How a rooftop farm feeds a city | Mohamed Hage | TEDxUdeM

How a rooftop farm feeds a city | Mohamed Hage | TEDxUdeM

November 18, 2019 77 By William Morgan


Translator: Bob Prottas
Reviewer: Ariana Bleau Lugo 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. And 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. (Laughter) 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. So 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. (Laughter) They love the conditions
in the green house for some reason. (Laughter) 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. (Applause) And it’s something
that we’re very proud of, I remember the team
really celebrated that day, and we popped a lot of Champaign bottles, and they were not local.
(Laughter) They were the good kind.
(Laughter) 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. (Applause) 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. So 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, (Chuckling) 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. (French) Thank you. (Applause)