Bloomberg Businessweek magazine just came out with its “Sooner Than You Think” issue, referring to important or interesting things it believes will happen in the next few years or decades.
A couple of interesting predictions: By 2030 an NFL quarterback will pass for 6,000 yards in a season (the current record is Peyton Manning’s 5,477 in 2013). And by 2022, annual spending by the federal government will exceed $5 trillion (it is now at about $4 trillion).
But here’s a prediction that’s important: Next year a “vertical farming” company in San Francisco will start shipping produce to retailers. And by 2030 the company believes its indoor farming warehouses will be in or near every major city in the world.
Vertical farming, the way it’s being done by Plenty Inc., is fascinating stuff. In many ways it’s the complete opposite of the farming or gardening work familiar to so many people in this area.
As the name implies, crops like lettuce and kale are growing sideways out of 20-foot-tall poles, spaced just 4 inches apart.This allows for a far greater yield than anything planted in the ground. The company’s indoor farm in San Francisco is a 50,000 square-foot building that can produce 2 million pounds of lettuce per year.
The indoor farm does not use soil. Nutrients and water are fed into the top of a pole, and gravity does the rest of the work. LED lighting substitutes for the sun, and thousands of cameras and sensors are stationed throughout the building. The sensors measure things like humidity, temperature and carbon dioxide levels, and botanists then make adjustments to improve productivity or even alter the taste of the food.
Excess water that drips to the floor is collected, as is moisture released by the plants as they grow. The water is then filtered and re-used. Plenty says it can grow up to 350 times more produce than a conventional farm while using only 1 percent of the water.
Another big advantage to this system is its potential to eliminate a lot of the inefficiency in getting farm products to market. The United States, with all its land, still imports 35 percent of its fruits and vegetables. Most of the country’s leafy greens like lettuce are grown in California or Arizona, meaning they must be shipped hundreds or thousands of miles to retailers across the country.
Add in the fact that the world’s supply of fruits and vegetables is 22 percent less than global nutritional needs, according to Emory University public health researchers, and you see how vertical farming could provide a huge boost to existing food production.
Plenty’s officials envision a 100,000 square-foot indoor farm in each of the world’s major cities. Imagine a building the size of a Wal-Mart supercenter producing greens. But there are obvious challenges to overcome before vertical farming helps feed the world.
For starters, the company is only growing lettuce, kale and a few specialty items like basil. The world will eat only so much lettuce, and scientists still have to figure out how to apply vertical farming strategies to other crops. While the LED lighting and those thousands of sensors require a lot of electricity, Plenty says it can save a lot of money in transportation. One of its goals is to provide Whole Foods-quality produce at Wal-Mart prices.
The company says it doesn’t want to replace existing farm networks, including the small family operations that provide food around the country. It probably couldn’t do that, as there will always be a market for home-grown products.
But the country’s and the world’s population is growing, and vertical farming sounds like a good idea to feed a lot more people.
Jack Ryan, Enterprise-Journal