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Can Technology Save Urban Farming?

Food Production, Food Technology, Future of Food, Soil and Crop Management

Can Technology Save Urban Farming?

The Dirt

The global food system is currently facing many challenges. With a growing world population and sustainability at the forefront, innovations in agriculture have never been more necessary. Pioneers in indoor agriculture are developing new technologies that could prove impactful for our growing needs. Let’s see how the trajectory of indoor ag can change the future of food.

Population growth, more food production, loss of arable land, water resources, and CO2 emission concerns are all on the forefront of food producers.

Given the fact that the U.N. predicts that 86% of the developed world’s population will live in cities by 2050, shifting food production to urban centers would seemingly solve all of these problems. Vertical farms have begun to sprout up like skyscrapers, packing massive production scale into an area as compact as a city block. While today, they are mostly used for microgreens, optimism prevails where existing rooftops could be repurposed to grow row crops. Vacant lot spaces could find a new use feeding the population.

According to Pitchbook, about $250 million has been invested in the top 25 Indoor Farms and related technologies. Environmental sustainability is a draw for impact investors. AeroFarms has four farms in Newark, New Jersey, one of which is the largest in the world: 70,000 feet and harvests up to 2 million pounds per year using 95% less water than field farming. Another contender, Gotham Greens, supplies Whole Foods in the New York City metro area with pesticide-free produce from their rooftop greenhouses.

Consider the potential impact:

  • Urban farms can be set up next to its consumers, eliminating greenhouse gas emissions associated with transportation and storage
  • They take up far less space than traditional, land-based farms, enabling them to create far more end product per acre and potentially making up for the loss of arable land
  • They can reduce the need for pesticides, eliminate the risk of extreme weather, and be built to conserve water and other traditional inputs 
  • They can be built effectively anywhere people live, bringing high-quality, nutritious food to growing communities all over the world, no matter the climate or land quality

A Promise Delayed

At least that’s the theory.

But, in reality, urban farming continues to lag behind its potential to disrupt the food system due to a range of shortcomings. Firstly, we eat more than just lettuce. Indoor farming is excellent for tasty greens, but expanding to staples in our diet, like fruits and vegetables will be tough with the technology that exists today.

And does this method actually reduce farming’s carbon footprint? Vertical farming operations might actually be more resource-intensive than outdoor production, given their reliance on artificial lights, water distribution, and climate control.

That’s on top of the fact that most urban farmers still can’t make a living at it, according to a 2016 study published in the British Food Journal.

As of today, urban farming – particularly the vertical farms that are envisioned to occupy skyscrapers and rooftops all over the world – is too expensive, too resource-intensive and too niche to truly reach its potential as a revolutionary new form of agriculture.

The Future of Food?

Could new technologies rebalance this equation and bring urban farms into wider use?

That’s the hope of a new generation of farmers and innovators working on ways to bring the power of Silicon Valley to the food we all eat, whether it is grown on an outdoor farm or in a warehouse. These efforts include everything from combining big data analytics and machine learning with genome editing to design better crops; creating robots that can pick apples, raspberries and other foods; and even using drones to gather insights that farmers and ranchers can use to more accurately plan and manage their facilities.

These new capabilities include:

Big Data Analytics: “Leaders in the agriculture industry have begun to use machine learning as a competitive advantage,” says Yochay Ettun, CEO and co-founder of cnvrg.io, a startup platform that is working to help data scientists manage and build machine learning models. For food producers, this has the potential to improve efficiency by offering everything from more accurate crop yield prediction to species recognition.

 “Machine learning has the ability to disrupt every industry, from agriculture to finance to travel. If society continues to invest and support its data science teams even in the agriculture industry there can be changes as drastic as the industrial revolution.”

– Yochay Ettun, cnvrg.io CEO & Co-Founder

The Internet of Things (IoT) is also making inroads in the controlled environment of indoor agriculture, in part because there is so much about farming that’s universal. From temperature to water, to nutrients, humidity and more, every single farm or indoor operation is managing the same seven to 10 different functions. The only difference is the scale of what they’re doing.

IoT can bring any scale down to size, adding in automation features that help small operators scale.

“Just think about how much more efficient your business can be when you can know what’s going on and be able to control your system remotely without staring at the plants all day,” says Dan Nelson, CEO and co-founder of Grow Computer, a company that is developing what it calls “an operating system for indoor agriculture” that will enable operators both large and small to harness the full potential of IoT and automation for ag applications, regardless of the hardware they’re using.

The five functions Grow Computer is providing to growers right now include monitoring, controls, automation alerts, and data, all of which can be managed from any internet-connected device. The idea is that a farmer can choose their own component tree, their own layout, their own processes, and then layer the software on top of it all, basically functioning like Microsoft Windows for everything that goes into an agriculture system.

“The biggest challenge that we see in urban farming is that, unless you have a tremendous amount of investible capital to build out your system, it’s really hard to be profitable,” Nelson explains. “You don’t get the benefit of these systems that large international agriculture companies get when you’re the small grower that’s trying to convert a small warehouse into a farm.”

“What we’re hoping for is that we’re going to help people build better vertical farming businesses at any size by helping them optimize their systems, getting them to the point that their competition is.”

– Dan Nelson, Grow Computer CEO & Co-Founder

Sustainable Lighting: According to Prof. Marc van Iersel of the Horticultural Department at University of Georgia’s College of Agricultural & Environmental Sciences, the typical indoor farming operation has to dedicate as much as 60% of its budget to energy costs alone, usually due to the artificial lighting that is required to support the system. As of 2019, this electricity is costing U.S. indoor farmers as much as $600 million per year.

This puts urban and vertical farmers at a disadvantage to their outdoor competitors, who get their light from the sun – for free, not to mention the substantial carbon footprint that goes into that power production.

A number of companies are currently working to address this shortcoming, building sustainable, LED-based lighting systems that are cheaper to run and designed to better support the plants they’re illuminating. New advances in LED light technology can, according to the Washington Post, do everything from change “how plants grow, when they flower, how they taste and even their levels of vitamins and antioxidants. The lights can also prolong their shelf life.”

Sananbio, the sister company of the world’s largest LED chip maker, Sanan Opto-Electronics – is bringing this promise to market with its photobiology technology, which is based on the interactions between light and living things. Its core focus is the optimization of lighting spectrums to allow plants to thrive at all stages of growth.

Per the company: “Our unique spectra has been trialed on a multitude of cultivars and our results have shown that by optimizing the spectrum based off of the cultivar we are able to increase nutritional value, drive unique genetic expression, increase active naturally occurring chemical compounds, and shorten flowering times.”

And that’s just one example of how smarter lighting can make things easier for vertical farmers.

Automated lighting systems, which can control when lights are on and off as well as optimize these cycles to maximize yield, can help operators not only cut down on management costs but prolong the life of the LED lights themselves.

The average LED lasts for about 50,000 hours, or more than 13 years if used for 10 hours per day. Optimization systems can improve the impact of these on periods to extract maximum plant benefits while extending the lives of the lights themselves.

Big Companies are Taking Notice

These innovations aren’t isolated to startups and growth companies either. Some of the largest technology providers in the world – including household names such as GE and Bayer – are also working on innovations for indoor agriculture.

Logiqs, for instance, a global logistics provider that has been designing and building warehouse automation and horticulture systems for more than 40 years, has introduced GreenCube, a modular indoor growing system that incorporates standard components from the company’s existing pallet storage systems and other growing racks. It is designed to work with the company’s automation equipment and sensors, which are also standardized, in order to keep the function of the entire system as simple as possible.

As Logiqs explains: “The goal of our design was to make a truly sustainable vertical farming system, from both an environmental point of view as well as from a financial standpoint.” And it’s worth noting that major food brands are buying in, as well.

“By partnering with urban farms, we can reduce our footprint, increase food security and livelihoods, and improve biodiversity,” says John Tran, Director of Sustainability & Responsibility at Pernod Ricard, the European alcohol conglomerate that today owns Absolut vodka, Jameson Irish Whiskey, Kahlua coffee liqueur, and other brands. The company launched its “Sustainability & Responsibility Roadmap for 2030” this past April.

“We’ve seen an increased use case for urban farming in 2019,” Tran says. “While limited space poses a challenge for high-scaled consumer products, we view it as supplementing traditional farms while also solving for some of the most pressing issues in highly dense urban areas. Urban farming provides a total value, increasing biodiversity and reducing ecological impact, which will help us improve our agricultural footprint and achieve our sustainability goals.”

The Bottom Line

Will new technologies like Big Data, artificial intelligence and the Internet of Things help urban farming really take hold? Will they be profitable enough to grow? Only time will tell.

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