhouse horticulture, rooftop greenhouses and vertical farming.

The endowed chair commits to the innovative development of infrastructure, equipment and cultivation methods with attention to economic aspects. The endowed chair builds on a wide range of expertise and research domains present within the Faculty of Bioscience Engineering and UGent.

This multidisciplinary approach will result in innovations that increase the productivity and lower the environmental impact and energy requirements. The endowed chair acknowledges the importance of research on the societal aspects of greenhouse and urban horticulture. Yet, the endowed chair does not target this in its own research but maintains a technical focus.