What is vertical farming?
What if you could control the environment—the light, temperature, and humidity—of a vegetable or fruit crop, so that you could produce plants of superior quality that arrive fresher, have a longer shelf life, and are more nutritious? That’s the ambition of vertical farming, that is, growing plants on layered vertical structures, often indoors. Think layers and stacks, like a sort of industrial live lasagna.
The farms can be located in shipping containers, tunnels, and parking lots. They also range in structure, like two-story towers that can easily be moved on an automated conveyance system. They’re high-tech, too. Plenty, a San Francisco-based indoor farming company, said it uses machine learning to monitor plant health and flavor growth. The company employs a team of more than 100 hardware and software engineers, and designs custom LED lights that mimic sunlight, applying specific spectrums to individual crops.
Vertical farms bring fresh produce closer to urban areas and use 95% less water than traditional farms. The buzz has only climbed since the pandemic and extreme weather joined forces to thwart global supply chains. Not only that, but the method has the potential to help feed a growing global population.
Will the industry grow within a soil mix of high capital investment and expensive energy operating costs?
Let’s get our hands dirty.
By the digits
9 billion: Expected global population by 2050, according to the United Nations
70%: More food that will be needed to meet minimum human nutritional requirements by 2050, compared to 2013
38%: Global land surface used for agriculture, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization
80%: Share of the Earth’s population that will reside in urban centers by 2050
$1.4 billion: VC funding in vertical farming in 2022, a record amount, according to PitchBook
10-20 times: Vertical farming yield per acre compared to open-field crops
25%: How much the vertical farming market is expected to grow annually over the next decade, according to a 2021 Morgan Stanley report
Explain it like I’m 5
Is vertical farming sustainable (both environmentally and financially)?
Vertical farming removes a lot of uncertainty out of the growing process, which is often good for consumers. When crops fare poorly, higher retail prices are usually the result. “So vertical farms provide predictability, reliability, a constant in the food chain,” said Michigan State University professor Erik Runkle, whose research focuses on plant lighting.
The problem is, these farms are energy-intensive, so it’s not necessarily a more sustainable farming strategy, said Runkle. The bigger the yield, the more light consumption, and the more expensive the lighting fixtures are to purchase and operate.
It’s also a costly endeavor. Right now, the industry is largely limited to leafy greens because they have high profit margins. That salad you had for lunch had short production times, and didn’t need its flowers pollinated.
Besides leafy greens, vertical farms can also, but to a lesser extent, grow strawberries, tomatoes, and cannabis. But producing wheat, rice, and soybeans affordably—and on the massive scale to which humans are accustomed—just isn’t feasible within vertical farming’s current setup, wrote Cary Mitchell, a professor at Purdue University, in a 2022 paper.
“They live in a world without stress.”
—Nate Storey, co-founder of Plenty, referring to plants grown in vertical farms
It’s still about the green
Plenty co-founder Nate Storey told us that the costs associated with vertical farming are fixed and become cheaper over time in part due to efficiency tweaking, learning from mistakes, and R&D. “Our last farm was twice the cost of the [current] Compton farm on a square-meter basis,” said Storey. For instance, LED lights, which make up a significant expense for most indoor agriculture facilities, are pricier up front but often cost less to operate over time.
And time is what will ultimately bring down technology costs. While vertical farming may strengthen food supply chains, it also takes a bit to grow the product consistently.
Partnering with retailers can also help reduce costs or scale up efforts. Last year, Walmart invested in Plenty, selling its leafy greens under the startup’s brands and under Walmart’s private label. Three years ago, US grocery chain Publix linked up with Brick Street Farms to add a 40-foot hydroponic farm in a parking lot outside its flagship store in Lakeland, Florida. Each week, the farm produces about 720 heads of lettuce to be sold in the store. When asked whether he could see a possibility of Walmart buying up Plenty, Storey answered, “Absolutely, yes.”
In 2022, funding in vertical farms hit a record high. Alex Frederick, an agricultural technology analyst at PitchBook, said investor interest might be partly the result of so-called “patient capital,” i.e. a greater tolerance of maximum financial terms for social impact.
Which industry ranks as the biggest polluter?
The answer is ready for harvest at the bottom of this email.
12,000 years ago: Organized plant agriculture begins; irrigation is the first environmental control.
30 CE: The first greenhouses emerge.
1940s-1980s: The Green revolution begins. The period sees major increase in production of food grains, thanks to new technologies such as high-yielding varieties of wheat and rice, and widespread use of chemical fertilizers, particularly, benefitting countries like Mexico and India.
1952: The first phytotrons—large, centralized, controlled-environment growing facilities—launch around the world.
1984: The Netherlands pioneers the concept of stacked layers to grow crops in an industrial factory.
1989-1990: Kewpie Corporation—the Japanese packaged food company behind the eponymous mayonnaise—creates its TS Farm method, which uses aeroponics, fluorescent lighting, and A-frame design.
2004: AeroFarms, an indoor vertical farming company, is founded in Newark, New Jersey.
2005: Widespread conversion to LE begins in vertical farms.
2010: The Vertical Farm: Feeding the World in the 21st Century is published, but the book’s futuristic visions of high-rise indoor urban agriculture prompts pushback from agricultural engineers and controlled environment agriculture experts, who raise questions about energy usage.
2014: Plenty, an indoor plant-based company based in San Francisco, is founded.
2015: New York City-based Bowery Farming comes along.
In the 1970s and 1980s, NASA began funding a few academic research projects on future space bioregenerative life-support systems. But life-support research involving plants was put on hold in 2006, perhaps because a NASA official watched the 1972 film Silent Running.
In the 2008 Pixar film Wall-E, everyone’s favorite planet cleanup robot finds a seedling growing in a broken refrigerator, arguably upping the publicity factor for plants grown in weird ways. Also, it’s just a really sweet moment.
Take me down this 🐰 hole!
A global phenomenon
Last July, Emirates Flight Catering company partnered with indoor vertical farming company Crop One to launch a 330,000 sq ft (30,658 sq m) vertical farm near Al Maktoum International Airport in Dubai. The farm is expected to produce more than 2.2 million lbs (1 million kg) of leafy greens annually to feed passengers on Emirates and other airlines. Eventually, Emirates plans to sell these plants at nearby supermarkets.
In the Middle East, where water is scarce and energy is plentiful, vertical farms are a sound option, said Erik Runkle. “The governments have realized they import most of their food, and that becomes a geopolitical risk, right, if they’re relying on other countries just to eat,” he said. “These governments have invested money, realizing that they don’t want to be reliant on everyone else.”
Meanwhile, Singapore, which currently gets 90% of its food from abroad, aims to produce 30% of its food by 2030. In this city-sized state, there’s a push to grow more with less, which has motivated the government to insert multistory LED vegetable farms and aquaculture systems to produce 10 to 15 times more vegetables and fish than conventional farms, Quartz’s Clarisa Diaz reports. Singapore is also experimenting with growing rice on vertical farms.
Leafy greens are fine, but what’s the crop you’d most like to see go vertical?
- Is cheese a crop?
💬 Let’s talk!
In last week’s poll about pickleball, 41% of you are still resisting the siren call, while 30% are pickleball-curious. The other 29% are already addicted.
🤔 What did you think of today’s email?
💡 What should we obsess over next?
Today’s email was written by Michelle Cheng (excited to learn about potential solutions to our world’s problems), edited by Annaliese Griffin (put herself through college working on a small farm in New Hampshire), and produced by Julia Malleck (has been to a horizontal farm).
The correct answer to the quiz is B., Energy. The energy industry reportedly emits the most greenhouse gas per year.