In the future, your grocery will likely come from the building next to you

Tyagarajan S August 8, 2017

The green spires rise up like monstrous trees. Inside the climate regulated indoor farm, drones and robots fuss over walls of green, while self-regulating systems maintain humidity and nutrients. When they are ready to be harvested, automated delivery systems bring these fresh produce to tables in a matter of an hour or two. This self-contained farm is one of many hundreds, spread throughout the city, supplying food to those living around it.

This could be the future as mounting constraints on modern agriculture pushes us into exploring alternate ways to produce food to feed the urban mega-cities of the future. One growing movement offers to bring change nearly 10,000 year-old fundamentals of farming.

Can farming really move indoors?

Agtech Floating
Indoor vertical farms are trending. The largest agtech investment till date is a $200 million Series B funding, led by SoftBank and other investors including Bezos Expeditions, in a previously little known startup called Plenty.

In a 52,000 sq. ft. facility in San Francisco, Plenty grows various leafy greens on vertical panes. Although it is yet to sell its produce in stores, the startup (and the investors) believes that it has the technology to disrupt the market of ‘growing food’. With its new found financial muscle, Plenty wants to set up vertical farms all over the US, Japan, China and the Middle East.

Until Plenty came along, there was another company that hogged the farming revolution limelight — Aerofarms. A couple of months back, it raised a little more than $34 million as part of its Series D funding. Bowery, another indoor farming startup from New York, raised $20 million in funding soon after.

Aerofarms grows leafy greens, carrots, potatoes, etc. in its vertical farms and claims it is 130 times more efficient than a conventional farm. Source: Aerofarms

What’s all this money going to? Right now, into an experiment that lies at the convergence of the agricultural, industrial and technological revolution. Inside sterile, climate controlled buildings that resemble a chipset factory more than a farm, these startups grow produce without using soil.

In recent years, hydroponics, a technique that involves growing plants using nutrient solution and water as medium has gained popularity. But startups such as Plenty and Aerofarms use what they claim is an even superior technique called Aeroponics. The roots of the plants are suspended on a misty medium rich in nutrients.In either case, these indoor farms do away with soil and sunlight.

Farm computing
Perhaps a better term would be to call these “farm computers”.

LED lights enable photosynthesis and growth. The temperature is controlled and varied as required. Nutrients are added or removed and humidity is tightly regulated thanks to sensors that constantly monitor their levels. All of this is monitored and regulated by a farm operating system. Need less sodium in the leafy greens? Just tweak a few controls.

Japan, with limited arable land and fast dwindling workforce, is very interested. Spread, one of the country’s largest vertical farming companies, produces more than 20,000 lettuce heads everyday using hydroponics. It has set its sights on more than doubling its yield to 50,000 using automation and robotics. Fujitsu, an electronics giant, is converting unused semiconductor facilities into indoor hydroponic farms.

When Spread opened its Kameoka plant in 2007, it had worked for six years before that to be able to scale its production. Source: Spread.

China, whose blistering growth left its farmlands toxic, is exploring indoor farming techniques as a way to feed its dense urban centers. A Chinese architectural firm is building a multi-story hydroponic vertical farm in Shanghai to grow leafy greens. In Singapore, a Panasonic-run vertical farm cultivates 40 different crops and 80 tons of veggies every year.

There have been small, niche attempts in India too. A small 1600 sq.ft. vertical farm in Goa cultivates about three tonnes of lettuce every month. Future Farms in Chennai is evangelising hydroponic farming with a handful of pilot farms although these are not indoor farms.

One projection estimates that the vertical farming market will be $4 billion by 2020. But how and why did they suddenly get so popular?

Fantasy to necessity
Over the last 10,000 years, since our foraging forefathers started settling down to farm, the fundamentals of agriculture hasn’t changed much. However, the explosion of demand and the resulting scaling up of this agriculture in our recent history has come at a price. Agriculture uses up nearly a third of our land mass (not including Antartica) and consumes 70% of all global freshwater.

Global population is hurtling towards the nine billion mark by 2050 putting a huge ask on our food production. Open arable lands are hard to come by for countries with low space (Japan, Singapore) or harsh climate (Middle East). In countries like India, climate change and poor planning have resulted in complete dependence on the vagaries of monsoon.

So when you hear Plenty claim that their technology can help produce 350 times the output of a conventional farm in the same area, you sit up and listen. Most indoor vertical farms also claim to consume about one-hundredth of the water required for conventional farming.

“Indoor farmers do not have to pray for rain, or sunshine, or moderate temperatures, or anything else related to the production of food crops, for that matter,” said Dickson Despommier who coined the term “vertical farm” when he wrote The Vertical Farm: Feeding the world in the 21st century back in 2010. It’s a promise that offers hope in the current scenario.

Back when Dickson Despommier published the book in 2010, the concept of indoor vertical farm was being pursued seriously in few places. Today, the landscape has changed quite a bit. ©Picador

The vagaries of weather on farming is only set to get worse with the worsening effects of climate change. Countries seeking food security cannot rely only on uncertain climatic conditions to feed their growing populace.

Moreover, food production today is a black box today with increasing concerns on quality. A fifth of all arable land in China has more than the prescribed level of toxins for agriculture — the result of the industrial growth surge. As a result, the market for organic produce is surging ($60 billion market by 2020) despite the fact that the label is abused widely nor is it a guarantee that pesticides were not used. Produce grown in indoor farms promise a new level of quality. Bowery calls them “post-organic”, meaning they are grown with zero pesticides.

An indoor vertical farm in the thick of an urban center can also deliver fresh produce faster and with low delivery carbon footprint than traditional farms that need their produce to travel (sometimes) hundreds of kilometers adding to both economic and environmental costs. So, what’s holding them back?

Numbers trail the hype
In 2013, an economic feasibility study conducted to look at what it would take to supply fresh produce to 15,000 people demanding 2,000 kcal of nutrition per day, estimated that the vertical farm would need to be the size of a city-block, 37 floors high, use LED illumination and would be able to supply produce at around $3.40 to $4 per kilogram. In essence, vertical farms today can profitably cater to only high value produce for elites.

For the well funded vertical farm startups, the economics are yet to catch up with the valuations. The set-up costs are high and so are the running energy costs (climate control, LED lighting etc.).

In developing countries where power is more valuable and less reliable, the costs add up and pretty much make indoor farms out of reach for large scale adoption.

Navin Durai, chief marketing officer of Future Farms, told me a few months ago that the capital expense of setting up these farms in India is high since majority of components have to be imported (about Rs 1 crore per acre). And running them with artificial lighting pushes the set up costs even further up. Vertical farms farms relying on direct sunlight and using hydroponics will have operational costs that are a fraction of regular farms and could potentially recover initial costs in three-four years.

Chennai based Future Farms uses hydroponics to cultivate leafy greens, tomato, bell peppers, broccoli, lettuce etc

But the dynamics are changing rapidly. The components to set up farms including sensors, regulators and the machine learning intelligence are all fast getting commoditized. For instance, the prices of LED lights have dropped by more than 90% in less than a decade. Energy prices could begin to drop if the cost of renewable energy continues to plummet. There could a case for these indoor vertical farms to become profitable in the short term and scale.

But economics isn’t the only hurdle. Google X, which works on moonshot ideas to solve large problems, killed their work on automated vertical farming project some time back. The reason: vertical farms cannot grow staples like rice and wheat that feed a vast majority of the world. Today, vertical farming can primarily produce leafy greens and some vegetables.

Countries that need to mass produce cheap food for its populations like India, China and large parts of Africa cannot still rely on indoor vertical farms to fulfill their needs. Even if the costs align, running these farms require complex expertise with a steep learning curve. These farms demand engineers, biologists, machine learning experts and data scientists.

Does this mean these farms will remain niche indulgences at best? Maybe not. The investments pouring into this could help scale up the technology and increasing commoditization could make these feasible very soon.

The future of your groceries
In a few decades, more than 70% of humanity will be living in a city. The rise of large mega-cities with millions of people and that are connected to each other through high-speed transit may be inevitable. More and more people will demand variety, quality and freshness in food. Meanwhile, climate change and pollution will continue to dwindle land available for agriculture. We’re rapidly running out of water too.

Inevitably, farms will have to get local, move closer to urban centers and be efficient in their use of resources. Detroit, once a symbol of industrial revolution that produced automobiles, is now seeing an agrarian revolution as entrepreneurs buy up old warehouses and abandoned factories and convert them into indoor farms that can generate fresh produce. In London, one startup is growing produce in the forgotten old tunnels beneath the city.

Indoor farms could become self-contained ecosystems that can just download “climate recipes” that enables simulating any climate. One could grow mangoes in Mexico and jalapenos in India. Open Agriculture Initiative by MIT Media Lab strives to do just that by bringing technology that makes indoor farming easy.

As automation increases, these indoor farms could potentially grow in size and scale. Spread is launching is fully automatic vegetable factory where all activities post seeding are done without human intervention. This will enable self-contained farm ecosystems to emerge and eventually get commoditised. Large living enclaves and communities may sport their own farms.

A smart food value chain will emerge, letting consumers order produce on demand fresh from these farms. The rise of on-demand grocery delivery service today is perhaps just the beginning. In the future, smart sensors could help track food from its origin until it reaches the consumer. Individuals may even be able to custom-grow food to their tastes. You could alter the sodium content in your leafy greens. Imagine getting food from farm to table in a matter of a minutes.

Perhaps this is the kind of grocery value chain that Amazon founder Jeff Bezos has on his mind. His personal investment fund Bezos Expeditions is one of the investors in Plenty. Earlier this year, Amazon purchased Whole Foods. It isn’t hard to imagine little automated indoor farms all across the country growing produce and then have a supply chain of drones and self-driving delivery vehicles moving groceries to the end consumers.

For when we eventually do colonize other lands, it’s likely that we’ll ship self contained farm-pods across space even before we set up large scale colonies. But much before we do that, we’ll likely get used to them on earth.


Disclosure: FactorDaily is owned by SourceCode Media, which counts Accel Partners, Blume Ventures and Vijay Shekhar Sharma among its investors. Accel Partners is an early investor in Flipkart. Vijay Shekhar Sharma is the founder of Paytm. None of FactorDaily’s investors have any influence on its reporting about India’s technology and startup ecosystem.