According to the United Nations, the world
population is expected to reach 9.6 billion by 2050. In order
to meet this unprecedented demand, global food production will
have to increase by 60 percent, in relation to 2005/07
levels. Climate change, water scarcity, and workforce
and land availability pose major challenges to this goal,
putting the agricultural industry under great pressure.
In this scenario, urban farming stands out as a promising
alternative. Innovative building-integrated agriculture can
reduce the need for water and pesticides, lower transportation
and energy costs, and improve freshness of produce. Federal
tax credits are available for companies performing research
and development activities aimed at advancing urban farming
The Research &
Development Tax Credit
Enacted in 1981, the Federal Research and
Development (R&D) Tax Credit allows a credit of up to 13
percent of eligible spending for new and improved products and
processes. Qualified research must meet the following four
New or improved products,
processes, or software
Technological in nature
Elimination of uncertainty
Process of experimentation
Eligible costs include employee wages, cost of supplies, cost
of testing, contract research expenses, and costs associated
with developing a patent. On December 18, 2014 President
Obama signed the bill extending the R&D Tax Credit for the
2014 tax year.
Agriculture in an
Six out of ten people will live in cities
by 2030. With increasing pressure over traditional
agricultural methods, there is a compelling need to develop
better ways to feed this growing urban population.
Agriculture exerts a major toll on the planet, consuming
valuable resources and causing pollution. Recent data show
that agricultural activities occupy 40 percent of the world’s
land surface, use 70 percent of freshwater withdrawals
worldwide, cause 15 percent of world greenhouse emissions, and
constitute the largest source of water pollution.
This is particularly concerning in a context of rising
temperatures, increasing soil erosion, water scarcity, and a
growing demand for sustainable, fresh, and organic food.
In this scenario, innovative urban agricultural systems emerge
as a means to deliver affordable, sustainable, and high
quality products; thereby contributing to solve some of the
most pressing global issues, such as food security, water
shortage, and nutrition deficiencies.
By exploiting the synergies between the built environment and
agricultural production, the so-called building-integrated
agriculture (BIA) is a particularly promising solution.
In the U.S., for instance, buildings are responsible for 39
percent of energy use, 68 percent of electricity consumption,
and 38 percent of carbon dioxide emissions. This
environmental burden can be offset by the transformation of
buildings into urban farming locations.
BIA is the integration of high performance greenhouse farming
systems into a building as a component of its function and
operational regime. It includes rooftop installations
and indoor or vertical farming, an innovative concept that
involves the entire building and not only the building
The potential of this innovative form of agriculture is
immense – in New York alone, there are 14,000 acres of unused
rooftop space, which could produce food for over 20 million
people, according to the nonprofit group New York Sun Works.
Though soil-based growing is possible,
most BIA infrastructures use hydroponics, a method for growing
plants without soil, using nutrient-rich water. There are
three basic hydroponic techniques:
are grown on a floating raft with roots extending into
greenhouses, not rooftop applications.
Film Technique (NFT)
NFT recirculating systems, the nutrient solution is
pumped from a reservoir to the plant’s roots. The excess
is drained back to the same reservoir and reused until
it is either depleted of useful elements or
contaminated, after which it is replaced by a fresh
for leafy plants, such as lettuce, spinach, and basil.
buckets or bags filled with an inert media—such as
perlite, vermiculite, or mineral wool—through which the
nutrient solution is circulated.
primarily for tomatoes, peppers, root vegetables, and
other plants with more substantial stems.
With lighter weights than other hydroponic approaches or soil,
NFT recirculating systems are particularly suited for vertical
farming applications. Below is the basic layout of a
recirculating hydroponics system using the nutrient film
In addition to recirculating
hydroponics systems, other common features of BIA include:
The use of recaptured HVAC heat,
which is diverted into the greenhouse;
Solar power or other forms of
Rainwater catchment systems; and
Global knowledge sharing platform Meeting of the Minds expects
the green roof market alone to reach $7 billion in 2017, $2
billion of which would comprehend polymeric materials, such as
geosynthetic fabrics and waterproof membranes. Cumulative
green roof installations should amount to 2.2 billion square
feet, presenting a compound annual growth rate of more than 11
percent between 2012 and 2017.
The Benefits of
Urban agriculture can
bring major economic and environmental benefits, as summarized
I. Transportation -
Increased urbanization has lead to a marginalization of the
natural world and a distancing from food production. Food
travels hundreds of thousands of miles to reach urban
consumers, adding to traffic congestion, air pollution, and
carbon emissions. Experts say that, in the U.S., an average
bite of food travels 1,500 miles from where it is grown to
where it is eaten. According to the Earth Policy Institute,
this journey consumes two-third as much energy as the growing
Urban farming is an effective way of
reducing the “food miles” associated with long-distance
transportation, which often involves international routes. In
addition to the environmental footprint of transportation, the
distance between producers and consumers directly affects
prices. According the New York Times transportation can cost
as much as $1 for a head of lettuce that will sell for
II. Water Consumption –
Farms and their wasteful irrigation systems are important
contributors to water scarcity. According to the Pacific
Institute, California agriculture, for instance, could cut its
water use by 10 to 15 percent if it adopted more sophisticated
Developing new farming methods that use
water less extensively is imperative. According to the
Environmental Protection Agency, in the last five years,
nearly every region of the country has experienced water
shortages. Climate change should exacerbate drought,
creating a dangerous vulnerability for food producing regions.
Recent studies have shown that
building-integrated agricultural activities can use up to 95
percent less water than traditional soil-based farming. Highly
efficient methods use recycled water and constitute a
promising solution to the global shortage of freshwater and
III. Building Efficiency
– Integrating vegetation into a building can bring major
benefits, particularly when it comes to reducing operating and
First, it can serve as insulation,
reducing the absorption of heat and therefore the energy used
by air conditioning systems. Second, it can absorb rainwater,
mitigating runoffs that often cause infiltrations. Third,
vegetation can contribute to an enhanced quality of life for
building users by improving urban air quality and countering
the heat island effect.
Urban agriculture projects are often
accompanied by alternative energy projects, such as solar
photovoltaic panels. The use of renewable sources of energy is
increasingly cost-effective and can trigger a number of
government and utility incentives.
IV. Product Quality –
Urban farming is a great response to consumers’ demand for
organic, locally grown food. By bringing production to the
city, it actually makes food as “local” as possible.
Proximity to consumers translates into
freshness. It is well known that vitamins present in fresh
vegetables and fruits break down over time. Therefore, when
cultivation is closer to the consumer, produce is likely to be
healthier. Moreover, freshly harvested food tends to be
tastier than those exposed to long journeys.
Finally, the smaller-scale production
system of urban agriculture can translate into less
vulnerability to pests and contamination issues. In huge
agribusiness operations such threats can greatly impact food
supply and become a national concern.
V. Sustainability –
According to New York-based greenhouse design consultancy
Bright Farms, hydroponics is ten to twenty times more
productive than field agriculture, with considerably lower
water use and higher reliability.
In addition to decreasing water waste,
building-integrated agriculture reduces the need for chemical
pesticides and fertilizers, preventing toxic runoffs, which
are responsible for serious soil and water supply
By eliminating the need for farm
machinery and long distance transport, BIA offsets the
environmental footprint of agricultural activities. Studies
show that urban agriculture can produce 90 percent less CO2
than traditional farming. Even more so, when integrated
with waste heat recovery technologies and renewable energy
systems that further reduce emissions.
The advance of hydroponic growing
techniques and innovative greenhouse technologies are fueling
an unprecedented adoption of urban farming systems, which
emerge as a sustainable, cost-effective alternative to
Innovation is at the heart of this new market, as it helps
overcome challenges such as limited yields and restricted
access to water and sunlight. The hydroponic method itself
requires highly precise management, which includes carefully
measuring nutrient concentrations, adjusting flow rates, and
controlling pH fluctuations.
Based in Arcata, California, American Hydroponics (AmHydro) is
one of the nation’s leading suppliers of hydroponic equipment.
The company provides a series of automation solutions designed
to simplify the time-consuming and error-prone task of
managing a hydroponic system. With complete data logging,
remote access via PC, and an easy-to-use interface, AmHydro’s
system creates an optimum environment for plant response. It
offers an automated nutrient balance, pH and electrical
conductivity control, as well as automatic climate control,
which covers humidity, light, and CO2 levels.
Using recirculating hydroponics, Brooklyn-based Gotham Greens
builds and operates commercial scale greenhouse facilities in
urban areas for fresh, premium quality vegetable production.
With a total of 95,000 square feet, the company’s
technologically sophisticated, climate-controlled rooftop
greenhouses provide retail, restaurant, and institutional
customers with reliable, year-round, local supply of produce.
LED, and Smart Farming
Lighting is a very important aspect of
indoor agriculture, where plants must grow without sunlight.
Lighting systems are key in determining crop yields, taste,
appearance, and nutrient levels. In this context, Philips and
GreenSense Farms, a Chicago-area commercial grower, have
partnered to develop innovative LED grow lights specially
tailored for indoor farms.
The groundbreaking lighting solution uses
“light recipes” optimized for specific produce, which allow
for 20-25 harvests a year. They are based on the notion that
plants respond differently to different sets of wavelengths,
some of them being more efficient than others.
In the past six years, LED prices have fallen 85 percent, and
output per watt has doubled. As a result, GreenSense’s
system uses 85 percent less energy than traditional lighting
methods and offers considerably lower operating costs.
Other advantages include LEDs’ low temperatures, which allow
them to be placed closer to the plants, guaranteeing optimal,
Equipped with Philip’s innovative LED grow lights that
maximize photosynthesis, GreenSense’s indoor farm covers a
million cubic foot and produces organically grown food with no
pesticides, fertilizers, or preservatives, throughout the
In addition to favoring better crop yields, LED lighting
infrastructure can serve as the basis for sensor networks
capable of capturing and transmitting data about the growing
environment. The use of sensor technology and big
data analytics are important hallmarks of smart farming, an
increasingly common approach to agriculture.
MIT’s CityFARM project is an interesting example of how indoor
agriculture can take advantage of smart farming resources. The
innovative growing system has multiple points of integrated
environmental sensing (temperature, humidity, CO2, pH, etc),
resource consumption monitoring (water flow, electrical energy
use, etc), controllable LED arrays, RFID and bar code
tracking, and an integrated data management and web
The institute recently launched the OpenAG, a research network
designed to serve as a unifying platform for urban
agricultural innovation, invention, data collection, and data
Up in the Air
Founded in 2004, Aerofarms is also engaged
in enabling high performance indoor agriculture. Based in
Ithaca, New York, the company developed state-of-the-art
technology that uses aeroponics, a process of growing plants
in an air or mist environment without the need for an
aggregate medium, such as soil or water.
In aeroponic systems the plants’ roots are constantly sprayed
with a high-nutrient solution, which makes them grow. In
addition to using less space and up to 95 percent less water
than traditional agricultural methods, aeroponics requires
zero pesticides and enables faster growing cycles and better
yields all year long.
Aerofarms’ patented aeroponic grower uses LED lighting and
sensor technology, for monitoring humidity and room
temperature. A control panel built by the Lighting Research
Center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute allows for the
fine-tuning of color wavelength and intensity of light.
Aerofarms, which has raised more than $36 million in venture
capital, is building a 69,000-square-foot urban farm in a
former steel factory in Newark, New Jersey. The location,
which will be the world’s largest indoor vertical farming for
leafy greens and herbs, is expected to generate 1.5 million
pounds of produce per year, enough to feed 60,000
people. The company also has plans for four other farms
in major U.S. cities.
By 2050, 80 percent of the world’s
population will live in cities. Building-integrated
agriculture stands out as a means of providing locally grown,
fresh food for a growing urban population while overcoming
significant challenges that limit traditional agriculture,
such as extreme weather patterns, water scarcity, etc. Federal
R&D tax credits are available for companies engaged in
advancing innovative urban faming technologies.