The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted agricultural production and supply chains around the world. With the threat of global viruses, rising temperatures, and more mouths to feed, traditional farming is no longer sustainable. In comes vertical farming.

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What is vertical farming? Indoor agriculture (like greenhouses) using vertical space to optimize crop production in a controlled environment

Pros

  • Minimized pests and pesticides
  • Greater precision and control over water and nutrients, less waste
  • More food produced per acre of land, more sustainable for our planet in the long run
  • Reduced distribution supply chains delivering fresher produce to customers at greater speed

Cons

  • Higher costs
  • Deep know-how and expertise required 
  • Limited number of crops can grow profitably (leafy greens vs. strawberries that require more sunlight and thus more electricity)

Why vertical farming? The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted food supply chains around the world. The shift to remote work increased office space vacancies… creating an opportunity to redesign spaces. Now is a good time to rethink ways to feed a growing population, especially in urban cities. We need to better adapt to supply and demand shocks.

A touch on Big Tech Apply algorithmic or machine-learning solutions to the biggest challenge in agriculture: optimization. Artificial intelligence (AI) helps minimize food waste by figuring out the right amount of energy, water, and nutrients required to produce food. 

Bottom line With increased pressure on supply chains around the globe, rethinking traditional farming and redirecting efforts toward vertical farming (and AI) will address food security challenges and reduce waste in the future.

Dig deeper → 4 min

The Backstory on Vertical Farming

A logistical nightmare for farmers

These new obstacles have led to sharp shifts in supply and demand creating logistical nightmares for farmers when transporting food to distant markets. According to Bloomberg, a third of global food production ended up in landfills prior to the pandemic.

Farmers dump an unprecedented amount of food before it even reaches grocery store; supply chain economics are to blame.

With food production operating using just-in-time methods, farmers can transport products into stores or restaurants within a few days.The next batch of crops are ready to replenish demand immediately.

As a result, our supply chains are unable to quickly adapt to surprises. As witnessed by the restaurant industry, there was a huge backlog of supply due to diminishing demand. This resulted in a lot of food waste. The pandemic exasperated the inefficiencies in our food system and broken supply chains.

A search for better farming

Vertical farms avoid traditional logistical problems. By growing food closer to urban populations, vertical farms occupy multi-story buildings where crops are grown in a controlled environment. This typically requires water or misted air with LED lights.

Given the increased number of expected office vacancies due to COVID-19, this presents an opportunity for the vertical farming industry to redesign building space. Imagine a world where an office space doubles as your source of income and source of food.

According to the USDA, the world’s population is projected to exceed 9 billion by 2050 and two out of every three people are expected to live in urban areas by that same year.

Producing fresh vegetables close to these growing urban populations could help meet global food demands while remaining flexible. Furthermore, vertical farming offers a more environmentally responsible solution. It reduces the length of time from farm to fork, thereby contributing to lower emissions. It also provides higher-nutrient produce while drastically reducing water usage and runoff.

Rethinking Conventional Farming with Big Tech

Over the past 10 years, hundreds of indoor farms emerged around the globe, backed by major venture capital investors like Softbank and Google Ventures.

According to Forbes, the indoor farming technology market was valued at $23.75 billion in 2016. It is projected to reach $40.25 billion by 2022. In 2018, vertical farming alone was valued around $2 billion, and is projected to increase six-fold over the next eight years.

Vertical Farming Market Analysis, Insights and Forecast, 2015-2026

Some of the biggest players in the industry include Aerofarms, a Newark, N.J. based startup with expansive commercial outlets serving the New York metro area and Plenty, a San Francisco-based vertical farm funded by Softbank. So why hasn’t vertical farming become more prevalent?

Many vertical farming startups have failed due to the challenges of optimizing vertical farms on a large scale given increasing costs. It is clear, vertical farmers are still progressing up the technology learning curve and struggle to expand in a way that holds quality consistent while reducing costs.

Another hurdle that vertical farms face is the cost of powering LED lighting in order to compete against traditional farms. Despite these high costs, LED lighting prices have been radically declining, making it cheaper and easier for vertical farms.

A path for vertical farming

Despite these massive startup costs, vertical farming is paving the way for technological advancements in AI to drive down costs. To ensure the environment is optimal for each specific plant, thousands of infrared cameras and sensors cover the indoor farm and take measurements of temperature, moisture, and plant growth.

This data is then gathered and used to fine-tune the system. For example, vertical farmers can adjust day and night temperatures and the amount of CO2 needed. Through this largely automated process, AI controls the instruments that deliver nutrients to crops and provides optimal lighting for each crop.

Compared to the unpredictable conditions of traditional farming, vertical farms create strictly controlled conditions to bypass the variations of weather and soil and avoid the use of chemicals. Furthermore, this control gives vertical farmers the freedom to experiment with developing the best-tasting produce in the most efficient way.

Final thoughts

Vertical farms allow around 95% of indoor seedlings to make it on the dinner table. By contrast, the efficacy of vertical farming for outdoor crops ranges from 90% in a good year to around 70% during drought or flood years.

With climate change factors, the viability of outdoor crops decreases. Record-high temperatures and extreme weather patterns create greater unpredictability. Now compare this to a single building where layers of vertical fields can be harvested to provide year-round crops.

Moreover, the proximity of these farms to consumers greatly reduces spoilage and damage from shipping.

Eventually, such farms could provide more nutritious produce options to lower-income urban areas known as food deserts. Vertical farms will unlock a sustainable, affordable way to grow food in the future.

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