Mohamed Hage [ 13 MAY 2012 | Food Security ] I’m an urban farmer. So I grow food in the city of Montréal, on the roofs of buildings, believe it or not. And it’s something that I’m very, very proud of. It’s something that puts a smile on my face every morning.
A while back, I was talking to my aunt in Lebanon, where I’m originally from, I grew up in Lebanon, in a small village that’s actually self-sustaining. It’s a village that grows its own food, which is hard to find these days. So if a butcher didn’t cut a cow that day, we ate vegetables.
So there I was talking to my aunt, and I was so excited, and I was telling her how awesome my work is and how we’re building green houses, and feeding people right in the heart of the city. And she looks at me and says, “Sweetie, we’ve been doing this all of our lives. There’s nothing new here.”
And that got me thinking, it’s absolutely true.
Nothing about urban agriculture is really revolutionary. It’s simply a recreation of something that’s very, very old. So then why am I here talking to you today about urban agriculture? Why is it an important topic? Well, because we’re not eating what my aunt eats. We’re not eating what I used to eat when I grew up, back in Lebanon.
What we eat today, because we live in cities, comes from very far away.
Our food has travelled an average of 1,500 miles to make it to our plate. And food travels as good as a 2-year old child on a plane. Food travels really, really bad. In fact food is packed, re-packed, refrigerated, sold, and resold many times over. And by the time it makes it to the consumer, it’s lost its nutrients, it’s lost its taste, texture and smells.
And actually, the really interesting number is — we’re talking a lot about reducing waste — is that when a farmer in an industrial farm is looking at a tomato plant, half of these tomatoes will never make it to the consumer because of this.
And the cultivars, and the varieties that are chosen, in terms of industrial farming, are cultivars and varieties that are chosen for their toughness, and transportability and not their taste.
There used to be a time where you could choose from 500 different tomatoes to grow in a green house, and now what we’re eating is a collection of only 12, roughly 12 cultivars of tomatoes, that are all tough, that will yield very well, that are hard as rocks, but don’t necessarily have the same taste.
And when you look at industrial farming, the process of industrial farming is far from optimal.
Industrial farms today are massive consumers of land, of water, of energy, of resources, and what’s been really striking for me, during my research in hydroponics, is that they’re very illusive. I spent a good amount of time simply trying to find farms, I actually couldn’t find farms, and I ended up concluding, that farms are big black boxes. Not only can we not find them, it’s actually very hard to even go inside of a farm.
The secret process of growing food, it’s illusive.
Five years ago, I said to myself, What if you could change the way we grow food? What if you can grow food in a more responsible way? And what if you can create a direct link with the consumer, go straight to the consumer? Bypass the entire network, forget about the distribution network, forget about the wholesalers, retailers and truckers, and go straight to the consumer?
And it started off as a bit of a dream.
I have a lot of dreams and very few of them actually become projects, but this dream stuck. And with a group of engineers, and architects, I like to call them superheros, 5 years ago we started working.
And we started working on a new form of agriculture, what we like to call “Agriculture 2.0”. So we started off by asking ourselves, If we want to grow food, how can we grow it in a more responsible way?
We knew there were a lot of challenges in the food production process, and we knew that we had to change the way we grew food. So we defined responsible agricultures in four different ways.
First of all, using no new land.
I think that the previous presenter did a great job at explaining the challenges we have today as we go from 7-billion to 9-billion and with less land. So the good news, it turns out that rooftop spaces are absolutely fantastic for growing food.
Someone might look at a roof and think of it as the underwear of a building it’s an ignored space, it’s a heat island, it needs maintenance, they have to be cleaned every now and then but no one likes roofs, they’re the underwear.
But it turns out that underwear is an incredibly fertile space. In this specific building, that you see behind me here, we receive over half a million dollars in free energy every single year. Simply from the sun.
Not to mention that we receive half of our heating energy from the building below.
What’s great about being in the city, is the carbon dioxide levels are higher, something else that plants need. So responsible agriculture is starting off by using no land, and using water, a scarce resource, in a more responsible way.
Harvesting rainwater, and more importantly, recirculating nutrient rich water, and again, I think the previous presenter explained the importance and the link between blue algae and phosphorous rich water leaching into lakes and rivers.
So by having a closed loop system, not only are we growing in a more responsible way, but we’re actually saving a lot of money.
Responsible agriculture means using no synthetic pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides. And you can actually do this because we’ve been doing it for many years prior to the green revolution.
It works really well.
And it’s simply by using biocontrols, insects. So we have good insects in the green house, like ladybugs, that actually attack bad insects, such as aphids or white flies.
And every now and then, we see them having sex.
They love the conditions in the green house for some reason.
And finally, responsible agriculture means growing good food. Selecting cultivars and varieties for their taste, for their nutrition, for their smell and texture.
Heirloom tomatoes, purple basil, white cucumbers, wild persian grasses.
The possibilities are limitless. What we can grow in a green house, what we can feed you guys, is unbelievable, but what we find in the grocery store is only the subset that will transport very, very well.
So after defining responsible agriculture, in September 2010, we started working. I’m going to walk you through a few slides that show you the process of construction.
What you don’t see in here is the 4 years of technology development that went prior to construction. We had to develop our own patent pending, water circulation systems.
Polycultures growing systems that allow us to grow multicrops in the same green house, still achieving the same yields as a monoculture grower. We developed water circulation techniques, and microclimate management software.
So our entire green houses are managed by a piece of software.
But real quick, I’ll walk you through a typical construction. We take an existing roof, we keep the existing membrane, we erect a structure, made out of galvanized steel, aluminum, and glass, and this process goes quite fast.
Believe it or not, we got this structure up in less than 3 weeks, and you can see, we used some cranes to bring the material up to the roof, and in this case it was a 2-story building.
And this is a picture — It shows a bit the inside of the green house, just prior to planting, and you can actually see our energy curtains, another feature that helps save energy.
We deploy that during the nighttime, and it envelops the green house, the plants. And the temperature above our energy curtain could be -10ºC, whereas below the energy curtain, is a 22º – 23º C climate.
After the construction process, and on February 28, 2011, we planted the first seeds, of the first plants, in the world’s first commercial rooftop greenhouse.
And it’s something that we’re very proud of, I remember the team really celebrated that day, and we popped a lot of Champagne bottles, and they were not local.
They were the good kind.
And just 2 months after that very first day, my niece, Maya, at 8-months old, had her first solid food, and it was one of our tomatoes, a cherry tomato grown in Montréal, and she loves our tomatoes and this is something that brings me the most joy, seeing kids going through vegetables like they’re candy.
And today, almost a year later, we feed 2,000 people with vegetables that are harvested on the exact same day, that have never seen the inside of a fridge.
Vegetables harvested in the heart of the city, on a rooftop, using half the energy to heat the building, and a fraction of the water and nutrients.
And because of the direct link with our consumers, we distribute our food to drop points, and drop points are universities, coffee shops all over the island.
But the process is so efficient, that we only need 15 dollars in fuel per day, to feed 2,000 people.
And what’s been actually a huge surprise to us, is seeing how this little farm in Montréal was able to connect the community.
Early on, when we started construction, people would stop by, and would ask us if they could visit. We had requests from universities, from schools, from synagogues, from churches all wanting to visit a farm. And it was really great to see how — To date we’ve had over 10,000 visitors to the greenhouse. 10,000 people that now understand where food comes from. 10,000 people that have met a farmer.
Kids that have seen how a tomato plant grows, how a cucumber should taste like, and that’s something that’s been a big surprise to us, but it’s been a very — I’m ecstatic to see that.
And another great moment for me is walking into one of our drop points, between the hours of 3 and 6 pm, and seeing 30 – 40 customers rushing to grab their vegetable baskets, but taking the time to exchange recipes, phone numbers, veggies and to truly connect.
So I’m going to leave you with a few images.
I think everybody likes images. Believe it or not, the first is actually a picture of the land that used to exist where we have built our greenhouse, 40-years ago.
40-years ago, prior to the construction of the industrial building, there used to be a farm, and a farmer used to work here, feeding people. For 37 years, that spot was replaced by an industrial building, that contributed to heat islands, and displaced the farmer.
The good news is, this spot is once again, a fertile plot of land.
Employing many, and feeding many, many more, and helping make our world a better place. So imagine cities that feed their own inhabitants. Imagine communities that are connected by farms. Imagine knowing your farmer, and knowing your food.
When we celebrated our first anniversary at Lufa, what we choose to celebrate, was not the beginning of the construction, it wasn’t the end of the construction, it was the day we had the first seeds planted.
Because I remember very well that day, our carbon dioxide levels started dropping, and our humidity levels started rising, just as the plants made it into the greenhouse.
That was the first beat, the first sign of life. Now imagine cities full of life. Thank you.