These startups are addressing the challenges faced by traditional agriculture.
In recent years, the world has witnessed a remarkable surge in interest surrounding the quest for innovative and sustainable solutions to overcome the challenges faced by traditional agriculture. With the global population projected to reach a staggering 9.7 billion people by 2050 and the increasingly erratic climate patterns we are experiencing, the urgency for reliable and efficient food production methods has reached unprecedented levels.
Indoor farming has emerged as a promising solution, garnering significant attention and investment. In 2021 alone, indoor farming raised over US$1 billion in funding, surpassing the combined funding generated in 2018 and 2019. This remarkable growth highlights the industry’s potential, which is expected to grow to a worldwide worth of US$9.7 billion by 2026.
Here, we explore what indoor farming entails and the top contenders in the space right now.
What is vertical farming all about?
Though manmade solutions to natural processes often receive a lot of flak, indoor farming stands out, possibly acting as a panacea to food production problems. Indoor farming, vertical farming or controlled-environment agriculture involves growing crops in controlled environments, such as stacked layers in warehouses or shipping containers. Unlike traditional outdoor agriculture, indoor farming provides complete control over the growing conditions, resulting in high productivity with significantly reduced land and water usage. This method allows year-round production of locally grown leafy-green vegetables, typically pesticide-free.
Furthermore, the controlled environment of indoor farming enables precise utilization of technology, optimizing factors like temperature, humidity, light, and nutrients. This precision leads to enhanced efficiency and consistent quality in food production. Farmers can customize the growing conditions for each crop, resulting in higher yields and superior produce. Additionally, integrating monitoring systems, automation and robotics further enhances efficiency in indoor farming operations.
Vertical farming involves four key aspects: physical arrangement, lighting, growth medium (the material in which plants are grown) and sustainability. Firstly, crops are grown in tower-like structures. Secondly, to create the perfect lighting environment, both natural and artificial light sources are combined. Thirdly, instead of traditional soil, vertical farming uses alternative growing mediums, such as aeroponics, hydroponics or non-soil materials like sphagnum moss and coconut shells.
Aeroponics is a soilless cultivation method that utilizes a mist or fog environment for plant growth. Whereas in the hydroponic agricultural system, plants receive a continuous flow of nutrient-rich irrigation water directly to their roots. Both methods provide precise control over nutrients and promote optimal growth and higher yields compared to traditional soil-based farming
Finally, vertical farming technologies incorporate various sustainable practices to offset energy consumption, including hydroponics (soil-less plant cultivation), aeroponics (minimal water usage) and aquaponics (combining fish and plant cultivation).
Now that we have explored the basics of indoor farming, it’s time to delve into some of the top indoor farming startups that are redefining sustainable agriculture.
Gotham Greens, a New York-based startup, specializes in producing and selling leafy greens grown in 100 percent renewable hydroponics-equipped greenhouses. The company claims its innovative farming methods consume up to 95 percent less water and take up 97 percent less land than conventional farming practices.
Gotham Greens has ambitious expansion plans in place. By 2023, it aims to own and operate 13 advanced hydroponic greenhouses, covering over 40 acres (1.8 million square feet) across nine states. These new greenhouse projects will complement its existing farms in New York, Rhode Island, Maryland, Illinois, Colorado and California.
Currently, Gotham Greens’ products are available for purchase at various retail stores, including Whole Foods, Kroger, Albertsons, Sprouts and Fresh Market.
Established in 2014, San Francisco-based Plenty employs a 3D system consisting of vertical farming towers to cultivate crops throughout the year, overcoming challenges posed by traditional farming. The company asserts that its vertical farming system utilizes just 1 percent of the land required by outdoor farms while achieving yields that are 150-350 times greater per acre.
Plenty relies on power-hungry robots in nearly every process step, from planting to harvest. Robotic systems and conveyor belts efficiently transport plants within the facility, overseen by a team of workers equipped with protective gear to maintain high sanitation standards. Plenty makes sure to be energy conscious by sourcing its power from the grid to fulfill the energy requirements of their indoor farming operations. Nate Storey, the startup’s co-Founder and Chief Science Officer, explains that the company actively chooses locations where renewable energy sources like wind and solar are either already accessible or expected to become significant contributors to the grid’s energy generation in the future.
Plenty’s pesticide-free leafy greens can be found at various locations in California, including select Whole Foods Markets and Walmart stores. Additionally, its product is featured as a meal ingredient on all flights departing from Los Angeles International Airport by Singapore Airlines.
Founded in 2017, London-based Harvest London is a farming startup that offers vertical farming to build a sustainable food system. It produces herbs and vegetables using a range of hydroponic farming techniques.
So far, the startup has cultivated a diverse range of over 100 crops, encompassing herbs, salad leaf varieties and unique ingredients. These offerings have been supplied to various establishments, including restaurants, food service groups, meal kit providers and manufacturers. With a vision of revolutionizing the sustainability of urban food, Harvest London aims to establish a network of data-driven vertical farms.
As per the company, its indoor vertical farming approach eliminates the need for chemical pesticides, reduces fertilizer usage and prevents pollution from getting into rivers. Harvest London also minimizes emissions and extends product shelf life by shortening supply chains. This optimization delivers fresher and tastier herbs. Additionally, it minimizes the amount of food that customers waste, possibly by reducing the time it takes for the herbs to reach the customers or by offering them a format that promotes longer shelf life.
In 2018, the startup established its inaugural farm in Walthamstow, London, serving as a proof-of-concept for its innovative approach. Through a successful crowdfunding campaign on Seedrs, Harvest London expanded its operations by opening a second farm in Leyton in late 2020.
The way forward
The future of vertical farming looks promising, with increased investments and growing interest from consumers and retailers. As these startups continue to refine their methods and expand their operations, we can expect to see further improvements in productivity, resource efficiency and the availability of fresh, locally-grown produce.
Additionally, integrating data-driven technologies and automation is set to revolutionize indoor farming, enabling precise control over growing conditions and optimizing crop yields. This data-driven transformation is shaping the future of farming, empowering farmers with valuable insights and innovative solutions. Automation driven by AI, machine learning, and robotics has the potential to reduce labor costs and streamline operations, which is especially important given the aging farmer population and the fluctuating economics of agriculture.
This advancement offers both small-scale and larger farmers the opportunity to establish specialized on-demand services for customers, potentially transforming the industry and opening up new possibilities for agricultural practices. Overall, the integration of data-driven technologies and automation in indoor farming has the potential to significantly impact farming practices and lifestyle changes, leading to a more sustainable and efficient future for agriculture.
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