Every night, seven million people go to bed hungry in Mexico. It is estimated that the coronavirus pandemic will cause that figure to increase. According to the latest report by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), 130 million people will be affected by chronic hunger worldwide by the end of 2020.
Unfortunately for Mexico, the traditional agricultural industry uses a lot of resources and wastes a large amount of what it takes from the land.
For example, 34% of total production ends up in landfills due to inefficiencies during processing, storage, and transportation. What’s more, 40 billion liters of water are wasted annually due to poor irrigation.
“Fresh” products travel 300 to 1,000 kilometers and have already lost 45% of their nutritional value by the time they hit the shelves. But there is a complementary option for agriculture: vertical gardens.
“Vertical farming –in controlled environments– is a method of growing in vertically stacked layers, optimizing growing conditions and soil-less cultivation techniques, such as hydroponics,” says Leo Lobato Kelly, CEO of Verde Karma Fresh, a vertical farming company from Monterrey, Nuevo León.
The modern concept of vertical farming was proposed in 1999 by Dickson Despommier, Professor of Public and Environmental Health at Columbia University in the United States.
Due to climate change, this method has become a real alternative for countries like Japan, Taiwan, Singapore, South Korea, Saudi Arabia, the Netherlands, Germany, France, the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada, and now, Mexico.
Karma Verde Fresh (KVF) has spent the last five years developing farming systems and growing a variety of vegetables, sprouts, and seedlings in Monterrey, Nuevo León. “This has been achieved through an association with two universities and Tec graduate agronomists, using natural substrates, in this case: tezontle (volcanic rock). This substrate can be washed without contaminating the soil. By substituting mineral products, you allow fields to regenerate themselves, which is highly beneficial to the soil,” says the CEO of Karma Verde Fresh.
Vertical farming systems use 90% less water and 95% less space than traditional farming and are 100% herbicide and pesticide free. “Our crops can be adapted to any space, which allows us to be closer to the consumer, reduce our carbon footprint and promote local purchases that are fresher,” says Leo Lobato.
Vertical farms keep crops fresh for longer, so they don’t lose any nutrients, using state-of-the-art LEDs that are extremely energy efficient. Energy can also be generated from renewable sources and this creates job opportunities.
Traditional agriculture plus vertical farming
“Vertical farming is another option within the agricultural industry, though it is intended as a way of complementing rather than replacing traditional agriculture,” adds Tagino Lobato from KVF.
Not all fruit and vegetables can be grown using this technique, but a great variety can be, “enough to have a balanced diet,” according to Leo Lobato.
For example, KVF produces lettuce, microgreens (mustard), Ballerina lettuce, Alexandria lettuce, peas, beetroot, large-eared lettuce, radish, Italian lettuce, and sunflowers, as well as others such as astro arugula, rocket arugula, spinach, coriander, chard, strawberries, and tomato seedlings.
Vertical farms are very beneficial. For example, they use 90% less water than traditional agriculture and they can be built anywhere, which means many spaces could be repurposed. (Infographic: Karma Verde Fresh)
This type of initiative hopes to feed the 150 million people who will be living in Mexico by 2050, of whom approximately will be in 80% urban areas, according to FAO estimates.
Karma Verde Fresh saw a great entrepreneurial opportunity in vertical technology. “We need this in all communities because we all need to eat better without damaging the planet. Vertical farming in a controlled environment has many possibilities. We can take it to schools or food bank centers,” says the co-founder of Verde Karma Fresh.
The company wants to make this innovation in agriculture available to everyone, so they are looking to make the technology accessible. For example, “we already have one of these vertical farms in Dr. Adriana Elizondo’s house in the Linda Vista neighborhood of Guadalupe in Monterrey. She’s farming with this prototype from her bedroom,” says Leo.
Mexico, the Land of Opportunity
The Lobato technology has already made deals with 20 international universities to take their equipment and establish laboratories. “By involving universities, we are hoping to find Mexican ingenuity that will produce better technology and create more employment opportunities in all Spanish-speaking countries,” he says.
KVF doesn’t just want to sell the technology but also to lower the costs by using Mexican technology. Sources of financing are being set up for all of the entrepreneurs who wish to take vertical farms to different levels.