Genius Greens Aeroponic Farms: The Future of Agriculture
By King Lai 19 January, 2023
In the midst of our current food conundrum, we chat with Lai, Founder of Genius Greens, who set up a vertical farm in hopes of transforming agriculture & bolstering food security in Hong Kong
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Genius Greens started with a mission to address some of the most pressing issues of our time: sustainability, environmental footprint, food security, health and wellbeing. Whether you’re at home preparing meals for your household, or you’re a restaurant professional looking for the freshest ingredients, Genius Greens proprietary aeroponic technology and cooperative partnerships deliver locally grown, gourmet-quality produce to your door all year round.
Vertical farming will be key in the revolutionizing agriculture as we become more and more urbanized and pressures on food security grow. So, CWR sat down with King Lai, Founder of Genius Greens, an urban vertical farm in Hong Kong.
CWR: Thank you for chatting with us today, King. It’s exciting to witness the growth of vertical farming in Hong Kong. Can you share why you started Genius Greens and the current problems with our food landscape?
King Lai (KL): The current food landscape is a conundrum that we urgently need to address. Food is at the center of a water, food and energy nexus that is pressured by increasing population, diet changes and economic growth. Meanwhile, urbanization is relentless where most of consumption takes place. Bill Gates projected in one of his recent annual letters that humanity will be building a new New York City each month for the next 40 years!
“The current food landscape is a conundrum that we urgently need to address”…
…70% of freshwater is used for food production, soon even more water & land will be needed…
Clearly, growing more food is not optional as our population grows. In fact, we just hit a major milestone…global population reached 8 billion people on November 15th, 2022. Current estimates say we will add another billion people by 2037.This puts significant pressure on precious natural resources.
Although food production already accounts for 70% of all freshwater usage, we will need even more water to feed more people. With conventional growing methods, we will also need more land to grow more food. And we need to use more fossil fuels to distribute food because of the highly centralized production methods.
With highly centralized food production methods, food transport contribution to GHG emissions has been hugely underestimated. Recent analysis shows that it is up to 7.5x higher than previously thought. This is mainly due to the transport of fresh fruits and vegetables. A recent PwC article highlighted that fresh fruit and vegetable transport is second only to meat production. It represents up to 20% of the total GHG emissions from food production. And the majority of that is for the transport of fresh fruits and vegetables for affluent markets that represents only 12.5% of global population.
All of this increased food production activity exacerbates our climate change issues and is a serious challenge to our ability to hold to a 1.5C planetary temperature rise. So, after the reduction of meat consumption, the greatest help to reduce emissions is the shift to consuming locally produced fruits and vegetables wherever possible.
I started Genius Green to eliminate unnecessary food miles
I decided to start Genius Greens to provide this alternative of fresher, great tasting, locally grown produce to eliminate unnecessary food miles. And we must do this while addressing other food concerns of our times such as using growing methods that significantly increase yield while conserving our precious water resources.
CWR: How does vertical farming work? And if we compare it to traditional modes of agriculture, what are its advantages and limitations?
KL: By growing in stacks with multiple levels, vertical farms can grow significantly more food while using much less land than conventional farming. Anticipating continuous urbanization, Columbia University professor, Dickson Despommier, often referred to as the Father of Modern Vertical Farming, envisioned multiple story buildings dedicated to urban vertical farming. He and his students projected that a 30-story building on one city block will be able to feed 50,000 people.
By growing in stacks less water & land is used and farming indoors we can regulate the temp, humidity, CO2…
…and growing locally will significantly reduce fossil fuel use
Growing indoors, in a controlled environment that regulates temperature, humidity, CO2, etc., a major advantage of vertical farming is the ability to grow food year-round regardless of climates. And by growing locally and distributed within the neighborhoods of urban populations, it will significantly reduce transport costs and the use of fossil fuel. This also translates to significantly less food waste from handling and distribution.
Vertical farms generally use hydroponic methods of growing without soil and recirculates the water with macronutrients and trace elements needed by plants. This significantly reduce the water needed to grow the same number of plants versus traditional modes of agriculture. Other advantages include the ability to grow without the need of pesticides.
Currently, vertical farms are focused on growing leafy greens, herbs and berries. Nonetheless, this still helps to reduce food pressures as arable land is freed up for cultivation of plants not suitable for growing indoors at this time.
CWR: What are the main differences between hydroponics, aquaponics and aeroponics? Why has Genius Greens opted for aeroponic farming – is one better than the other?
KL: Hydroponics is the umbrella term for various methods of growing plants in water without the use of soil. Aquaponics actually integrates two cultivation systems. One for farming fish (aqua culture) and use the fish waste as nutrients to grow plants with a hydroponics method; hence “aqua” and “ponics”.
Out of all vertical methods, aeroponic farms conserves the most water & energy consumption…
Aeroponics grow plants where the roots are not submerged in water as is the case for other hydroponic methods. In Aeroponics, the roots are suspended in the air and nutrients are misted onto the roots at timed intervals. This allows the roots to branch out for optimum oxygenation and nutrient absorption.
After weighing the various pros and cons, we developed an aeroponics system because of two key reasons. First, it conserves the most water. This in turn reduces energy requirements to control the water temperature and the lower volumes of water is such that we are able to filter all the water we use to remove minerals, bacteria and viruses before we use it.
And importantly, aeroponics has the highest potential for healthy roots since they are not constantly waterlogged. This has the potential to grow healthier plants which reduces food waste and delivers fantastic flavors and textures.
CWR: What do you grow at Genius Greens? Compared to supermarket produce how does the nutritional value and taste of aeroponic fruits and vegetables differ?
KL: Hong Kong imports over 98% of its produce and nutritional value plus shelf-life declines with every food mile.
Leafy greens such as lettuce & herbs are grown & delivered directly to consumers including the Grand Hyatt
At Genius Greens, we currently grow specialty lettuce, herbs, and an expanding portfolio of other nutritious leafy greens such as arugula, kale, Swiss chard, spinach and baby bok choy…all grown locally with our aeroponics growing system. This significantly shortens the supply chain; especially since our produce do not then sit on a display shelf. We deliver directly from our farm to consumer homes for maximum freshness.
Our produce is noted for its crispiness and rich, natural flavors. Perhaps the best endorsement of this is that chefs at private clubs and hotels such as Grand Hyatt, Mandarin Oriental, Rosewood, Cordis chose our produce for their premium restaurants.
CWR: Singapore’s committed to sustainably produce 30% of the nation’s food by 2030. Do you believe Hong Kong can do the same? How can we scale up vertical farming to become more food secure?
KL: Thinking among academic circles and global think tanks such as the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change (which released a paper earlier this year on the subject) suggests that cities should aim to produce at least 30% of its own fruits and vegetables. This will be an important hedge for food security due to impending climate change where soil conditions, weather and water sources are becoming increasingly unpredictable. Singapore demonstrated leadership by establishing their 30 by 30 initiative in 2019.
Yes, it could be feasible…
…for lettuce, we calculated 60,000m2 will be sufficient growing space to replace 30%..
…this can be calculated for each crop
Can we do this in Hong Kong? To provide a simple perspective on feasibility, our volumetric analysis using data available for salad lettuce consumed in Hong Kong that is imported from markets other than mainland China, we estimate that only 60,000m2 will be sufficient growing space to replace 30% of that volume. This is feasible when enabled by growing technologies that we can leverage today, such as our aeroponics growing system. These projections can be done crop by crop that can be grown locally to determine feasibility.
CWR: To wrap, if you had one wish for government, investors, and the public, what would it be?
KL: “Think globally. Act locally”. It is an often-used phrase applied to organizations and situations. But its roots date back to early conservationists and have been embraced as an integral part of the climate movement.
Applied in this original context, the fundamental premise of “Think globally. Act locally” is not to underestimate the power of collective effort. The key is each of us must act to do what we can. We must act and support local food production initiatives because it serves each of our mutual interests.
We must act and support local food production initiatives because it serves each of our mutual interests.
For the public, motivation could simply be because it will be a better food experience that is also better for your health. The tag along benefit is that it will be better for our planet as well.
For government, it leads to a healthier population, reduces long term health care costs, opens new paths for application of technology and in turn increase employment with these new career paths. For investors, this demand led transformation in the food landscape is good business and good for the bottom line.
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