Vertical farming is at root a simple concept – instead of spreading out, you spread up. Where previous agricultural innovations have tended to focus on intensity, vertical farming solves for density. And it needs to – while the number of malnourished people in the world has fallen from one in four in 1970 to one in ten today, the global population is set to reach nearly 10 billion by 2050.
Moreover, industrial development and urbanisation mean that even as the human population grows ever larger, there is less arable land today than there was yesterday, and there will be less tomorrow than there is today. The earth has in fact lost 40% of its farmland since 1970.
There have so far in human history been three major agricultural revolutions. The first, around 12,500 years ago, was the shift from the hunter-gatherer lifestyle of our forebears to the sedentary, agrarian system that enabled mass societies to grow. The second, which began in Britain in the 18th century, gave the industrial revolution the workforce it needed to transform the world. The third, in the 1950s and 60s, saw the development of high-yield disease-resistant crop varieties that massively increased the world’s agricultural output and has been credited with saving more than a billion lives. Could vertical farming be the fourth?
Growing crops and plants in stacked layers indoors, vertical farming uses far less water than its conventional counterpart (some estimates put it at one twentieth) and, theoretically, produces radically greater yield. By using aeroponic (spraying the roots of plants with a nutrient-rich solution) or hydroponic (growing the plants in a shallow bath of water containing their nutrients) methods, vertical farming reduces the reliance on soil. It is in short a way to maximise the productive capacity of every square foot while minimising waste and ecological damage.
Investors have taken note of the method’s potential value. Plenty, a San Francisco-based vertical farming startup that aims to build a large-scale indoor vertical farm outside of every major city in the world last year secured the largest agro-tech investment in history, a $200m funding round involving Softbank, Jeff Bezos and Eric Schmidt among others. In 2017 the company announced plans to build a 100,000-sq. ft. facility just south of Seattle.
But mass vertical farming may not be the most important change to be brought about by this technology in the near future. For that, we must look to Berlin, where a startup called InFarm is creating modular vertical farming units that can be scaled easily and effectively.
The idea is to have a farm in every store. Imagine going into your local supermarket and instead of aisle after aisle of carefully packaged herbs and fresh-ish vegetables that have travelled hundreds if not thousands of miles, there’s a vertical farm where you can pick your own. It doesn’t get much more ‘experiential retail’ than that.
It’s not just effective marketing or something pretty to look at – InFarm’s clever use of data and monitoring means that yields per square foot can be multiples higher than from conventional farming. Importantly, the proximity of the farm to the consumer allowed by InFarm’s modules means that a different set of incentives can govern the growing process – taste and flavour can be prioritised over shelf life and durability.
When a new plant is added to the system, the company’s team of data scientists and engineers write a new algorithm designed to ensure that the module is perfectly calibrated to every plant. Each of their units is, in essence, an individual ecosystem. A world in miniature that uses machine learning and data to mirror the perfect growing environment of a plant in its natural environment. All modules are monitored and operated using the cloud from a central control centre. As they call it, it’s ‘farming as a service’.
This model of vertical farming might also be the ultimate form of vertical integration, offering grocers the chance to simplify their supply chains, reduce cost and increase yield while at the same time bringing food to shelves that is fresher than ever before. InFarm has already signed deals to place its units in the stores of two of Germany’s largest retailers, Metro and EDEKA.
Not incidentally, InFarm’s system, and vertical farming in general, avoids the use of pesticides. A clear selling point as more and more consumers turn to products which tout their environmentally friendly credentials, minimal waste and chemical-free production processes.
“Rather than asking ourselves how to fix the deficiencies in the current supply chain, we wanted to redesign the entire chain from start to finish; Instead of building large -scale farms outside of the city, optimising on a specific yield, and then distributing the produce, we decided it would be more effective to distribute the farms themselves and farm directly where people live and eat,” Erez Galonska, co-founder & CEO of InFarm
Vertical farming businesses are also budding up in the direct-to-consumer market. Several, such as neoFarms, offer in-home farming modules with built-in ease-of-use technology. neoFarms’ model is about the size of a fridge and can handily fit into a kitchen. CityCrop has already brought a mini-unit to market.
Vertical farming still has a way to go yet. While the industry is predicted to be worth $5.8bn by 2022, that pales in comparison to the $300bn value of the indoor farming market in general, or the estimated $3.1trn global agricultural industry. For the vast majority of producers, distributors and retailers vertical farming will for the time being at least be an attractive addition, rather than a sufficient replacement, to the conventional supply chain.
In the developed world, we have largely been freed from the need to think about where our food has come from, how it was grown, and who grew it. But, perhaps counterintuitively, the increasing urbanisation of much of the world’s landmass may also involve the farmification of our cities. Urban spaces may be eating into our farmland, but farms have already started to eat into our urban space.
The grocers and retailers of the future may become our farmers as well. Combining the technologies of firms like InFarm with their own customer data they’ll be able to produce the food that customers want in the places they want it at a higher quality and with lower impact. Previously farm-to-table has been about bringing the table closer to the farm. Now it’s about putting the farm right next to the table.