Indoor agriculture's future: bright or blight?

 Photo: Phil Hendley

Photo: Phil Hendley

Indoor agriculture - growing food in greenhouses instead of in an outdoor field - is nothing new.  Roman gardeners used a greenhouse-type system to provide cucumbers to the Emperor Tiberius every day of the year.   Today greenhouses cover 0.25% of the Netherlands' total area.  But two recent developments are making agronomists and the private sector look at indoor agriculture on a larger systemic scale. The first is that climate change is wreaking havoc on traditional agricultural areas.  California, for example, grows most of the United States supply of produce, but now faces a recurring lack of water to irrigate those crops.  Indoor agriculture can grow produce any time of the year, virtually anywhere:

In an indoor farm, water doesn’t inconveniently evaporate. LED lights can lengthen the hours of sunlight so plants can grow faster. CO2 levels can be tweaked. Even as the weather outside goes haywire, plants farmed indoors can live out an optimized version of the weather that they coevolved with — the weather of the past. The best weather of the past. 

The second development is an advancement in greenhouse technology and software that monitors plants and growing conditions and adjusts those conditions to reach that optimized environment.  Importantly, these technological advances can mitigate the two major downsides of indoor agriculture: cost and energy.  Outdoor crops use sunlight and rain, so replicating that process makes indoor agricultural products more expensive.  And the massive amounts of electricity required to mimic the sun and pump water into the system dramatically increases the energy footprint of an already carbon-intensive industry.  

Agricultural start-ups are working on these inefficiencies and looking at ways to make indoor agriculture more sustainable (e.g. incorporating solar powered electricity sources).  But, as promising as indoor agriculture might seem, it will be some time until the energy demands are reduced to the point of sustainability.  Indoor agriculture can contribute to food security by ensuring stability in the supply chain, but the most resilient and sustainable food system grows crops at the time, place, and location where they are best suited.  If California isn't a suitable place to grow arugula anymore, it's likely there is a region somewhere else that is.  

Perpetuating agriculture in unsuitable locations, or deciding to replicate natural processes indoors, is partly a by-product of negative externalities and the difficulty in pricing resources like water and electricity to reflect their true cost.   Agricultural policies can make this more difficult as well, providing subsidies to traditional agricultural regions or placing zoning restrictions on lands with potential to support agriculture.  In the face of these barriers to agricultural mobility it's not surprising that market disrupters are enthusiastic about indoor agriculture, but let's not forget that policy changes in the agricultural sector can make a big difference in the resilience and efficiency of the food system.  The sun and the rain still have a role to play.

 Greenhouses in the Netherlands.  Photo: Pieter Edelman

Greenhouses in the Netherlands.  Photo: Pieter Edelman

 Photo: Sint -Katelijne-Wave

Photo: Sint -Katelijne-Wave