Is Vertical Farming Really the Future of Agriculture?
by: Steve Holt
Jul 3 2018
Many leaders in the urban agricultural space swear that vertical agriculture will be our future way of meeting the increasing population's need for food. Steve Holt from Eater uses a San Francisco agricultural start up "Plenty" as an example of a company growing plentiful, and delicious leafy greens without soil, using hydroponics, and artificial lighting. With 200 Million in funding from big names like Vision fund, supported by Jeff Bezos, Plenty quickly opened up a 100,000 square foot indoor farm just outside of Seattle which is promising to deliver 4.5 million pounds of green veggies annually. A big task which they claim requires new strains of fruits and veggies like new genetically modified strawberries and tomatoes from their research development lab in Wyoming.
The industry is still small, and relying somewhat on yet-to-be developed technologies that will make the growing process more efficient as they scale, but for now, prices, and carbon emissions remain high, both often more than double that of conventionally grown greens. Holt quotes a Cornell study that dismantles the vertical growers claims and promises of forthcoming greater sustainability through improved lighting efficiency by saying that LED's are 40% more efficient now than they were in 2014, but there is very little chance that they will be 40% more efficient yet again by 2020. So, while growing food closer to where is will be consumed could indeed bring down the transportation carbon emissions, the lighting required to grow it could quickly offset those savings, and currently does by a long shot.
Holt explains another start-up Freshbox Farm's claims saying they will make the shift to using locationally appropriate renewable energy like " Wind energy in the Midwest, Hydro in the Northwest, and solar in the southwest." They also note that turning sunlight into new energy to power lights seems counter intuitive, however they are developing a congeneration system which could allow the use of what would usually be wasted heat from a power plant to produce energy in the form of light, something that exists, but is still on the horizon for the likes of Freshbox Farms.
Holt concludes with a tentative statement; "Actual data is coming" a 2.4 million dollar research grant funded by the National Science Foundation will study and compare vertical farming and its inputs and emissions with the various other forms of food production. The results from such a study could prove useful for future growers and investors, and could ultimately result in an increase in productivity and efficiency, or more of a definitive reason not to pursue vertical farming, either way, I would agree, the more data, the better.