Upward Growth for Indoor Farms

Image: Bowery Farming

by Natasha Lasky, ODP Staff Writer

Indoor farms have become increasingly attractive to investors as ways to solve pandemic-induced disruptions to the harvesting, shipping, and sale of food.

Vertical farms grow produce indoors in layers or vertical apparatuses inside warehouses or shipping containers. Artificial light, temperature control, and minimal soil use could make indoor farming more resource-efficient than traditional farms. Investors have begun to notice the potential of this type of agriculture, injecting $500m of investment dollars into high-tech indoor farms since 2020.

Recently, New York-based indoor vertical farming startup Bowery Farming has raised $300 million in a Series C funding round, giving the company a valuation of $2.3 billion.

Why This Matters: According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, urban indoor farming could improve food security as inflation soars. Moreover, as the climate changes, outdoor farming has become more unreliable — in North America, produce is grown predominantly in Mexico, the Southwest, and California, which have been afflicted with wildfires, heat waves, and drought.

As COVID spread across farms, afflicting, in particular, the migrant workers that harvest North American produce, supply disruptions became a bigger and bigger concern. Vertical farming could address this issue by spreading the number of areas producing vegetables and growing food closer to the places people consume them.

 

Seeds of Doubt?

Investment in indoor agribusinesses has accelerated — Bayer AG has started investing in multi-story vertical farms and greenhouses the size of 50 football fields. Other indoor farming companies include Elevate, BrightFarms, AeroFarms and Plenty, backed by Amazon.com Inc founder Jeff Bezos. Aside from Bowery Farming’s Series C round, AppHarvest, the only indoor farming company that has gone public so far, has seen its value rise from about $1 billion to more than $1.5 billion.

It’s not fully clear how many overall emissions are emitted from indoor farming compared to outdoor farming. Bowery Farming insists that they can grow produce all year, use less water, and avoid pesticides. The company also maintains that their farms can be close to cities, reducing the energy spent transporting the vegetables.

But others suggest that these farms could ultimately use more power than traditional agriculture. Stan Cox, research scholar for non-profit The Land Institute, told Reuters that these farms are not as cost-efficient as they seem, as they depend on grocery store premiums to offset higher electricity costs for lighting and temperature control. Bruce Bugbee, a professor of environmental plant physiology at Utah State University, echoed this sentiment, telling Reuters that that vertical farms use 10 times the energy as outdoor farms, even considering the fuel used to transport produce from outdoor farms across the country from California.

Still, Bright Farms CEO Steve Platt predicts that within a decade, half of all leafy greens in the United States will come from indoor farms, up from less than 10% currently.

He told Reuters:It’s a whole wave moving in this direction because the system we have today isn’t set up to feed people across the country.”

The Good: There are several other factors that do indeed give indoor farming an advantage over traditional agriculture. As Fast Company wrote, with crops in stacked trays or planted on vertical walls, many more plants can fit in the same footprint.

  • LED lights tuned to shades of pink or purple help plants grow faster and can be tweaked to change the nutrition or taste.

  • Because the plants are in a controlled environment, no pesticides are needed, and with no limitations from the seasons or weather, crops can grow year-round.

  •  Instead of growing greens in drought-prone states like California and Arizona and then shipping them to the East Coast, it’s possible to use a hydroponic system with 95% less water and deliver produce the same day it’s picked.

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