Indoor growing is attracting multi-million-dollar investments to high-tech, automated, low-input farming. But the only way is not up as firms strive to be profitable.
Growing crops in artificially-lit, high-rise buildings or even basements, is appealing. Vertical farms use less land than traditional agriculture. Vacant city property, disused factories, nooks and crannies can be used. You can even do it at home. The crops need up to 95% less water than conventional growing and lower inputs of chemical pesticides and herbicides. Their environmental friendliness extends to the slashing of distance from farm to fork; there are even city restaurants with their own vertical farms and multiple annual, out-of-season crops add to the appeal. But all is not well down the vertical farm. The artificial light required raises environmental questions, while the technology costs don’t yet beat the profitability of old-fashioned sun, soil and sweat.
“Crops need up to 95% less water than conventional growing and lower inputs of chemical pesticides and herbicides.”
Feed the World
Farming’s 12,000 years of back-breaking toil won’t be replaced by vertical farming soon. In the US agriculture, food, and related industries contributed $1.053 trillion to U.S. gross domestic product (GDP) in 2017. The projected contribution from the vertical market of $3 billion a year by 2024 pales by comparison. Vertical farming is at an exciting, innovative, start-up stage. Only time will tell whether it helps feed the world’s one in nine people who daily go hungry or is a faddish niche. Firms like AeroFarms win plaudits for their use of “aeroponic” technology growing crops “geoponically” - without soil - in air and mist requiring minimal environmental impact to achieve high productivity. Bowery Farming claims to be 100 times more productive on the same amount of land and delivering from harvest to shelf within a few days.
Let us race
“You can’t feed the planet with lettuce alone,” says Dr. Paul Gauthier, Delaware Valley University, but Japanese vertical farm Spread says the fall in the price of lettuce from ¥258 ($2.34) in 2008 to a target of ¥158 today illustrates the progress of vertical farming even though still a premium price. The hope among investors is that the environmental appeal, the cleaner, fresher produce will justify the premium. Big investors are convinced: Softbank has invested $200 million in Plenty; IKEA and the Sheikh of Dubai have invested $40 million in AeroFarms - with $115 million invested in the company over its life - and Google Ventures has invested $90 million in Bowery Farming. However, Toshiba, abandoned producing lettuce despite the advantages of its electronic expertise and repurposing of clean rooms in a former electronics plant.