Yes, Indoor Agriculture Can Feed the World

And for many food crops, it already does

Barendse-DC in Middenmeer, The Netherlands grows vegetables in 30 hectares of greenhouse . Photo by Micki Seibel, December 2018

I recently toured The Netherlands with a delegation from California tasked to collaborate with the Dutch on Climate Smart Agriculture. In the several years that I’ve studied the food system, I’ve heard much about how the Dutch were growing an enormous amount of plants and vegetables in climate controlled indoor environments. In fact, The Netherlands is second only to the United States as the world’s leading agricultural exporter, and 80% of its land under cultivation is inside greenhouses. Many of these exports are vegetables to the EU: tomatoes, peppers, strawberries, blackberries, herbs, and leafy greens.

After seeing first-hand the scale of production and the attention paid to climate and sustainability across the entire value chain of production, it was with great regret that I read Dr. Jonathan Foley’s essay, “No, Vertical Farms Won’t Feed the World.” While it won’t “feed the world” all by itself (no one farming system will), indoor agriculture is hardly “a fad” as Dr. Foley calls it. On the contrary, it has a very important role to play in a food system that makes us resilient to climate change.

Controlled Environment Agriculture Defined

The “vertical farming” that Dr. Foley writes about is only a tiny subset of a much, much larger industry called Controlled Environment Agriculture (CEA). CEA has existed for more than a century and refers to any attempt to control the growing environment for a crop. It spans the spectrum from plastic hoop houses that protect from sun to glass greenhouses that use ambient light and heat from outside to recreate the perfect growing conditions for a crop. Most recently, it also includes a new kind of indoor growing architecture called “vertical farms.” Vertical farms are fully enclosed environments using only artificial lighting and growing crops in vertically stacked rows or towers.

CEA is Already a Large Ag Sector

For more detail, I highly recommend reading “Let’s Talk About Market Size” by Allison Kopf, CEO at Agrilyst. In it, she describes the different type of indoor farms and the size of the market in greater detail. The point I wish to make here is that CEA is already a huge and profitable industry — worth $14B in the United States alone (as of 2016). According to Rabbobank, the world’s leading agriculture bank, the United States is a tiny player with only 911 hectares (2,221 acres) compared to countries like Spain (70,000 hectares) or China (82,000 hectares and growing) or even The Netherlands (11,500 hectares).

Source: Rabbobank World Vegetable Map 2018

The CEA sector is already growing food you eat everyday. For example, nearly 60% of the tomatoes you consume in North America are grown in CEA. The Dutch yields average 20 times more tomatoes per acre than US outdoor growers. This is because indoor cultivation enables us to have year round production. Peppers, cucumbers, herbs, mushrooms, cannabis, and increasingly leafy greens are grown this way. In The Netherlands add strawberries, flowers, and blackberries to the commercial production list. In the vast research greenhouses at the world’s leading agriculture university, Wageningen, I personally witnessed peppercorns, vanilla, bananas, and papaya in research for commercial production. For the banana, learning to grow indoor and out of soil may save it from extinction as a soil fungus is currently decimating southeast Asia’s outdoor production, as The Guardian reported, “The First Dutch Bananas Could Help Tackle Fungal Threat,” on December 14.

Bananas in the research greenhouses at Wageningen University in The Netherlands. Photo by Deema Tamimi, December 2018.

CEA is Experiencing an Innovation Revolution

Driven by innovations in the energy efficiency of LED lights, increasingly sophisticated yet inexpensive sensors, advances in robotics, and the legalization of cannabis there has been a wave of innovation in CEA. This has enabled experimentation of potential new architectures for indoor farms: vertically stacked trays, aquaponics (a form that integrates the symbiotic growing of fish with the growing of plants), vertical towers, etc. This has also led to experimentation on new crop types: fish, insects, cocoa, vanilla, the aforementioned bananas, and more.

What will the winning architecture be — Dutch greenhouses, hi-tech vertical farms, integrated aquaponics, etc? What crops will we grow? Does indoor growing make new crops, like insects, commercially viable? We don’t know yet, but advances are being made…every day. And that’s a good thing.

More Food. Less Waste. Healthier Food. Safer Food. Less Land.

As Dr. Foley points out, indoor farms are expensive to build and operate. True. Starting any new farm from scratch (whether indoor or outdoor)is capital intensive. Much of the innovation happening in indoor agriculture is decreasing not only the upfront capital costs, but — most importantly — the ongoing operating costs. As the Dutch have demonstrated, CEA farms are profitable at large commercial scale and produce fruits and vegetables at competitive prices to the average consumer. Twenty years ago, under the rallying cry “twice as much food using half as many resources,” the Dutch made a national commitment to sustainable agriculture. Now, 80% of their cultivated land is CEA. More food.

One of the recent business model innovations in indoor farming is to build the farms closer to the consumer. As Dr. Foley points out, the travel distance contributes little to a crop’s carbon footprint. However, growing produce closer to the point of consumption results in less food spoilage during transport and a longer shelf life in your fridge. More food. Less waste.

That longer shelf life also means food that is denser with its nutrients instead of days or weeks degraded while being transported. More food. Less waste. Healthier food.

Because water is recycled and reused, growing indoors uses 90% less water, on average. This is also means there is no runoff of nitrates and pesticides into your ground water. Speaking of pesticides: it uses 97% less pesticides. More food. Less waste. Healthier food. Safer food.

CEA has a smaller footprint on the land: 1 acre of indoor farming for leafy greens can produce in 1 year what 10 acres of farmland produces outside. The Netherlands is second to the United States in agricultural exports yet has 1/270th of the land. More food. Less waste. Healthier food. Safer food. Less land.

Looking to the Future

Vertical farms are a new innovation in the Controlled Environment Agriculture sector. Many innovations start out unscalable and inefficient. Yes, vertical farms require more innovation to bring down energy costs, but if we just abandon CEA because vertical farms alone seem unscalable, we stifle innovation for all farming — vertical, indoor, outdoor and otherwise. Through the new innovations in vertical farming, the entire agriculture industry is addressing energy efficiency, water efficiency, automation (labor efficiency), new business models, shorter supply chains, and new crop types. These are exactly the agricultural problems that need solving across the entire food system, and it’s promising to see the capital and brain power that is addressing them.

Recommended Additional Reading

Special Thanks To the Following

A special shout out to the following folks for their help in the research, review, and ongoing collaboration on the topic of indoor agriculture: