Just Hype or the Path to the Future?
On August 2nd we “celebrated” earth overshoot day, marking the point in the year when we collectively have used more resources than our planet can regenerate during a year. Based on this, by the time you read this blog, we are in debt with our planet, and highlighting our need to create more sustainable solutions to respond to the world’s desire for prosperity and healthy living for all. One of the paths to the future is “Indoor Farming”, sometimes also referred to as “Urban Farming”. Watching TV, surfing the internet or reading popular magazines, you cannot fail to note that this is a hot topic, present in daily news and inspiring an abundance of small start-ups. As with any new technology the initial hype makes it difficult to fully appreciate what the real impact on agriculture could be. I can’t but feel excited about it, both as a scientist, a father of two and a citizen of a world who struggles with limited resources.
I think that Indoor Farming provides the opportunity to grow vegetables with reduced environmental impact, wherever they are needed. We see start-ups growing vegetables on rooftops in New York or in the local supermarket. Creating a closed system allows us full control of the environment, recycle nutrient solutions and reduce waste. With our advancing knowledge about optimal plant growth (and as the experts tell me temperatures, atmosphere and light are not everything we humans prefer) food can be produced much more efficiently. We estimate that per square meter we can produce at least 4-5 times as much, compared to a conventional approach. Optimized growing reduces time to harvest and being close to the customer will reduce food mileage further adding benefit.
Head of Research & Development Vegetable Seeds.
Closer to home, indoor growing has started to have an impact on businesses: with complete enclosure and environment control, we can speed up breeding and in R&D increase the accuracy of our experiments with a reduction of experimental noise, i.e. changing conditions beyond the scientists control or the ability to replicate conditions wherever we are. Seed production for crops grown in our high tech greenhouses: tomato, pepper and cucumber will be more predictable, allowing better planning and reduced inventory in our supply chain. While this is the start, the carefully controlled environment reduces the needs for disease control. In future we could see a reduction in our efforts to create varieties genetically protected against disease (a task that takes up a lot of our resources) and a decrease in the application of crop protection for growing vegetables. All of these will require us to rethink our business and adapt to changing needs.
Just Hype or the Path to the Future?
Right now we are still at the beginning and have a long way to go. Prices for food produced through Indoor Farming are high and probably many of the early technical concepts will be obsolete before wider adoption. Ideas are currently pioneered in communities known to focus on healthy living and adoption of new technologies: California, New York or mega cities like Tokyo. We are experimenting with rapidly evolving technologies and only some of them will reach the marketplace and attract customers. Yet we are seeing the first signs in developed western countries and/or places with challenging climatic conditions. As concepts are maturing, adoption will spread and has the potential to transform the way we work and live. And frankly: we need to grab every opportunity to ensure life in the future will also be good for 9 billion people living on our planet!