Seoul getting its first-ever vertical farm

Posted on : 2015-04-14 17:53 KST Modified on : 2019-10-19 20:29 KST
A redeveloped apartment complex being contributed to the city to be used for year-round farming
 conceived of by Dickson Despommier
conceived of by Dickson Despommier

Seoul is about to see its first vertical farm, which is an eco-friendly agricultural production system inside inner-city high-rises, in which environmental conditions such as light, temperature, humidity, and CO2 density are all automatically controlled to enable plants to be cultivated regardless of the season. What is particularly interesting is that this vertical farm will be set up in a building in a redeveloped apartment complex in Seoul that is being donated as contributed acceptance to Seoul Metropolitan Government.

The city of Seoul announced on Apr. 13 that it is about to approve plans to ease regulations on the floor area ratio for a redeveloped apartment complex in the Mok neighborhood of the Yangcheon district of Seoul. In exchange, the apartment developers will donate a vertical farm building to the city.

Typically, cases of contributed acceptance to the government have involved roads and parks. This is the first contribution of a vertical farm.

 a Columbia University professor
a Columbia University professor

“The vertical farm will be built three stories high. We are planning to use the first floor as a training site and the second and third stories for cultivating leafy vegetables and other plants,” said Jung Gwang-hyeon, manager of the city’s department of public livelihood and economy.

Dickson Despommier, the Columbia University professor who came up with the concept of vertical farming, once said that a 30-story vertical farm could grow enough food to feed 50,000 people. Such farms could maintain high productivity since they would not be exposed to the elements and could operate 24 hours a day. As urban farms, the cost of transportation would decrease, and they would also alleviate the worries about fertilizer that accompany today’s large-scale agriculture.

Despite this, no full-building vertical farms have been developed in South Korea. Since these farms still lag behind in terms of productivity, the high initial cost has deterred potential investors. In 2009, the city of Namyangju in Gyeonggi Province announced plans to build the country’s first vertical farm, which would have been 5- or 6-stories above ground on a 300 square-meter lot, but the plans fell through when the city failed to secure the requisite budget because of the problems outlined above.

“Comparing construction costs, a polyethylene greenhouse is 60,000-90,000 won (US$50-$80), a glass greenhouse 300,000 won (US$275), and a vertical farm 3.02 million won (US$2,740) per square meter. But since there is no difference in the price of the crops that are produced, it’s not a feasible business model,” said Lee Yeong-sik, who is in charge of the department of horticulture management for the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs.

Lee noted that the same had been true for glass greenhouses when they were first introduced, but that this problem disappeared on its own as productivity increased.

At the moment, expectations are also low for the profitability of the vertical farm that Seoul is planning. In fact, the project is largely intended to promote the development of technology and expertise in the area.

In advanced countries, IT firms are moving to invest in vertical farming, believing it to be a future growth industry because the farms are operated by a fully automated control system.

In Japan, the government is providing subsidies for investment in vertical farms, which it sees as a dynamo for new growth. This has spurred companies such as Toshiba, Panasonic, Hitachi, Fujitsu, and Sharp to move into the field.

“We are also planning to add more vertical farms together with the private sector through such methods as lending city land so that domestic IT firms can build expertise in developing technology,” Jung said.

By Eum Sung-won, staff reporter

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