Guardian: Manchester should soon be eating fruit and veg from the UK’s very first Vertical Farm

Mmmm, where shall we plant the asparagus? Visitors study plans for a vertical farm in Manchester. Photograph Arwa Aburawa

When you can’t spread out, spread up. That’s what growers of everything from broccoli to strawberries are doing in a disused office block in Wythenshawe. By Arwa Aburawa.

The 18-day international festival which has swept through Manchesterhas sadly come to an end, but one project is only just starting, with long-term implications for the future of the rainy city. On the very last day of the Manchester International festival, a two-year project to build a vertical farm in an disused office building in Wythenshawe was launched with the aim of encouraging cities to more grow fresh food in a sustainable way.

The problem with cities is that whilst they have big populations that need feeding, there is usually very little space to grow food. Consequently produce is flown in for all over the world and brought into cities by the lorry-load causing much environmental harm due to fossil fuels being burnt for transport. Indeed, a typical UK supermarket trolley of food will have travelled a distance of 3,000 km before making it to your shelves at home.

The solution? Dickson Despommier, a parasitologist at Columbia in New York City who spoke at the MIF event, thinks that vertical farming can help. Vertical farming is a relatively new concept developed by Despommier and his students back in 1999, where farms are built indoors and on levels rather than horizontally on land. Some of the benefits of this hi-tech way of growing food is that abandoned buildings are put to use whilst precious (and expensive) land is saved. This farming technique also requires up to 70% less water and less fertilizer than traditional farming as crops grow in a controlled and sheltered environment.

The team behind the Manchester vertical farm project, which includes URBED, a Manchester-based co-operative focused on sustainability, have already secured a lease on a disused five-storey building in Wythenshawe, one of the original garden cities, which will be turned to a vertical farm called ‘Alpha Farm’.

Debbie Ellen, the lead researcher on the project and food expert explains:

By the year 2050 it is estimated that nearly 80% of the world’s population will live in urban centres. Our current food system is very vulnerable to weather events as well as being unsustainable in terms of how food reaches us…Vertical farms, which use existing buildings offer the potential to become productive food hubs which will increase community’s resilience by growing food locally.

Encouraging local people to engage with the project is very important, because by learning about food growing, people become much more aware of its value, the difference in taste of food that has only travelled a small distance and the possibilities that exist for them to grow food for their families.”

There are currently vertical farms working in Japan and Holland but to date, there is no multi-storey, indoor farming in an urban building which I guess makes Wythenshawe’s Alpha Farm a world first.

Manchester already boasts some interesting food projects such asUnicorn Grocery in Chortlton, a supermarket which grows food on its own land as well as Abundance Manchester, an organisation which makes the most of food growing in gardens, allotments and public trees by collecting gluts and distributing it for free to homeless shelters and destitute asylum seekers.

Alpha Farm will be attempting to grow fruit and veg such as broccoli, tomatoes, mushrooms, onions, carrots and strawberries. According to the organisers, by the time the next Manchester International Festival rolls around in 2013 they hope to be harvesting some of the goods for everyone to try.

Originally published at the Guardian UK.

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