Indoor farming: can tech avert a potential food crisis?

Indoor farming

At a time when we are losing farmland at a rapid rate due to sprawling towns and cities, and mother nature playing havoc to our crops, the food available cannot keep up with a booming global population.

The UN predicts that the world will be filled with 9.6 billion people by 2050 – up from 7.2 billion today – and most of this will be urban. If we carry on without intervention, the world will run out of food. There is time to avert the crisis, but we must act soon. Hope comes in the form of indoor farming.

Also known as urban farming, indoor farming is vertical farming in multi-storied greenhouses. Plants are grown without soil, or hydroponically, and nourished by a recycled nutrient-rich water solution. Artificial light is used for photosynthesis, and, like a greenhouse, sometimes supplemented by natural light.

Heavy farming is having a detrimental effect on the world’s soil quality – the UN predicts we only have limited number of successful harvests left at the rate we currently abuse land. Growing plants and vegetables vertically not only allows us to produce more food, but also reduce the land areas used, and preserve existing soil quality. Some crops – such as fruit trees and root vegetables – cannot be farmed vertically, as they still require soil.

Indoor farming typically ranges from small to medium farms within or on buildings like apartment blocks, schools, office blocks and hospitals, to large and extra-large farms inside buildings like warehouses.

Technology is also helping to provide year-round produce in special temperature-controlled environments, without the need for pesticides or other chemicals. The Chief Executive of indoor farming tech start-up Plenty, Matt Bernard, has even gone as far as to label their veggies “super-organic” due to the completely chemical-free way they are grown.

Recently receiving a $200million investment, startup Plenty represents the new wave of farming getting attention – and money. Based in the US, the company now plans a global rollout of its vertical indoor farms, which can grow anything except fruit trees and root vegetables. Producing crops at yields 530 times greater than that of a typical field, the potential to feed the world is immense.

According to a recent report, the indoor farming market is expected to be worth in excess of $6 billion by 2022 which will be a welcome income to an otherwise struggling sector.

Another AgriTech company embracing the new technology, Bowery, even calls itself “the modern farming company” – with good reason.

Having raised over $7.5 million in funding, its multi-level growing environment only employs a handful of ‘modern farmers’ to handle the day-to-day operations, while technology handles the rest. Most of the irrigation and lighting is automated and they are even using technological advances to attempt to grow flavoured produce. The wasabi-flavoured greens are an interesting development!

Excitingly, indoor grown veg needn’t cost buyers the earth. The high crop yield, streamlined supply chain, and limited waste means that veggies can be sold at competitive prices. And It is not just America has have seen the benefits.

Even the UK is getting in on the indoor farming action. Scotland’s first indoor vertical farm is expected to be up and running later this year. Beginning with herbs and salad plants, before trialling tomatoes, cucumbers and strawberries later, its aim is to cut labour and power costs to become the first commercially viable operation in the UK.

Intelligent Growth Solutions (IGS), along with the James Hutton Institute for crop research and global automation company Omron, are all part of the vertical farming project, and we think Omron field sales engineer Kassim Okera sums up indoor farming best:

“I can’t think of a better example than this one, which uses the most advanced technology to solve a humanitarian need.”

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