Is Vertical Farming a Fad or the Future?
Only one way to really find out: Rolling up my sleeves and becoming an advisor to vertical farming startup Urban Oasis.
Vertical indoor farming (sometimes lumped together with greenhouse farming, and called Controlled Environment Agriculture) is the ability to cultivate some crops vertically. So what’s the big deal?
Vertical farming is exciting for many reasons…
Vertical farming has many advantages. It enables the growing of crops with up to 90% lower water use. Since the cultivation takes place indoors, pesticides and herbicides can be eliminated. As the climate is controlled (light, air and water temperature, CO2, humidity, pH etc) production can take place around the clock, year round. The supply chain becomes reliable, which reduces food waste. Local food security improves, as it becoming less dependent on long supply chains prone to disruption. Crops can also be optimized for taste and nutrition, rather than for shelf life or withstanding transportation and storage. And production can take place in facilities unfit for other uses (e.g. old parking garages, malls, and underground spaces) close to the consumers, meaning shorter supply chains (which may have positive impacts on transportation emissions footprints, as well as on nutrition). Finally, as yields can be 100x or higher compared to conventional outdoor farming, vertical indoor farming can help restore biodiversity and protect pristine outdoor lands currently used for farming.
…but drawbacks remain
Running LED lights and HVAC is energy-intensive (although this problem should diminish as the energy system transititions towards renewable production sources). It’s also labor intensive, which is why many vertical farming companies relentlessy focus on automation and robotics. And so far, vertical farming companies have only managed to (profitably) grow leafy greens and microgreens, although some have started experimenting with e.g. berries too.
So why vertical indoor farming?
It makes sense in places with extreme climates (hot or cold), where land is scarce, and where there is need for a more reliable, predictable supply chain. Turns out this is actually true for many places on Earth (and for future space colonies).
Vertical farming could be an important piece of the puzzle in improving human health. Today, poor diet is the leading global risk factor for disease, disability, and premature death. People overconsume things like sugar, sodium, saturated fats, trans-fats and processed meats. People underconsume fruits, vegetables, whole grain, fish / omega-3, seeds and nuts, pulses, and legumes. And this underconsumption of foods that protect human health from disease is the biggest problem. So we need to make these protective foods more accessible, affordable, and desirable to billions of people. And at the same time as we essentially need to double the consumption of fruits and non-starchy vegetables worldwide, we also must decarbonize the food system. This sounds like a tough equation. But vertical indoor farming can help make this possible. An internal life-cycle assessment of the expected operations of Urban Oasis indicates that the leafy greens produced could have a significantly lower carbon footprint than imports from continental Europe, e.g. Spain, typically required during the colder months.
Vertical farming isn’t the entire solution. But it is a solution that can help make our food system a little bit better; advancing sustainability, nutrition, and equitability.
Thus, I’m thrilled to support the (outstanding) Urban Oasis team as they scale up from their current production facility in Stockholm, Sweden. They’re a smart, strategic, fun, and curious bunch of folks (right now, they’re exploring how to best grow mushrooms, just to give you one example).
Why Urban Oasis?
Several things set Urban Oasis apart from some other vertical indoor farming ventures I’ve come across, and visited. On the hardware side, Urban Oasis has built a standardized, modular system which can be scaled indefinitely, and produce an array of different crops. On the software side, Urban Oasis has developed FarmOS, the powerful ‘brain’ underpinning all operations. FarmOS helps track things like CO2 and pH levels, humidity, and temperatures — in real-time. The built-in machine learning components constantly help to refine the plant growth recipes. FarmOS also helps with the day-to-day planning and stock management, and visualizes operational and capital costs in a very intuitive way. The combination of FarmOS plus the scalability factor is what enable affordability. Urban Oasis basically digitizes everything that can be digitized in a vertical farm.
Why are these things important? They make it easy for almost anyone to become a successful vertical indoor farmer (and Urban Oasis indeed plans to open up for franchisees to use the entire concept in other locations around the globe).
Technology is just an amplifier. At the end of the day, what’s important is that all of these gadgets, innovations, and breakthroughs will enable people everywhere to eat tastier, more nourishing, and more sustainable foods. And that’s exciting.
As an incurable optimist, I want to believe that vertical indoor farming is part of our future. Together, hopefully we can find out.