By Amanda Little
Vertical farming, a system for growing food without soil or sun that for decades has thrived mainly in sci-fi films and the International Space Station, is going mainstream.
AeroFarms is poised to be the first vertical-farming startup to be listed on the NASDAQ in the next month after it completes a merger with Spring Valley Acquisition Corp. Its products — leafy greens grown in a former steel mill in downtown Newark, N.J. — are sold in chains in and around New York City, from Walmart to Whole Foods. Founded in 2004, AeroFarms is rolling out its boxes of greens to more stores in the Midatlantic and New England, while expanding its product portfolio to include hundreds of varieties of greens and developing new crops including hops for breweries, berries, and cacao.
If the prospect of factory-grown veggies doesn’t excite you, it should. I’m increasingly convinced that a growing portion of the fruits and vegetables we eat — in fact, of the whole $1.3 trillion global fresh produce industry — will be grown inside high-tech greenhouses like AeroFarms’. The market is forecast to grow to $15.7 billion by 2025, from $4.4 billion in 2019.
First, the caveats: This new kind of farming requires more energy and technology compared with conventional agriculture. Aero-Farms has pioneered an “aeroponic” system that grows plants in stacked metal trays, their roots dangling in midair as they’re fed a nutrient-rich mist. LED lights replace sunshine. Cameras and sensors continually gather millions of data points tracking the needs of the plants as they grow.
This kind of hyper-controlled indoor agriculture requires an expensive labor force of engineers, plant scientists and computer programmers. In fact, few of Aero-Farms’s team of 200 employees have any hands-in-the-dirt agricultural experience at all. And Aero-Farms’ products, which include “baby watercress” and “micro broccoli,” currently sell for $2 an ounce — luxury goods that will hardly feed the world.
Yet the technology AeroFarms and other market leaders are pioneering very well might — especially in regions that have increasingly limited water and arable land. Aeroponic farms use up to 95% less water than in-field vegetable production and grow food 30% to 40% faster. They use as little as 0.3% of the land of a field farmer, according to AeroFarms Chief Executive Officer David Rosenberg: More food can be grown inside the space of a soccer goal net than can be grown in five soccer fields outdoors. The plants are grown without herbicides, fungicides or insecticides, gains for both the economics and human health. And while artificial lights will always be more energy intensive than sunshine, Aero-Farms’ LED efficiency has increased 59% in five years.
The plant data gathered by its cameras and sensors, meanwhile, have driven rapid innovations: The company has seen a 23% increase in its yield-per-square-foot of indoor growing space in the past year alone, and has sped the grow cycle for baby leafy greens from 20 to 14 days — compared to 4 to 6 weeks in the field. Variables including light, moisture, nutrients, oxygen, CO2, and temperature can be monitored so precisely within a vertical farm that the flavors, nutrients and phenotypes of plants, in turn, can be manipulated. A few clicks on a keyboard can make the spinach more iron-rich, the strawberries sweeter or redder, the arugula more peppery and the cucumbers crunchier. This means this industry is well positioned to produce not just high-flavor and highnutrient produce, but also highprofit ingredients for pharmaceuticals and nutraceuticals.
After completing the acquisition — due by Oct. 24 — Spring Valley will commit $125 million, according to its Securities and Exchange Commission S-4 filing, to help scale AeroFarms. Rosenberg said he plans to build 16 new facilities from St. Louis to Abu Dhabi, UAE, by 2026.
That may be so. Traditional, inground agriculture will continue to produce the vast majority of our staple crops in the decades ahead — that is certain. Vertical farms, though, can play a key role in producing local and perishable specialty crops. They can eliminate fuel-intensive long-distance trucking, along with food rot and waste.
High-tech agriculture is still high-risk: because there’s no soil or other barrier to protect the roots, even a small amount of bacteria or mold in the root chamber can harm the plants. And any breakdown in the system — a pump or sprinkler or timer — can kill the crop. But the drought crisis plaguing farmers in the U.S. West today reminds us that the growing threat of weather volatility outdoors is surpassing the risks of broken machinery inside. Indeed, the fact that vertical farming holds so much promise perhaps says less about its own merits than it does about the increasing perils of conventional agriculture in the climate-change era. Amanda Little is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. She is a professor of journalism and science writing at Vanderbilt University.