Will vertical farming revolutionize global agriculture?

M. Dent
IDTechEx, Ltd.,
United Kingdom

Keywords: vertical farming, indoor farming, agtech, agritech

Summary:

Vertical farming, the process of growing crops indoors in vertically stacked trays, has caused much excitement in recent years as the world looks to overcome the crises facing the global agriculture industry and feed a burgeoning population. New start-ups are being founded every day and investment is ballooning, with companies like AeroFarms and Plenty raising hundreds of millions of dollars. But does the reality match up with the hype? This presentation will explore the technologies and economics behind the vertical farming boom, aiming to predict the future of this nascent industry. By growing crops vertically under controlled environmental conditions, vertical farmers can achieve yields more than 30 times higher per acre than conventional agriculture, using over 90% less water and little-to-no pesticides. Because it doesn’t need large amounts of arable land to grow crops, it’s possible to do vertical farming in urban areas, closer to population centres. This both frees up arable land and reduces the distance that food must travel to reach consumers. In the US, most vegetables are grown in California and often travel for thousands of miles over several days to get to grocery stores. By contrast, vertically farmed crops can reach consumers on the day of harvest, providing much fresher, higher quality produce, 365 days a year. Proponents claim that vertical farming could revolutionise global agriculture and help to feed an increasingly urbanised world. However, vertical farming is expensive. To grow indoors, plants need artificial lighting and air conditioning, resulting in high energy costs. Vertical farming is often very labor intensive, requiring manual seeding and harvesting, often in spaces that were not originally designed to house indoor farms. Urban space can also be much more expensive than agricultural land - AeroFarms’ 70,000 sq. ft. facility in Newark cost $39 million – the same area of Iowa farmland would cost about $13,000. On top of this, there are questions about how many people vertical farming could realistically feed. Crops are currently limited to leafy greens, microgreens and herbs, easy-to-grow crops that can be sold at a high price to offset the production costs. While there is a big market for these products, will they realistically revolutionise global agriculture? The initial success of the vertical industry will hinge on two factors: optimizing yields to offset the high production costs and finding the right markets for vertically farmed crops. This presentation will examine these two factors, weighing the pros and cons of vertical farming, evaluating the technologies and market forces influencing the growing industry, and exploring how to succeed in this rapid growing industry.