Agriculture, Food and Beverage

What are vertical farms, and can they really feed the world?

David Kirkpatrick
Chief Executive Officer, Techonomy Media
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Agriculture, Food and Beverage

This article is published in collaboration with Techonomy

In a little noticed analysis published in 2014, data giant Thomson Reuters announced that by 2025, food shortages and price fluctuations would be a thing of the past, everywhere. But how could that be? What about overpopulation, climate change, radical shifts in rainfall, global water shortages, disappearing Himalayan glaciers drying out farmers’ fields in India, and all the other dire predictions of food scarcity and disorder we’ve heard in recent years? The data firm dismissed it all, projecting that new technologies for cultivating plants would expand food production, “helping feed the world’s eight billion people and overcoming environmental changes that will affect traditional farming.” The analysis continued: “In 2025, genetically modified crops will be grown rapidly and safely indoors, with round-the-clock light, using low-energy LEDs that emit specific wavelengths to enhance growth.”

Thomson Reuters came to its conclusion by dweeby means–applying data science to its gigantic collection of patent filings and scientific papers and extracting a previously undetected pattern. But a growing army of food scientists, businesspeople, and techno-farmers are already starting to live out the prediction. Eri Hayashi is a feet-on-the-ground Japanese researcher who has spent the last three years visiting and evaluating actual indoor farms around the world. It took her a while to become convinced, she says, “But I really do now believe we are heading into a new era in food production.” Here’s another indicator: companies already poking around this field include Amazon, Starbucks, Kellogg, Target, and many of the world’s largest food-producing corporations.

This startling new form of technologized agriculture goes by different names in different places. In Japan, where it is by far the most advanced, over 150 so-called “plant factories” operate already, reports Hayashi. Taiwan comes next, with about 30, she calculates. In the U.S., there are probably about 70 “vertical farms,” but only about 10 of substantial size, she says. But they include the world’s largest single installation, Green Sense Farms, which commercially grows arugula, cilantro, kale, lettuce, and peas in Portage, Indiana near Chicago. Dickson Despommier, an emeritus professor of public health and microbiology at Columbia, helped prod growth in the U.S. –and name the industry–with his 2011 book The Vertical Farm: Feeding the World in the 21st Century. In Europe, where activity is widespread, the phenomenon is known as “city farms.” Meanwhile, several experts told Techonomy that China will soon dominate. Its government is quietly building at least three “agricultural parks”–massive indoor growing fields. China’s serial food-quality crises have made safety and purity a paramount concern for consumers, and indoor farms offer unprecedented quality control and predictability.

151130-vertical farms farming agriculture WEF

The field is blossoming, even as most people still haven’t wrapped their heads around the idea that their salad might come from a dark room lit like a nightclub. Most American vertical farms are quite new. “It will be a trillion-dollar industry in 20 years,” Despommier says. “By then virtually every city in the world will have vertical farms.” Singapore is moving so fast–with government support and four companies already operating–that he expects in five years the city-state, which has little room to grow conventionally, will produce 30% of its “consumable vegetable material” indoors.

Whatever you call it, an indoor farm is an incongruous and unfamiliar site–typically a vast warehouse-like space with stacks of as many as twelve illuminated beds filled with rapidly-growing plants under rows of mostly red and blue lights. Nutrient-rich water passes in trays beneath each row. The atmosphere resembles a clean room in a chip factory. The “farmers” are white-coated technicians, adjusting the environment and maintaining electrical and digital systems that regulate growth. Some farms even have automated conveyors that periodically move seedlings to bigger beds, replanting and respacing them under slightly different lights. Says Chris Higgins, general manager at Hort Americas, a supplier of indoor agriculture supplies near Fort Worth and publisher of the online Urban Ag News: “In controlled environment agriculture [the name he prefers] it can be like Groundhog Day–an environment where every day is the same day. The goal is to have as much control over the variables as possible.”

AeroFarms is building its indoor farm in the soaring steel bones of an old factory in a grungy urban neighborhood in Newark, New Jersey. When completed, it will be even bigger than Green Sense. AeroFarms recently raised tens of millions from Goldman Sachs, among other investors. The company in fall 2015 began shipping produce from a smaller facility to ShopRite Supermarkets after years of planning and development, and will soon start supplying Whole Foods and other customers. “This is engineering meeets horticulture meets data science,” says CEO David Rosenberg. “These are MIT-trained coders who understand how to take data and optimize not just yield but taste, texture, and nutritional density. We have mechanical engineers, structural engineers, lighting engineers, and process engineers.”

Produce grown under such conditions typically matures faster, has more leaves, is crisper, tastes better, and stays fresh considerably longer than field-raised plants. It can be produced year-round and the amount of water used is as little as 2% of what would be necessary outdoors.

We desperately need new ways to grow our food. As the global middle class burgeons, the world must produce 70% more calories and at least 100% more total agricultural crops by 2050, calculates McKinsey. Meanwhile, the newly-announced Sustainable Development Goals endorsed by the United Nations dauntingly call for a complete end to “global food insecurity” by 2030. Economist Jeffrey Sachs, the goals’ biggest apostle, recently said that agriculture “is still the number one driver of climate change and global pollution.” McKinsey says agriculture is today a $5 trillion industry–the world’s largest –and represents 10% of global consumer spending, 40% of employment, and 30% of greenhouse gas emissions (though methane from livestock creates a considerable portion).

There is no way to produce the increasing amount of food we will need without massive improvements in growing technology. Happily, conventional farming has already made immense strides outdoors. Yields for greens grown in California, for example, are up as much as ten times since the early 1990’s. One reason is that farmers are using data to understand the exact combination of water, sunlight and fertilizer that will make plants that will thrive in their fields. “A farmer growing cilantro may have his own catalog of 300 different varieties of seed for his property,” says Higgins of Urban Ag News. “One variety may do better in the front of the property and another in the back.” But the next step is to take all this control to another level. Indoor plant cultivation under lights has been around for decades, but doing it profitably at scale proved elusive.

Now, however, the technology is improving rapidly. The breakthrough came with LEDs, or light-emitting diodes, a technology more closely related to semiconductors than to traditional incandescent lights that heat up a filament. LEDs can be tuned in myriad ways for the red and blue light that is most important in photosynthesis. Philips, based in Eindhoven, Netherlands, has become the world leader in agriculture lighting. Cees Bijl oversees emerging businesses including what Philips calls Horticultural LED Solutions. “The critical thing we did seven or eight years ago,” he explains, “was to say we don’t want to just supply a light to the grower, but to supply the whole solution, including the light recipe. We now have LEDs emitting wavelengths for specific crops.” The efficiency of LEDs has also dramatically improved. Reports Robert Spivock, engineering leader for General Electric’s Specialty Lighting division: “Back in 2005 a blue LED was giving in the range of 30 lumens per watt. Now off the shelf it can generate up to 130 lumens per watt. So the amount of light produced compared to what’s lost in heat has increased tremendously. You can bring the light down close to the plant without burning it.”

The advances in LEDs dovetail with rapid improvements in hydroponic systems for growing plants in water (driven in part by the fast-growing cannabis industry), as well as software for data analytics and systems control. Indoor farmers can now measure, store, and control the full range of variables that affect the rate of growth, size, and characteristics of a plant–not just lighting color and intensity but nutrients, humidity, temperature, and carbon dioxide concentrations, among many factors. But the reality is that we are only beginning to understand how all these variables affect specific plants.

Caleb Harper, an architect by training, runs the Open Agriculture initiative at MIT’s Media Lab, supported by companies like Target and Hong Kong-based food company Lee Kum Kee. Harper has become perhaps the most vocal and visible cheerleader for a wholistic approach to controlled agriculture which might be called “programming plants.” He sees plants as a sort of artist’s palette–a set of capabilities that can be employed in an infinite variety of ways.

It’s easy to get him talking about the opportunities: “When somebody says ‘Oh the Bordeaux from 1965 was the best! Blah blah blah,’ what they’re really saying is just that the climate that year produced the expression that we like. If we can curate climate, we can create the best climates we know, like the one that produced that Bordeaux that year. But it also means we can experiment with climates that don’t naturally occur. We can use capabilities that are already in the seeds. We don’t even know what the combination of environmental variables does to produce a specific expression in a plant.”

Chris Higgins of Urban Ag News agrees. “We may be able to start to reconstruct what plants look like, without going to GMO, which is a word everybody hates.” He says, for instance, that while wheat is one crop that can’t easily be grown indoors, maybe it could be if we could induce wheat to grow 6 inches tall. Higgins explains that the plants we eat today invariably have already undergone dramatic modification through selective breeding and hybridization over a long time. “You wouldn’t have enjoyed a kale salad 50 years ago,” he says. “We’ve continually selected out traits that make it more attractive and edible.”

“There’s no understanding of basic biology,” continues MIT’s Harper. “Genomics and gene physics is not what I do. Instead I work with the phenome, which expresses the gene. That just means ‘phenomena.’ You’re programming the climate, and that in turn programs the food. You’re programming the phenome to create the crop-based expression that you want.”

One thing that matters deeply to Harper, though, is that the phenomic “programs” for growing useful new varieties of plants be widely available. He is distressed by the secrecy that characterizes much of the indoor agriculture world, saying it undermines cooperation that could more rapidly achieve the advances the world needs. He wants to “open source” indoor agriculture technology. This is why he calls it the “Open” Agriculture initiative. One of his newest partners is Mitchell Baker, longtime president of the Mozilla Foundation, creators of the open source Firefox browser. Baker will work on an intellectual property framework that may enable food researchers to more readily build on one another’s innovations.

To promote the field, educate kids, and help develop “programs” for specific plant variants, Harper has recruited teachers from six junior high schools and high schools in the Boston area. Each classroom now has what Harper calls a “personal food computer,” a TV-sized enclosed growing environment, like a mini version of the larger factory systems. “Inside the boxes we’re creating climates, and the climate then becomes digital,” says Harper. “A seventh-grade class can drag a climate onto a desktop.” And then it can be shared. He’s confident soon such micro-farms will be widely available. Many of us could then become experimenters, unlocking new potential foods and functions from plants. And you thought 3D printing was cool!

Another challenge for the indoor farming movement is the question of whether its products are “natural” or “organic,” or whether it even matters. A few certifying authorities have begun to accept indoor greens as organic if the nutrients in the water are organic, but most still insist on outdoor fields and real dirt. Biologist and vertical farm advocate Despommier of Columbia has little patience with such thinking: “If people say the only way to grow naturally is to use dirt, you have to tell them farming is not natural, period. You have to destroy ecosystems in order to farm. And we can’t afford that because that’s our life support system. So we have to restore our life support and have food. The way to do that is to get off the land. Leave nature alone, and it will repair itself.”

The persuasive environmental arguments for indoor agriculture could turn out to be the biggest factor in helping Thomson Reuters’ predictions come true. Despommier calculates that if every city on earth were to grow 10% of its produce indoors, it would allow us to take 340,000 square miles of farmland back to forest. That, in turn, could absorb enough carbon dioxide to bring the level in earth’s atmosphere back to where it was in 1980, he says. The water savings in indoor farming offer numerous other major environmental benefits. One is to reduce water pollution caused by agricultural runoff, one of the world’s great scourges.

Then there’s the satisfaction of having fresher, tastier food grown nearby, perhaps even by people you know. Artesian Farms in Detroit is already getting traction locally with its “Motown Mix” of salad greens. Corner Stalk Farm grows in five converted shipping containers in a parking lot in East Boston. Says Lisa Lillelund, a Boston-based serial entrepreneur who is starting her own indoor-farming business: “This is allowing clean tech to support the local food movement. What a wonderful marriage.”

Now entrepreneurs are planting seeds of all sorts across the landscape. They range from Grove, which sells refrigerator-sized growing environments meant to go in a consumer’s kitchen (and which presented at Techonomy 2014), to companies like AeroFarms and Green Sense Farms, which don’t just grow food at scale but also seek to license their technologies so others can do the same. (Green Sense already is helping build a facility in Shenzhen, China.) Corner Stalk’s parking lot “farm” was also produced in Boston, by Freight Farms, one of several companies that sells complete self-contained containerized systems. After a few days of training you plug in, connect a hose, insert seeds, and go.

Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.

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Author: David Kirkpatrick is the founder, host, and CEO of Techonomy. 

Image: A worker harvests fresh produce from a tower at a vertical farm. REUTERS/Edgar Su. 

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Related topics:
Agriculture, Food and BeverageEmerging TechnologiesFourth Industrial Revolution
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