Growing Up: The Enablers, Benefits and Challenges of Indoor Farming
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Earlier this year, Bowery Agriculture – the largest indoor farming company in the United States – has opened a vertical farm in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania that is powered entirely by renewable energy, includes a state-of-the-art water harvesting and filtration system, and uses proprietary data, artificial intelligence and robotics that enable the company to grow more food, smarter. Using only a fraction of the land and water needed for traditional farms, the facility is able to supply year-round fresh produce to major retailers and independent grocers within a 200-mile radius.
Urban sprawl, the coronavirus pandemic and, more recently, the war in Ukraine have been catalysts for indoor farms. The industry has exploded in growth over the past decade and now accounts for more than 56.5 million square feet of space and in 2020 held a value of $5.5 billion in the United States alone, according to a study of Statistical and Grand View Search. This figure is expected to grow to $20 billion over the next six years, with the global indoor farming market expected to reach $88.2 billion during the same time.
“If we’ve learned anything from the past two years, it’s that we are going through a period of unprecedented disruption and uncertainty about our climate and geopolitical circumstances, which unfortunately will persist,” said Irving Fain, Founder and CEO of Bowery. “We also see that our global food system is inextricably linked to these dynamics. … We are solving our system’s challenges by developing smarter foods for more people in more places.
Indoor vertical farms can create a near-perfect environment for growing plants without the use of pesticides and without the traditional weather-related issues that traditional farmers face. According to data from Blue Book Services. In general, indoor farms are designed to increase crop yields up to 350 times the yield of traditional farming.
“It’s the ability to put production anywhere regardless of climate,” San Francisco-based agricultural start-up Lots of unlimited CEO Arama Kukutai said The New York Times.
Plenty is among many early-stage indoor farming companies catching the eye of venture capitalists – the field has already attracted more than $800 million in venture capital funding this year and investments in 2021 have exceeded $1.2 billion, according to PitchBook.
Based in Hamilton, Ohio 80 acre farms announced this summer that it will increase its production of leafy greens, tomatoes, microgreens and herbs by 700% over the next 18 months, with the construction of two 200,000 square foot facilities in Kentucky and Georgia that will use 95% less water per pound than traditionally grown produce and simultaneously minimize food waste.
“We’ve developed next-generation technology that can grow all of these crops in the same system,” said 80 Acres co-founder Mike Zelkind. “We are ready, we have the design and at the same time we have to respond to the customer demand that we have been lucky enough to generate so far. Our Ohio farms have been operating at full capacity for over a year. The only way to reach more people is to keep building.
Over the past five years, the company has also experimented with growing strawberries and plans to add strawberry production to its facilities soon.
“Our strawberries today, I believe, are the best strawberries you’ll taste anywhere: they’re pesticide-free, they’re clean, but obviously we have to grow them to a level of profitability, and that’s what this firm will allow us to do,” Zelkind said. “Then there are a lot more farms, but we will do it in a measured and thoughtful way.”
What are the challenges to overcome?
While the benefits are many, indoor farming comes with a unique set of food safety risks, industry experts warn. In fact, according to a report published last summer by the FDA, “the moist, warm environments in greenhouses and similar operations at CEA may help support the growth of bacteria, including pathogens often implicated in outbreaks of food-borne diseases”.
According Ashley Eisenbeiser, Senior Director of Food and Product Safety Programs for IMF, the Food Industry Association.
“While indoor farming can reduce or eliminate some potential sources of contamination (e.g. wildlife, pets and birds flying overhead), food safety risk factors associated with CEA operations remain. “, wrote Eisenbeiser earlier this year. “In some cases, the food safety risks associated with indoor operations are similar to traditional operations, and in other respects they differ and are similar to the risks in a manufacturing environment.”
For this reason – and because 85% of Americans believe the products they buy from their local grocer are safe – Eisenbeiser says food safety risk factors should be assessed and controlled when sourcing products from interior. It starts with measures such as implementing a vendor approval program, monitoring the security performance of those vendors, and sourcing products from vendors that meet security regulatory requirements. food set by organizations such as Product Safety and Foreign Supplier Verification Rules created by the FDA and manufacturing ensure they are certified and comply with a Global Initiative for Food Security program such as Institute of Safe and Quality Foods.
Indoor farming also presents its own set of climate challenges – primarily a significantly larger carbon footprint than traditional farms. According to a ScienceDirect study, growing one pound of tomatoes in a greenhouse results in about six times the carbon footprint of tomatoes grown outdoors.
“The carbon footprint is the main hurdle we have to overcome”, Neil Mattson, who leads the Controlled Environment Agriculture Research Group at Cornell University, told the New York Times. “So greenhouses are a no-brainer.”
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