The growing world population, climate change, and depletion of agricultural land have put tremendous pressure on researchers and growers to find new ways to produce more nutritious food while using fewer input materials. Soil and water pollution caused by the excessive use of fertilizers and pesticides in traditional, open-field agriculture threaten freshwater supplies and ecosystems. We’ve reached a point where we really need to go beyond the traditional framework and establish a more sustainable food production. With the current population growth rate, we will consume more food in the next 40 years than our ancestors did during the previous 8.000 years. To feed all the hungry mouths worldwide without environmental degradation and health concerns, we need to rethink the current practices and develop a cleaner, safer way to produce food.
Indoor farming tech
One of the alternatives getting increasing attention from researchers, investors, and crop producers is indoor farming. According to the recent market report by MarketsAndMarkets.com, the global indoor farming technology market is expected to grow at a CAGR of 9.4% and reach $24.8B by 2026 (compared to $14.5B in 2020). With a rapidly rising number of greenhouses and vertical farms, North America is one of the leading indoor farming markets in the world. At the same time, hydroponics has the largest share in the indoor growing tech market in 2020 based on the growing system segment.
Setting up a productive indoor garden requires significant investments in terms of time and money. However, with the current technological developments and increasing costs of traditional agricultural production, indoor farming is becoming more competitive by the year. Although setting up a bigger indoor grow op is still out of reach for the average Joe, we are getting closer to having cheaper, more efficient growing equipment every day. The current market trends hint about significant investments and future development of this part of the tech industry.
The great potential of indoor farming motivated experts from various fields to join forces and find solutions to optimize the production process and decrease costs. To understand the information provided in the report and see what’s all the fuss, let’s delve into the details. What advantages does indoor farming have compared to traditional agriculture?
Indoor farming offers sustainable production of crops and biopharmaceuticals
Sustainable production of food and pharmaceuticals is one of the main global matters today. Old ways of food production cannot meet the demands of the growing world population, and in certain aspects, they also cause adverse effects on human health and the environment. Among many alternatives, indoor farming stands out because it checks out most of the boxes when sustainability and the quality of the products are in question. Compared to open-field agriculture, it has four very significant advantages.
Being able to control environmental conditions during the entire growing process
Indoor plant cultivation allows complete control over the growing conditions (temperature, air humidity, light intensity, nutrient availability) and enables the grower to be completely independent of external conditions. The plants are sheltered from most threats that occur outdoors, and with proper hygiene, ventilation, and healthy planting materials, the risk of a pest or a pathogen attack is minimal. Such cleanliness is paramount in biopharmaceutical production, where even the slightest contamination can affect the quality of the end product.
Having complete control over the growing process enables minimal pesticide and fertilizer use and leaves minimal residue and waste materials. This is one of the main driving forces for implementing indoor farming technologies, as more and more people are demanding fresh produce without remnants of harmful agrochemicals. Being able to fine-tune nutrient levels and low pesticide use also cut costs of input materials, creating mutual benefits for the producer and the consumer.
Growing plants in 3D
Vertical farming has set the indoor farming world ablaze due to its high productivity. The most significant advantage it offers is growing many plants at a very small surface area. Space optimization is one of the critical segments of productive plant production, and vertical farming opens up a lot of possibilities. Stacking plants at multiple levels and providing them with optimal growing conditions allows for a bountiful harvest and maximized crop yields. The average yield per surface unit is difficult to generalize, as it depends on the size of the production. According to certain studies and estimates, vertical farms can produce a couple hundred times more food per square acre than traditional open-field production.
Reduced water consumption
Fun fact: Agriculture is the number one consumer of freshwater globally, accounting for 70% of freshwater consumption. Although most of the water in agriculture goes to livestock production and related activities, plant production is also a significant consumer. The growing population needs more fresh, clean food but also more fresh, clean water. If we are to meet the global food consumption demand while providing enough drinkable water for all, we need to optimize and reduce water consumption in agriculture.
Considering that freshwater sources and fertile soils are becoming more limited due to climate change, soil depletion, and contamination, it is necessary to improve water management strategies. Indoor farming plays an important role in this narrative because it allows minimal water inputs and losses. Growers can collect and repurpose the water evaporating from the plants and other surfaces in the grow room. Such recycling allows minimal water usage without reducing the quality of the end product.
Minimal carbon emissions
Getting fresh produce from the field to the table often includes quite a lot of pit stops. After the harvest, the crops are usually transported to cold storage. Depending on the crop, they may remain there for days, weeks, or months. At some point, they are transported again to a supermarket, restaurant, or another retailer. Once bought, fruits and veggies from the supermarket usually travel an additional few miles to get to the table. This can be quite a long road, and the crops usually travel in vehicles that run on fossil fuels.
Aside from high GHG emissions, this practice also pushes many producers to harvest their crops early. Unripe fruits are less susceptible to molds and rots than ripe, and as such, they stay “fresh” longer. This may be good for the producer and retailers but not for the end consumer. Unripe crops have a poor nutrient content and are not as tasty as ripe ones.
As opposed to large agricultural fields, indoor farming facilities can be set up almost anywhere. This reduces the need for transportation and provides ripe fruits, herbs, and veggies with optimal nutritional and organoleptic properties. Living in the city center and getting fresh crops grown not more than a few hundred feet away from your home is now starting to become a reality. And the best thing – you can get that fresh, nutritious produce all year long.
Challenges of indoor farming
This story probably sounds a bit too rosy and the skeptics reading this are probably wondering what’s the hidden cost. Pros always come with cons, so what is on the other side of the indoor farming coin? The truth is that indoor farming can really be a sustainable way of producing high-quality food, but it still has a long way to go to become widely available. Let’s look at the main challenges it needs to overcome to become fully competitive in the global agricultural market.
Cost of production
The two main problems with implementing indoor farming on larger scales are the considerable initial investments in equipment and the high energy consumption following the onset of production. However, with adequate planning and renewable energy sources, it is possible to cut costs and make the cultivation process more energy efficient. With the current rate of technological development and financial incentives, it is very likely that the indoor growing equipment will become cheaper and more accessible in the coming years.
Complete control of the growing conditions gives indoor farming significant advantages but also makes natural pollination impossible. Most of the plants we grow for food cannot produce any fruits without being pollinated by insects. Since it is very hard to introduce pollinators to indoor gardens and maintain them, manual pollination is the most common solution. Hiring additional manpower and getting proper pollination equipment makes the production process more complicated and increases the costs.
Shortage of skilled workforce
Due to their complexity, indoor farms require skilled personnel to supervise the process for everything to run smoothly. A team of skilled experts versed in indoor plant cultivation is often too big of a financial investment for medium- and small-scale producers. Also, considering that this type of plant production and the technologies used are relatively new, many professionals are still learning about the ins and outs of the process and how to optimize it. Delay in the learning curve among growers and experts significantly limits the market growth of indoor farming.
Dependence on technology
Achieving stable and profitable indoor crop production requires the growing equipment to run smoothly at all times. And of course, a constant source of electricity. Indoor farms are very complex systems that rely on a wide range of technologies – lighting, heating, humidifiers, sensors, and automated parts of the system. Any equipment failure can have a potentially devastating effect on the entire growing operation, making mistakes very costly.
- The 2050 Criteria – Guide to Responsible Investment in Agricultural, Forest, and Seafood Commodities. WWF Report. (2012).
- Adenauer, L. (2014). Up, Up and Away! The Economics of Vertical Farming. Journal of Agricultural Studies 2(1):40-60.