Unprecedented investments in indoor agriculture are no guarantee the high tech plant factories will be key players in the future of food.
Almost two decades after vertical farming pioneer Dickson Despommier first introduced the idea of growing food in buildings, not fields—and later published his seminal book, The Vertical Farm—indoor farms are in more cities than ever before.
Vertical farming—so-named because the produce sprouts in floor-to-ceiling racks to grow more food in less space—uses less water and fertilizer than conventional “soil” farming and the climate-controlled environments allow growers to harvest crops regardless of the temperatures outside.
Technologies like LED lights, micro-sensors and data analytics help maximize growing conditions and improve yields. Most vertical farms are located in urban areas, minimizing the environmental impacts of shipping produce thousands of miles from farm to plate.
With a global population expected to hit 9 billion in 2050—and 74 percent of the residents of developed nations living in cities—proponents of vertical farming argue that agriculture requires high-tech reinvention. Record numbers of vertical farms are sprouting up to address the perceived need. In cities from Singapore to San Francisco, startups are growing food in shipping containers and warehouses that know no seasons.
The industry has a number of cheerleaders, including the venture capitalists bankrolling the promise of vertical farms. Investments in indoor agriculture increased 653 percent between 2016 and 2017.
Despite significant investments, Stan Cox, research coordinator for The Land Institute, a nonprofit agriculture research organization, and vocal opponent of vertical farming, believes the model is doomed to fail.
“[Despommier’s] original version of growing food in buildings 30 stories tall has never come close to happening,” he explains.
The mismatch between concept and execution, according to Cox, can be attributed to limitations on the crops that can be grown indoors; ongoing investments in infrastructure and technology; and high costs of energy.
Powering Plant Growth
On conventional farms, crops depend on sunlight to grow. Without the energy from the sun, farmers must use huge amounts of electricity to provide enough light to trigger growth.
In a recorded seminar, Louis Albright, emeritus professor of biological and environmental engineering at Cornell University and pioneer of controlled-environment agriculture ran the numbers: Growing wheat in a vertical farm would generate 20 cents per square foot in annual income and growers would need to charge $23 per loaf of bread just to cover the power bills, he estimated.
In a 2016 TED Talk, Astro Teller, head of research for Google, admitted that the tech giant started—and later shuttered—its vertical farm because it was impossible to grow staple crops like grains and rice via indoor agriculture.
Limited crop production is one of the major criticisms of vertical farming.
Most vertical farms grow leafy greens such as arugula, kale and watercress because the crops require less light than other fruits or vegetables. But even with the most efficient LED bulbs, Albright found that it took 2.72 kWh per head of lettuce to grow the crop in a vertical farm—more than three times the energy required to grow lettuce in a greenhouse.
Last fall, Metropolis Farms constructed a 500-kilowatt solar array on the rooftop above its fourth floor vertical farm in Philadelphia that is reported to generate enough power for its 100,000 square foot indoor farm. (Albright questioned whether solar powered indoor agriculture was feasible, explaining that a one-acre crop of lettuce would require 9.3 acres of solar panels).
“The more technology is involved in something, the more fascinated we seem to be with it but the products produced in these high-tech operations have to be pretty expensive to cover energy and other costs,” Cox says.
A panel discussion at the Agritecture conference in Atlanta called An Examination of Shuttered Vertical Farming Facilities led Chris Michael, co-founder of Bright Agrotech, to pen a post, 9 Reasons Vertical Farms Fail. Competing with retail pricing was among them.
In the article Michael notes, “Your pricing should match the quality of your product, not the status quo. With the right system and distribution strategy, the local product you produce should be better than anything else on the shelves and it should be priced to reflect the increase in value.”
Fresh Direct sells 4.5-ounce clamshells of Dream Greens from AeroFarms for $3.99. The price is on par with other packaged organic greens but more than two times the price of Fresh Express brand romaine lettuce sold at Safeway stores.
Despite promises that vertical farming can address food deserts, the premium prices for the leafy greens grown in these high-tech environments often means those who struggle with food insecurity won’t be able to afford to buy the fresh vegetables growing in their urban neighborhoods.
Cox notes that indoor agriculture makes sense for a high value crop like cannabis that commands upwards of $8 per gram, but it’s not feasible for a lower value crop like lettuce, which clocks in at one cent per gram.
“Indoor leafy green production can survive if growers sell to more affluent areas of big cities,” he says. “But we’re not going to see [crops from vertical farms] expand into larger segments of the food market.”
Cultivating Job Opportunities
The proliferation of vertical farms has led to a bumper crop of job opportunities.
A CivilEats article declares, “Millennials look to high-tech farms for careers,” noting that Gotham Greens had seen 400 percent growth in its team from 2015 to 2016, creating jobs in the historic African-American Pullman neighborhood of Chicago; and BrightFarms planned to double its staff in 2016 with future expansions potentially creating up to 500 new job openings.
Vertical Harvest in Jackson, Wyoming, employs 15 staff with developmental disabilities to manage tasks ranging from growing and harvesting to retail sales and deliveries.
Unlike conventional agriculture, which depends on a seasonal labor pool, the 24/7 nature of vertical farms can provide regular, long-term employment—and the opportunities extend beyond cultivating and harvesting leafy greens.
The job openings at AeroFarms include mechanical design engineer, plant scientist, research associate and commercial grower with experience in vertical controlled environment agriculture.
Assessing the Impact
Vertical farms have captured the collective interest of investors, academics and foodies alike but will these high-tech plant factories contribute significant volumes of fresh, local foods to our diets? Cox says no.
“There are not enough warehouses and shipping containers to grow that volume of produce indoors,” he explains. “Vertical farming will never be able to supply a significant percentage of our food.”
The challenges haven’t prevented startups from pushing forward or stopped investors from writing checks to back the potential promise of large-scale indoor food production.
In July, San Francisco-based startup Plenty raised $200 million in Series B funding to expand its operations with a goal of “[producing] Whole Foods quality at Wal-Mart prices.” It was the largest agriculture technology investment in history.
Concerns about climate change and farm labor shortages coupled with the need to figure out how to feed nine billion people have helped drive investments. Venture capitalists know we need solutions and see vertical farming as a potential change-maker. Investors also see opportunities related to the technologies used in vertical farms. One investor cited the high-tech indoor farms (and associated advances in robotics, sensors and software) to be massive opportunities to disrupt conventional farming methods as his reasons for investing in vertical farms.
But significant cash infusions are no guarantee of success.
FarmedHere was considered a national leader in indoor farming when it launched in 2011 but the commercial-scale hydroponic farm in Chicago declared bankruptcy last year, citing unsustainable labor and energy costs. Atlanta-based PodPonics raised $15 million in startup capital but liquidated its assets and shuttered operations in 2016. Labor costs were a factor.
The high-profile failures don’t surprise Cox. Rather than investing millions in vertical farming, he advocates looking to vacant lots and rooftops where sunshine and water can turn seedlings in raised beds into fresh produce for a fraction of the cost of powering indoor agriculture.
“The closer we can produce fresh produce to densely populated urban areas, the better,” Cox says. “Agricultural production has plenty of problems but we’re not going to solve them by growing food indoors.”
Photo: Marcus Spiske Unsplash