And for many food crops, it already does
Controlled Environment Agriculture Defined
The “vertical farming” that Dr Foley writes about is only a tiny subset of a much, much larger industry called Controlled Environment Agriculture (CEA). CEA has existed for more than a century and refers to any attempt to control the growing environment for a crop. It spans the spectrum from plastic hoop houses that protect from the sun to glass greenhouses that use ambient light and heat from outside to recreate the perfect growing conditions for a crop. Most recently, it also includes a new kind of indoor growing architecture called “vertical farms.” Vertical farms are fully enclosed environments using only artificial lighting and growing crops in vertically stacked rows or towers.
CEA is Already a Large Sector
For more detail, I highly recommend reading “Let’s Talk About Market Size” by Allison Kopf, CEO at Agrilyst. In it, she describes the different type of indoor farms and the size of the market in greater detail. The point I wish to make here is that CEA is already a huge and profitable industry — worth $14B in the United States alone (as of 2016). According to Rabbobank, the world’s leading agriculture bank, the United States is a tiny player with only 911 hectares (2,221 acres) compared to countries like Spain (70,000 hectares) or China (82,000 hectares and growing) or even The Netherlands (11,500 hectares).
CEA is Experiencing an Innovation Revolution
Driven by innovations in the energy efficiency of LED lights, increasingly sophisticated yet inexpensive sensors, advances in robotics, and the legalization of cannabis there has been a wave of innovation in CEA. This has enabled experimentation of potential new architectures for indoor farms: vertically stacked trays, aquaponics (a form that integrates the symbiotic growing of fish with the growing of plants), vertical towers, etc. This has also led to experimentation on new crop types: fish, insects, cocoa, vanilla, the aforementioned bananas, and more.
What will the winning architecture be — Dutch greenhouses, hi-tech vertical farms, integrated aquaponics, etc? What crops will we grow? Does indoor growing make new crops, like insects, commercially viable? We don’t know yet, but advances are being made…every day. And that’s a good thing.
More Food. Less Waste. Healthier Food. Safer Food. Less Land.
As Dr Foley points out, indoor farms are expensive to build and operate. True. Starting any new farm from scratch (whether indoor or outdoor)is capital intensive. Much of the innovation happening in indoor agriculture is decreasing not only the upfront capital costs but — most importantly — the ongoing operating costs. As the Dutch have demonstrated, CEA farms are profitable at large commercial scale and produce fruits and vegetables at competitive prices to the average consumer. Twenty years ago, under the rallying cry “twice as much food using half as many resources,” the Dutch made a national commitment to sustainable agriculture. Now, 80% of their cultivated land is CEA. More food.
Because water is recycled and reused, growing indoors uses 90% less water, on average. This also means there is no runoff of nitrates and pesticides into your groundwater. Speaking of pesticides: it uses 97% fewer pesticides. More food. Less waste. Healthier food. Safer food.
CEA has a smaller footprint on the land: 1 acre of indoor farming for leafy greens can produce in 1 year what 10 acres of farmland produces outside. The Netherlands is second to the United States in agricultural exports yet has 1/270th of the land. More food. Less waste. Healthier food. Safer food. Less land.
Looking to the Future
Vertical farms are a new innovation in the Controlled Environment Agriculture sector. Many innovations start out unscalable and inefficient. Yes, vertical farms require more innovation to bring down energy costs, but if we just abandon CEA because vertical farms alone seem unscalable, we stifle innovation for all farming — vertical, indoor, outdoor and otherwise. Through the new innovations in vertical farming, the entire agriculture industry is addressing energy efficiency, water efficiency, automation (labour efficiency), new business models, shorter supply chains, and new crop types. These are exactly the agricultural problems that need solving across the entire food system, and it’s promising to see the capital and brain power that is addressing them.