With a global population that’s expected to hit 9.7 billion by 2050 and have less arable land to grow food on, what do we do? How about putting robots, AI, and some really cool technology to work to grow food in three dimensions? Let’s take a look at the future of food and the growth of vertical farming. And a little bit of a six degrees of separation to Elon Musk.

Technology is making massive advancements to help us combat climate change when it comes to things like electric vehicles, energy generation and storage, but there’s another form of energy that’s important to consider: food.

As I mentioned, the world’s population is expected to hit 9.7 billion by 2050,1 with about 68% of people living in urban city centers.2 That means we’ll need about a 70% increase in food production from what we produce today. In Stuart Oda’s great Ted Talk on this subject, he pointed out that we’ll need to produce more food in the next 30 years than we have in the previous 10,000 years combined.

And as if that wasn’t a big enough problem to tackle, we also have a shrinking amount of arable land to grow crops on. We’ve lost about a 1/3 of arable land over the past 40 years from erosion or pollution.3 And arable land per person is expected to drop 66% by 2050 compared to 1970.

Not to keep piling on the concerns, but agriculture uses about 70% of our global fresh water supply. Keep in mind that only about 3% of the water on earth is fresh water, and about 2.5% is unavailable because it’s too far underground or frozen in glaciers.4 And that it’s not evenly distributed around the world.

I don’t bring all of that up to panic anyone, but to give some context as to why so much effort is being put behind the technologies being used in vertical farming. When you see a vertical farm it looks like something out of a science fiction movie that’s meant to be growing on a space station… which makes sense since aeroponics spawned from NASA.5 But the basic concept is quite simple and ingenious.

The original concept for vertical farming comes from Dickson Despommier, a professor at Columbia University. In 1999 he challenged his graduate students to see how much food they could grow on New York City rooftops and how many people they could feed. The students came back with the answer of … 1,000 people. Clearly, not great. So he told them to push further and floated the idea of thinking in three dimensions. Grow vertically … and indoors.

The graduate students ended up designing a 30-story vertical farm that included artificial lighting, hydroponics and aeroponics, which in the end was calculated to be able to feed 50,000 people.6 And that’s where the seed of vertical farming took root. Yeah … I said it.

Vertical farming is really made up of different techniques used in Controlled-Environment Agriculture (CEA). Basically, take any space, like a greenhouse or building, so you can have complete control of the lighting, temperature, and humidity, and then use hydroponic, aquaponic, or aeroponic techniques to feed nutrients to the plants. Hydroponics and aquaponics are both methods that don’t require soil, but involve either submerging a plant’s roots in a liquid or solid material, like polyurethane sponges or peat moss to deliver nutrient mix. Aeroponics on the other hand doesn’t require any soil stand in at all. Instead it mists the plants and roots directly with a nutrient mix.7

What are the benefits of vertical farming? You get year round production without any seasons, which means you could always have fresh strawberries year round. The highly controlled systems mean you get far more consistent quality. It uses 90-99% less water and fertilizer. Remember, it’s indoors and controlled, so no bugs or pesticides. And it uses 90-99% less land.8 9 Plants grown this way have accelerated growth since the roots can get extra oxygen.

And with less land use you can grow crops much closer to where they’re being consumed, like a city center. Typically produce travels an average of 1,500 miles from farm to market.10 The shorter distance of transport wouldn’t just help with pollution and energy use from shipping, but it also helps with nutrition. Fruits and vegetables experience rapid nutritional value loss as soon as they are cut and refrigerated. Some can lose as much as 50 percent of their vitamin C and other nutrients within a week.11 Growing local and getting food into your hands quicker means more nutritional food.

But there are some downsides. Right now there’s limited crop options available that can be grown in this manner. It’s mostly centered around lettuce, some vegetables and fruits. There’s no grains, like wheat or corn, grown this way. The overall costs are still very high, which is mainly from the much, much higher energy use required. You’re talking about having to run artificial lightening 24/7. Even with custom designed high efficiency LED lights, it still consumes a lot of power. And if you’re supplying that power from fossil fuels, you lose some of the benefits of growing with vertical farming in the first place.

But that’s where some companies are trying to put technology to work to solve those problems. And this is where we can play some six degrees of separation with Elon Musk. Well, more like two degrees to Elon Musk.

So there are a lot of companies trying to solve the challenges around vertical farming. For instance, Japan is one of the early pioneers in the space and has the largest share of vertical farming in the world. The Japanese company, Spread, produces 30,000 heads of lettuce daily … daily. It’s a great example of vertical farming because it’s the first company to become profitable. The price of a head of lettuce has dropped from $2.34 in 2008 to $1.52.12 Still pricer than a typical head of lettuce, but they’ve been driving down costs using AI and robots to automate cultivation. Robotic arms plant seedlings in panels and tracks deposit those panels into growing racks. Not only does this reduce space, but it reduces their labor costs by 50%.13

Another company using AI and robotics is Plenty, which has a 2 acre farm that outproduces an equivalent 720 acre traditional farm.14 Their approach grows columns of produce hung from the ceiling. In between each row of columns are LEDs that can be tuned to mimic full spectrum sun. The AI systems manage all of the care from water, temperature, how much light, the type of light, and learns and optimizes to grow bigger and better crops. Plenty has received $400 million in investment capital from Softbank, Eric Schmidt, and Jeff Bezos. And it has a deal to deliver produce to 430 Albertsons stores in California. If you’re interested in finding produce near you, you can actually find where it’s sold on their website.

And then there’s the last company I wanted to call out, and the six degrees of separation connection to Elon Musk that I mentioned, Freight Farms, which is right here where I live in Boston. Their approach is different from Spread and Plenty, which are building out multi-story setups inside of buildings to grow. Instead, Freight is using 320-sq. foot (~30 sq. meter) shipping containers to make pods that can be scaled depending on need. Their customers currently grow more than 500 varieties of produce year round and use between 0-5 gallons (0-19 liters) of water a day.

You may have heard of Freight Farms because of Elon’s brother, Kimbal Musk. Kimbal cofounded Square Roots Grow, which is a vertical farming company that’s goal is to grow urban farming and empower more young farmers. Kimball partnered with Freight Farms to provide the technology and shipping units to make it happen.15

And Freight Farms just recently announced a plan to address the clean energy supply needed to make vertical farming more sustainable. They’ve partnered with Arcadia. If you don’t know who Arcadia is, they’re an energy supplier that has mainly focused on residential customers. Sign up with them and they’ll source energy on your behalf from solar and wind generation. Now that Freight Farms has partnered with Arcadia, it makes it easier for farmers to source their electricity needs from solar and wind.

Looking a little further off into the future, there’s a lot of interesting research to improve things like lighting. Using lasers and higher efficiency LEDs is one area, but also using fiber optics to channel natural daylight to the plants during the daytime, which means you’d only have to provide artificial lighting during the nighttime.16

So is vertical farming going to be the future of food? Perhaps, but definitely not all of it. Right now it’s still too limited in what crops can be grown this way. Companies like Plenty are spending time now to perfect growing strawberries, but there aren’t any grains grown this way yet. And even though there are challenges with energy use, the cost and climate improvements you get by powering from renewables and not needing to transport produce long distances can be hugely beneficial. Add to that the ability to get food closer to the people who need it most. Not just urban locations, but areas of the world that have nonarable land. Being able to grow foods in areas that have never had access to those types foods in the first place. There’s a reason so many companies and countries, like the USDA here in the US, are investing heavily in researching commercial solutions for vertical farming … and trying to get the production costs down.

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