Indoor, vertical, hydroponic, urban. Whatever you want to call them, these high-tech farms are popping up all over the world from office buildings in Japan to research laboratories in the Netherlands to O’Hare International airport in Chicago, and even your own home. Here we talk about what they are, how they can revolutionise the food industry and what the major drawbacks are.
Introducing indoor farming
Access to arable land and fresh water is declining, traditional commercial farming methods are environmentally unsustainable and climate change is becoming less of a threat and more of a reality. In the face of these challenges we must produce enough food to feed a growing population, many of whom are chronically hungry. Some believe the answer lies in a radical transformation of our food production systems, namely indoor farming, a method that can reduce the inefficiency and waste (e.g. of water or of crops) associated with modern farming practices.
Indoor farming is happening across the globe, although predominantly in developed countries. The world’s largest indoor farm at 25,000 square feet is located in the old SONY factory located in eastern Japan’s Miyagi Prefecture. Some 380 enclosed farms growing fruit and vegetables are operating in Japan, including some run by electronics companies Fujitsu, Toshiba and Panasonic. But what is indoor farming?
Well, crops are grown hydroponically (as opposed to in soil) in a sterile environment with a precisely controlled climate. Plants are drip-fed nutrients and fertilizer through recycled water, while sensors can detect which nutrients are missing, this is precision farming at its most extreme. Light is provided artificially through LED or fluorescent lighting (the former consuming 40% less energy than the latter), the amount of illumination controlled to maximise photosynthesis and respiration. In a warehouse in an industrial park in Indiana, basil, lettuce, kale and chives grow 22 hours each day, every day per year, lit by thousands of blue and red LEDs. The artificial acceleration of plant growth and maturation, achieved through providing optimal crop growing conditions, has been seen to increase yields by 50%. At the Mirai lettuce farm in Japan, lettuces grow twice as fast as those grown outdoors and are of better quality, containing 8-10 times more beta-carotene and 2 times as much vitamin C, Calcium and Magnesium.
Indoor farming also offers lots of other advantages, freeing producers from concerns such as pests and diseases, weather and planting times and allowing consumers to access fresh locally grown food all year round. They offer closed loop systems that process plant waste and filter dirty water. Some vertical farming projects are using aquaponics whereby waste from farmed fish is used as fertilizer for crops, thus recycling almost all of the water and reducing the need for synthetic inputs.
An even more radical idea yet to be fully developed is vertical farming, essentially indoor farming in skyscrapers. Such an approach could save land allowing former farmland to be regenerated perhaps as vast carbon sinks. Of course this land may not be spared for environmental reasons but used for other purposes and abandoned farmland may have severe consequences for farmland biodiversity and rural economies. In his book, The Vertical Farm, Dr Dickson Despommier explains what vertical farms are, how they can be a local source of food for cities and how they will change the face of food production.
How could indoor farms change the way we produce food?
Already it’s clear there are several advantages over modern farming. With increasing urbanisation (some 70% of the world population will live in cities by 2050), indoor farming can help produce food near where people live. It can thus reduce food transportation costs (and associated emissions) and potentially increase urban access to food. Gotham Greens, which run rooftop indoor farms in Brooklyn recently opened a 20,000 square foot farm on the roof of a new Whole Food Market, delivering produce directly to the shop below. Viraj Puri, co-founder and CEO of Gotham Greens, discusses in his TEDx talk the urban farming trend.
We can produce more food in a smaller space with less resources, helping to tackle land and water resource scarcity, climate change and pollution. One source reports that yields could be 20 times higher than that cultivated on land using one tenth of the water. It could also enable countries with little to no arable land to grow crops.
In short vertical or indoor farms, according to Dr. Despommier, can allow us to:
- Grow food all day, every day
- Protect crops from unpredictable and harmful weather events
- Re-use water collected from the indoor environment
- Eliminate the need for pesticides, fertilizers, or herbicides
- Reduce our dependence on fossil fuels
- Prevent crop loss due to shipping or storage
- Stop agricultural runoff
But there are several major drawbacks.
Firstly, indoor farms mainly grow fruits and vegetables although companies are exploring adaptations to the system that will allow them to grow a wider variety of crops. Rice plants, for example, are being grown at an indoor paddy field in Tokyo at the Pasona O2. But indoor farms are unlikely to be able to grow crops such as potatoes, maize and other subsistence crops. Given that they produce high-value crops using sophisticated technologies, largely in developed countries, their use and value in increasing global access to food is doubtful. Several potentially harmful hypothetical impacts could arise from widespread adoption of indoor farming such as the translocation of food production to cities causing a downturn in rural economies, areas where many of the poor and hungry live; reduced access to healthy nutritious food for rural communities; and an exacerbation of the divide between the haves and have-nots, where technological advancements prevent poorer countries from joining the indoor farming revolution.
When seen as a technological solution to the wastefulness and unsustainability of farming in the western world, indoor farming is difficult to criticise. But as the world becomes more connected, industrial and market developments in one country have profound impacts for others, impacts that we need to be much more aware of.
At present production costs for indoor farming are higher than under conventional, tending to use more electricity. But new technologies are changing this. LED lighting has significantly decreased energy use and has come down substantially in price. LED lights also give off less heat, thus less air conditioning is required, lights can be positioned closer to the plants and crops can be grown more densely.
Another drawback to indoor farming is that produce tends to be costly. For example the Wall Street Journal found that a head of lettuce from a factory can be three times more expensive than its outdoor counterpart. In the long term with indoor farms producing higher yields in a more efficient manner, economies of scale may serve to reduce prices but for now indoor farming is very much a rich country industry.