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Information about GreenForges and underground farming.

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Underground Farming

Overview

Underground farming is a type of CEA (Controlled Environment Agriculture). The practice consists of leveraging spaces below the surface to grow food in a controlled environment.

There are currently two types of underground farming: 

Leveraging Existing Space
Companies like Growing Underground are growing food in existing spaces below cities such as tunnels. This approach is a smart way to repurpose unused space to provide fresh food to the city from within it. Its scalability is limited by the amount of abandoned spaces available below cities.

Creating New Space
GreenForges
on the other hand, aim at using drilling techniques to create shafts for intensive, scalable crop production. The advantage of this approach is its scalability, the disadvantage is the upfront cost.

Background - Change is needed

Agriculture as we know it today has capped its potential. It has served us well so far, but the new constraints emerged in recent years are calling humanity to change the way we produce our food. 

Traditional field agriculture is simply not scalable enough. We are not going to dive deep into all the direct and indirect damage provoked by it as we assume that it is common knowledge in 2021.

  • Not enough land - Agriculture already takes up 50% of the world’s habitable land. With a population expected to reach 9.7 billion by 2050, how many more forests can we afford to clear to make room for our crops? 
  • Food waste - 33% of food produced globally goes to waste, food mileage and crop failure representing the main causes.
  • Chemicals - As we all know, industrial farming makes heavy use of chemicals to boost productivity. Needless to specify what is the effect on our health.

Alternatives

New technologies are emerging to help tackle agricultural challenges, each with their own advantages and disadvantages. 

High-Tech Traditional Farming

Robots and drones, among other technologies, are being used to improve the efficiency of traditional farming. No matter how good drones get at analyzing crops though, they won’t solve structural problems inherent to the food production chain. 

  • Yields are still reliant on favorable weather conditions
  • Food mileage isn’t in any way addressed

Above-Surface Vertical Farming

Vertical farming has come across in recent years with hefty promises. The practice consists in growing crops in indoor environments, arranged in vertical stacks. The vertical disposition allows for multiplied output per square meter.

 Its advantages include: 

  • Year-round production
  • Pesticide-free crops
  • Localized production (can be deployed in urban settings)
  • More output per square meter

Vertical farming comes with its own challenges, though, which make it not a scalable enough solution to feed our planet at the moment. 

  • High energy costs
  • Needs large buildings to host the farms
  • Crops are sold above market price

Why underground - Main advantages

There might be a solution to overcome the limitations of vertical farming: moving it underground.

To recap - vertical farming presents clear advantages as compared to traditional field farming, but the economy just doesn’t make it massively adoptable yet.

Why would underground vertical farms work instead?

Reduced climatisation costs

The underground has stable temperature, which allows for a massive cut in climatization costs, hence reducing the energy requirement and costs. We estimate a 75% reduction in climatisation costs as compared to surface vertical farming.

Scalability

Going downwards instead of going upwards allows for more vertical reach. The marginal cost of digging deeper is less than linearly proportional to the increased productivity and profit that it entails.

On the other hand, to extend the productivity of a vertical farm, we either need to build taller buildings or occupy more land, both of which are not scalable solutions. 

Adaptability

Because underground farming doesn’t depend on surface-level conditions, it can be applied to virtually every environment where the underground conditions and economic variables (price of electricity, market price of crops) allow it.

We can build large farms in places such as deserts, tundras, mountains or directly below buildings in urban environments. 

More money

The two advantages described above directly imply the third one: underground farming can be very lucrative for farmers.

On average, a Canadian greenhouse can expect to generate $150 in revenue per sq/m. Our preliminary calculations show that, with our systems, that number would start from $1500 per sq/m.

These calculations are performed assuming a retail price in line with the market price. Crops grown underground would not be overpriced.

Technology

Let’s talk about the technology behind these promising projections.

Because we want to make our technology widely available worldwide, our engineering team is focused on combining existing, easily accessible technology in an innovative way.

Our small diameter models will consist of a hole in the ground with a diameter of 40 inches, filled with hydroponic modules to grow vegetables. 

Our system allows for direct feed delivery to the plants’ roots, facilitating a natural growth cycle. Moreover, the water-nutrient mix is analyzed upon cycle completion to further understand the plants absorption rate, then recycled, reducing water consumption to 98% efficiency.

The machines are designed to minimize the labor required. Farmers will no longer need to spend countless hours working on the fields to secure successful harvests.

Crop variety

Technically, every crop that can be grown hydroponically can be grown in our systems.

Because of the energy advantage tied to underground farming, a broader variety of crops can be grown as compared to surface vertical farming.

With technological advancements, costs will be reduced, allowing for even more crops to become viable.

The holy grail of vertical farming in general are staple crops. Once the technology will be at the point where grain, potatoes, soy etc. can be profitably grown indoors, that will be when controlled environment agriculture will be in a position to make a large impact in feeding the world.

Potential impact

The potential impact of a successful application of underground farming technology depicts a bright future. 

Regenerate Fauna and Flora

Because underground farming requires less space as compared to all other agricultural practices, it would allow to achieve the required levels of production without claiming massive plots of land.

This would translate into a natural process of regeneration of spaces that are no longer needed by industrial farming.

Job Creation

The farming industry would undergo a revolution from the point of view of human resources as well, the figure of farmer as we know it will almost completely disappear. Physical labor will be replaced by analytical and managerial skills.

At the same time, the increased accessibility and economic incentive would pull more people into starting a career in agriculture, giving new breadth to an industry that is seeing a decline in actors.

Food Security

Multiplied production capacity and high degree of adaptability means underground farming can potentially guarantee food access and independency to communities that would otherwise be struggling with food security.

Challenges

Energy 

Controlled environment agriculture as a whole is currently limited by energy use. Although it’s feasible to grow plants with artificial lights, it requires a lot of energy, the source of which determines the viability of the practice. 

Underground farming may exploit geothermal energy as a renewable, clean source to power its systems. GreenForges is currently exploring this opportunity.

Drilling

Underground farming requires heavy machinery to drill the holes that will host the systems. Such machinery may not be readily accessible in all parts of the world, cost and available expertise could become stumbling blocks.

Upfront Costs 

Just like most of the indoor vertical farms, the costs of building and operating underground farming systems is a challenge and limits the type of crops that are economically viable.

Although they may be exponentially more profitable in the long run, larger upfront costs may restrict adoption to rich farmers, entrepreneurs or companies. 

Luckily, government grants are available in many countries to incentivize innovation in agriculture, farmers may leverage them to finance the installation of underground farming systems. 

Operating Costs

Because of the heavy usage of electricity to fuel the growth of plants, the technology may be difficult to adopt in areas of the world where electricity prices are prohibitive. 

Technological advancement will eventually shrink the cost of electricity, but it remains a challenge as we write. 

Geology

Surface conditions do not affect underground farming, but underground conditions surely do. Things like soil composition and groundwater levels will dictate where underground farms can be installed (or not).

Moreover, rocky soils make the price of drilling rise, making it prohibitive for certain areas of the world. 

Education

Indoor farming is relatively new, consumers sometimes have the feeling that food grown with natural sunlight is better or healthier. This is not necessarily true, as plants don’t need sunlight per se, rather certain wavelengths which can be perfectly reproduced with artificial lighting. Nonetheless, public perception will be a barrier to overcome during early adoption. 

In reality, control over nutrient intakes and no use of pesticides, herbicides and fungicides can arguably make indoor-grown crops healthier compared to field-grown, not to mention the environmental advantages.

Also, in terms of labor, the learning curve to operate underground or indoor vertical farms is relatively steep compared to traditional farming. From horticultural to mechanical engineering and software engineering expertise, different sets of skills are required to successfully make the technology work, adding up to the challenge of staffing the farms.

It will be in the hands of companies like GreenForges to provide farmers with the required technical and educational support to successfully operate their farms. 

GreenForges Info

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GreenForges

Overview

GreenForges is an ag-tech startup based in Montréal, Canada that is developing technology to grow food underground.

GreenForges counts on an international, growing team of 16 professionals and a pending patent for our underground systems.

Mission

Our mission is to help the world develop a sustainable and scalable food production system to help support its growth. 

Story

Founder Phil Labrie, coming from a real estate background, started wondering if food could be successfully grown underground to leverage space below buildings.

Although initially skeptical, after months of research he wasn't able to find any major roadblocks. On the contrary, he was receiving support from academics and experts in the field.

In September 2019, GreenForges Inc was established as a Canadian corporation. The concept and noble mission started to draw talent in, growing an international, remote team currently composed of 16 professionals and 5 advisors.

In May 2021, GreenForges announced that our modular and scalable cylindrical underground systems are officially patent pending, thanks to Daniel Sineway and his colleagues of patent attorneys at Morris, Manning & Martin.

General Info

Official Name: GreenForges Inc

Location: Val-des-Monts, Québec

Incorporation date: September 1st, 2019

Founder: Philippe Labrie

Team: 17 core team, 5 advisors

Domains: Agriculture, Energy

Products: GreenForges designs and builds underground farming systems

Partners

The Department of Bioresource Engineering is part of the Faculty of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences of McGill University, in Montreal, Canada.  It collaborates with other departments and the Faculty of Engineering in providing courses of instruction for a curriculum in Bioresource Engineering.

The laboratory is focused on three areas: 1) The development and improvement of new sources of biomass (food, fibre and/or fuel); 2) The improvement of energy efficiency of greenhouses and plant growth environments (light (LEDs) and heating systems); and 3) The development of a proteomic system for monitoring of microorganisms and plants.

His overall research philosophy is a holistic one in which focus on individual facets of an issue leads to a solution to the problem as a whole.

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