American-Indians Invest In Swedish City-Greenhouses

May 8, 2010

A computer animation of a vertical greenhouse. Illustration courtesy of Plantagon.

When the first Plantagon greenhouse stands ready by 2012, it will be a stunning addition to its city’s landscape, whether that be New York City, Stockholm or a town in the Onondaga Nation not far from Niagara Falls. If it succeeds, this geodesic agrodome will be a result of an alliance of Iroquois angel investors, an organic farmer, a green Swedish engineering company, and finally a CSR promoter who went from preaching corporate social responsibility to launching a very different type of enterprise in order to practice it.

Business as usual is not an option for the people behind Plantagon, a hybrid somewhere between a profit-oriented company and a nonprofit association. “We need to create corporations built from a deep sense of responsibility for the common good,” says Hans Hassle, Plantagon International’s CEO.

Plantagon is financed by the Onondaga nation in Upstate New York. Here is Hans Hassle (2nd from right) with Chief Oren Lyons on his right side (left on the picture.)

Hassle spent a decade and a half promoting CSR before switching to building a new type of corporation that helps mankind and Planet Earth while still delivering a profit. This concept fits perfectly into the holistic mindset of Oren R. Lyons, a chief of the Onondaga Nation and former lacrosse star. At 80, Lyons is one of the most influential Native leaders in North America. Like many other tribes, the Onondaga is a nation within a nation with its own limited jurisdiction, and when Lyons travels, he does so with an Onondaga Nation passport. The tribe belongs to the Six Nations Iroquois Confederacy. Lyons knew Hassle from the CSR trail, and it was on a speaking tour in Sweden that he asked him to help the Onondaga Nation find an alternative to making money from tax-free tobacco.

It happened that at the time, Hassle was running Swecorp Citizenship Stockholm, a CSR-oriented subsidiary of Sweco (a large green engineering company). He was also working on an idea for a vertical greenhouse spawned two decades back by Åke Olsson, an organic farmer looking for a way to use the empty space in a traditional greenhouse. The trouble with using the building’s entire height is that the top layers of plants block sun from the lower layers. But if you put the plants in trays and move them upward in a spiral, they would get the needed sunlight. This idea was not completely new, but it was Olsson who came up with a new, energy-efficient way of moving 660-lb. soil-filled boxes up the slope along a pair of spiral-shaped rails. “What we did was essentially to turn the system into a giant moving screw,” says Hassle.

Åke Olsson, the inventor of the vertical greenhouse. Photo courtesy of Plantagon.

The size of the Plantagon greenhouse will vary, but the company sets the minimum diameter at 118 feet. “If you go smaller, the crop will be too small,” Hassle explains. This diameter will require about 11,000 square feet of real estate, plus additional space for parking and logistics, but in that footage the vertical greenhouse can cram in almost 30,000 square feet of growing area. Hans Hassle says that it is “enough to feed 10,000 people with, for instance, lettuce for a year.” The benefit of going vertical is that once you expand the size, the growing area expands exponentially. If you triple the diameter of the greenhouse, you can supply thirty times as many people with lettuce!

Here was a solution, but is there a problem? Well, there are two key ways to explain the threat. First, 80 percent of the earth’s arable land is already being used. Take China as an example: only 7 percent of its land is arable, and that figure is shrinking as its growing cities engulf more and more farmland. Meanwhile, as a planet we are moving rapidly from 6 billion humans to 9 billion, which will exacerbate agricultural pressures worldwide. Second, as more and more people live in cities, this will—unless something is done—lead to more unsustainable and environmentally unfriendly monoculture and long-haul transportation. “We need to find alternative ways to grow food,” states Hassle.

There is a need, and there is a solution, but is there a market? The definite answer will come when the first vertical greenhouses are completed and functioning, but there are early indications that the idea is catching on fast. “We have received 700 requests from people who want to volunteer for Plantagon,” Hassle says. The company has received inquiries from cities all over the world and is evaluating where to build its first demonstration units.

A schematic illustration of a vertical greenhouse.

It could cost $10 million to build a 118-foot vertical greenhouse, but this is actually about the same cost as building a 7-hectare traditional greenhouse, which according to Hassle is much less productive. “The vertical greenhouse is four times more cost-effective,” he says. And the cost of output decreases as greenhouse size increases: a 350-foot vertical greenhouse costs about $40 million, i.e. four times the expense of the 118-foot version, but its output would be 10 times larger.

Building and constantly cleaning such large glass structures is admittedly a considerable challenge, but Hassle says that Plantagon is looking at alternatives like self-cleaning Teflon. Another potential problem is that a vertical greenhouse in a city could threaten the livelihoods of local and organic farmers growing for the city, as well as those of street vendors in a country such as India. But Hassle believes that these concerns could be addressed by partnering with local farmers and merchants.

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