Growing up: The catalysts, benefits and challenges of indoor farming - SmartBrief

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Growing up: The catalysts, benefits and challenges of indoor farming

Indoor vertical farms can create a near-perfect environment to grow plants without the use of pesticides and without the traditional weather-related issues traditional farmers face.

6 min read



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Earlier this year, Bowery Farming — the largest indoor farming company in the US — opened a vertical farm in Bethlehem, Pa., that is fully powered by renewable energy, includes an ultramodern water recapture and filtration system and uses proprietary data, artificial intelligence and robotics that allow 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 fresh produce year-round to major retailers and independent grocers within a 200-mile radius.

Urban expansion, the coronavirus pandemic and, most recently, the war in Ukraine have been catalysts for indoor farms. The industry has exploded in growth within the last decade, and now account 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 research by Statista and Grand View Research. That number is projected to increase to $20 billion in the next six years, with the global indoor farming market expected to hit $88.2 billion in the same time.

“If we’ve learned anything from the past two years, it is that we are in a period of unprecedented disruption and uncertainty across our climate and geopolitical circumstances, which unfortunately is going to persist,” said Irving Fain, Bowery’s founder and CEO. “We are also seeing firsthand that our global food system is inextricably tied to these dynamics. … We are addressing the challenges in our system by growing food smarter for more people in more places.”

Why grow up?

Indoor vertical farms can create a near-perfect environment to grow plants without the use of pesticides and without the traditional weather-related issues traditional farmers face. Produce grown in indoor farms is becoming so prolific that 35% of tomatoes sold in the US last year were grown in indoor farms, according to data from Blue Book Services. In general, indoor farms are designed to increase crop yields by as much as 350 times the yield of traditional farming.

“It’s the ability to put production anywhere without considering climate,” San Francisco-based agricultural startup Plenty Unlimited’s CEO Arama Kukutai told The New York Times.

Plenty is among many startup indoor farming companies that are getting the attention of venture capitalists — the field has already drawn in more than $800 million in VC funding this year and investments in 2021 topped $1.2 billion, according to PitchBook.

Hamilton, Ohio-based 80 Acres Farms announced this summer that it would increase its production output of leafy greens, tomatoes, microgreens and herbs by 700% over the next 18 months, thanks to 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 will simultaneously minimize food waste.

“We’ve been developing next-generation technology that can grow all these crops in the same system,” said 80 Acres co-founder Mike Zelkind. “We’re ready, we have the design and at the same time we have to fill the customer demand that we have been fortunate to generate to date. Our Ohio farms have been operating at capacity for more than a year. The only way to reach more people is to keep building.”

For the last five years, the company has also been testing growing strawberries and plans to add strawberry production to its facilities soon.

“Our strawberries today, I believe, are the best strawberries you will taste anywhere: they are pesticide-free, they are clean, but obviously we need to grow them at a level of profitability, and that’s what this farm will enable us to do,” Zelkind said. “Next is a lot more farms, but we will do it in a measured and thoughtful way.”

What are the challenges to overcome?

Though the benefits are many, indoor farming does carry a unique set of food safety risks, warn industry experts. In fact, according to a report released last summer by the FDA, ”the moist, warm environments in greenhouses and similar CEA operations can help support the growth of bacteria, including pathogens often implicated in foodborne illness outbreaks.”

Believing that produce grown indoors is automatically safer than that grown on outdoor farms is a common misconception, according to Ashley Eisenbeiser, senior director of food and product safety programs for FMI, The Food Industry Association

“While indoor farming may reduce or eliminate some potential sources of contamination (e.g., wildlife, domestic animals, and birds flying overhead), food-safety risk factors associated with CEA operations remain,” Eisenbeiser wrote earlier this year. “In some cases, the food safety risks with indoor operations are similar to traditional operations, and in other ways, they differ and are similar to the risks in a manufacturing environment.”

For that reason — and because 85% of Americans trust that the produce they purchase from their local grocer is safe — Eisenbeiser asserts that food safety risk factors must be assessed and controlled when sourcing indoor produce. That starts with measures such as implementing a supplier approval program, monitoring the safety performance of those suppliers and acquiring produce from vendors who meet food safety regulation requirements set forth by organizations such as the Produce Safety and Foreign Supplier Verification rules created by the FDA and making sure they are certified and compliant with a Global Food Safety Initiative program such as the Safe Quality Food Institute

Indoor farming also presents its own set of climate challenges — chiefly a carbon footprint that is significantly larger than traditional farms. According to a ScienceDirect study, growing one pound of tomatoes in a greenhouse results in approximately six times the carbon footprint of tomatoes grown outdoors. 

“The carbon footprint is the main hurdle we have to clear,”  Neil Mattson, who leads Cornell University’s controlled environment agriculture research group, told the New York Times. “Then greenhouses are a no-brainer.”

Join SmartBrief and a panel of industry experts Sept. 8 at 2 p.m. ET to explore how vertical farming tools can help the industry build efficient and sustainable food systems.

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