Food For Thought: Is Vertical Farming An Ethical Way To Feed The World?

Bowery Farming’s vertical farming operation (source: Agritechture)

People need food. It is, quite literally, a fact of life. According to the United Nations, the world’s population is expected to reach 9.8 billion by 2050 with 80% concentrated in cities. Global food production will need to increase by an estimated 70% in developed countries and 100% in developing countries to match current trends in population growth. In conjunction with the loss of arable farm land at an alarming rate, the world faces a pressing question: how do we produce enough food to feed the planet?

To meet the demand increase, we need to produce more food globally, more efficiently, in a way that doesn’t further harm the planet. While it would be easy to feel overwhelmed by the enormity of such a problem (“what’s going to happen to my kale smoothies?!”), one promising solution is vertical farming. For the uninitiated, vertical farming is a form of farming that typically takes place indoors, with plants grown in controlled environments stacked–you guessed it–vertically.

With over $900 million raised for vertical farming ventures, competition to feed the world is growing (get it?) for good reason. We are living in a critical time for its development, where the needs of the world are converging with advancements in technology, machine learning and AI, robotics, and food science to create a healthy competition among companies looking to capture this enormous opportunity. Not a bad setup for the common investor question, “why now?”

I believe in the potential of vertical farming to feed millions (and maybe billions) of people, make fresh produce locally available in a way we’ve never seen, and fundamentally change the way food reaches our plates. Some are concerned that it could be a grave disaster that cripples environmental progress and further gentrifies our cities. It’s too early to know which it will be, but let’s explore the possibilities.

Serious AgTech Competition to power next-gen farming (source: CB Insights)

The Benefits

In terms of sheer output quantity for feeding 10 billion people, vertical farming is a marked upgrade over traditional practices. Whereas traditional farming typically has anywhere from 1 to 3 harvests per year, vertical farming can have as many as 32! Additionally, because vertical farming stacks grow plots on top of one another, one acre of space is actually worth 10 (or more) acres of outdoor field space. When you factor in the exemption of pesticides for growing and the fact you can grow 24 hours a day, 7 days a week (the sun never sets on an LED!), you get a much greater crop yield.

In addition to the quantity, there is also improved efficiency and reduced crop loss. Given the controlled environment, there are no godly weather acts (rain, drought, etc.) to disrupt the plants growing and no bugs or animals to worry about. Since many systems use hydroponics, they also use dramatically less water, often up to 95% less than traditional practices.

Beyond the obvious crop volume, these grow systems have the potential to grow food more intelligently than we ever have before. Many of the leading companies like Bowery Farming, Plenty, Aero Farms, etc. are not just agricultural scientists, they are also data scientists and technologists. Their grow operations can track data on the health and status of each individual plant, knowing when to deliver water, light, humidity, carbon, etc. with a combination of AI and machine learning. As they collect more and more data about the crops they grow, they will be able to further automate these optimal growing conditions.

The Challenges

The benefits to vertical farming don’t come without a few significant hurdles. According to the USDA, in general, growing food uses more than three times as much energy as transporting it. If that’s the case for traditional farming, it’s easy to see how vertical farming’s carbon footprint is currently orders of magnitude worse than traditional methods. Unsurprisingly, shining lights and running a farm for 24 hours a day (read: mimicking the sun) isn’t as energy efficient as harnessing natural sunlight.

Vertical farming doesn’t currently support mass growing of all crops, either. If potatoes, tomatoes or green beans were being grown, precious building space and costly electricity would go into producing inedible leaves, stems and roots. Things like wind that help strengthen stalks on plants incur additional energy costs to install (fans, etc.).

The cost of real estate and labor also poses real economic threats to the accessibility of the final product by hindering the development of competitive unit economics. If the input costs are too high and render the product priced at a premium, vertical farming will miss the mark on its potential to democratize access to fresh produce and might actually drive additional social divisions. Shouldering the immediate environmental impact and trying to feed two billion more people simply won’t work if the new system only serves the elite.

Bowery Farming, one of the companies leading the way in the industry, does their growing in an office park in Kearny, New Jersey, a stone’s throw from New York City, but a location where, presumably, the real estate for a massive growing operation is more affordable. It’s possible practices like this–growing right next to, but not in a city center–will become the norm.

The Upside

Knowing its upside (and challenges), I can’t stop thinking about what a world with accessible vertical farming could look like. Here, in no particular order, are the opportunities I’m most excited about as a result of vertical farming’s adoption:

  • Create new farming entrepreneurs: Square Roots, through their mentorship program, is pioneering the idea of a new, urban farmer. This is a clear way to empower people to be a part of the change needed and take ownership in their local communities. A true “teach a man to fish” operation that puts community first.
  • Eliminate food deserts: Where you live has a huge impact on whether you’re able to access healthy greens and vegetables. Food deserts lack nutritious options and are disproportionately prevalent in low-income urban environments. Food deserts are plagued by obesity and that should be combatted by deployment. It will take more than just dropping a vertical farming operation into a food desert to change things (i.e. social and community programs, accessible prices, etc.) but done right, it could fundamentally change access to fresh produce and eliminate food deserts.
  • A reinvented supply chain: Farm produce travels many miles to reach hungry city mouths. With truly local food, harvested more regularly, there will be opportunities to reimagine what a brand new urban supply chain looks like, starting with the seed and optimizing its growth for environmental impact (or lack thereof), community engagement, and economic accessibility.
  • Automatic farming and its operating system: I’m not close enough to the existing companies in the space to know how developed this already is, but eventually, I expect there will be a few companies that develop their own OS to do all of their farming. That means nearly everything will be automated with real-time data and tracking to know exactly how each plant is doing, when the harvest will be, and how much that harvest will yield. It will be interesting to see if these companies license their technology as a product unto itself.
  • A community model that supports all income levels: It’s crucial that vertical farming doesn’t further gentrify cities. All socioeconomic levels need to be served for it to reach its potential. One idea would be to have people purchase memberships to a vertical farm (like a gym or co-op). Depending on your membership, you could get produce weekly, bi-weekly, etc. The full memberships should also support community memberships for people who need discounts or full sponsorship to get access. This would be a true community effort.

The Future

This is not a winner-take-all space. In fact, multiple companies will likely need to be successful to feed 10 billion people by 2050. This is going to be a capital-intensive endeavor that requires building new facilities, advancing technology, and sharp execution. The market will determine who sees success with the right combination of the best product (food!), technology, and economics.

As the industry matures and the most promising companies develop, there are two ways vertical farming’s future could go.

In one scenario we develop this technology based on its perceived need and promise, while excusing the energy drain it currently carries. The energy improvements never catch up to the cost on the environment and we’re stuck relying on a system that further harms the planet in the long term. The fresher, more accessible produce finds the mouths of people who already shop at Whole Foods and drives a deeper cultural wedge between those that can already afford fresh vegetables and those who can’t. Vertical farming accelerates gentrification in cities and becomes a new status symbol for the elite.

The more hopeful future for vertical farming is one where produce is accessible to everyone–especially those who have not had reliable access previously. Technology and automation render this new way to produce food economically viable for the masses in the U.S. and abroad. New entrepreneurs learn the craft and vertical farming becomes an approachable new profession that provides for local communities in multiple ways. Farming in cities becomes a cultural and social bridge that catalyzes sustainable community and urban development. Renewable energy like wind, solar, and methane capture enable vertical farms to be negligible or even net positives for energy consumption.

It’s not clear yet which path vertical farming will lead to. I’m intrigued by its promise, concerned by its potential downside, and hopeful we can embrace it in the right way to sustainably help feed the world. I’ll raise a kale shake to that.