October 4, 2023

Canary Media’s Eating the Earth column explores the connections between the food we eat and the climate we live in.

The Eating the Earth column got its name because agriculture has devoured nearly two-fifths of our planet’s land. It also uses nearly three-fourths of our fresh water, generates one-fourth of our greenhouse gas emissions, and is by far the leading driver of deforestation, species extinction and water pollution. Most farmers think of themselves as good stewards of the land, but collectively, they’re stewarding a mess.

Two years ago, an entrepreneur named David Rosenberg told me he was creating a new agricultural paradigm. His company, AeroFarms, had built the world’s largest vertical farm in downtown Newark, and it was growing leafy greens with 99 percent less land and 95 percent less water than a traditional farm. It used no pesticides. It allowed no runoff to escape into the environment. And it was de-risking the riskiest of human enterprises, deploying artificial intelligence, robotics, Big Data analytics, high-tech automation and club-vibe magenta LED lighting to create optimal growing conditions 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

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Rosenberg had positioned AeroFarms as a tech play, not an ag play, and when we spoke, he was preparing to take it public at a $1.2 billion valuation. That was a lot of lettuce for a firm that had just started to sell salad, but it reflected the world’s desperate need to grow more food with less environmental impact in an era of increasingly nasty droughts, storms and heat waves. The entire vertical-farming industry was booming at the time, offering an alluring alternative to the chaos of the outdoors.

The future is happening a lot faster than we expected,” Rosenberg said.

Well, the future ended up happening a lot differently than he expected.

AeroFarms filed for bankruptcy in early June, citing significant industry and capital market headwinds.” Rosenberg stepped down as CEO. And the entire vertical farm boom has busted, with venture funding for the sector plunging 91 percent over the last year. Pioneers such as Orlando-based Kalera, Pittsburgh-based Fifth Season, Brooklyn-based Upward Farms, and Netherlands-based Future Crops and Glowfarms have gone bankrupt or shut down. Berlin-based Infarm, another industry leader, just laid off 500 workers, more than half its workforce.

rows of plants grow in white metal vertical containers
An Upward Farms grow facility in Brooklyn, NY. The company ceased operations in April 2023. (Upward Farms)

It’s not yet clear whether vertical farming is an overhyped, premature, expensive business model that can still help change the world someday, or whether it’s just a dumb and impractical idea. Its biggest immediate problem is that it’s a ludicrous energy hog, because even though LEDs are way cheaper than they used to be, they’re way more expensive than sunlight. I did some back-of-the-envelope math with one disillusioned investor, and we calculated that indoor farms like the one he had supported would require every megawatt of America’s current renewable energy production to grow just 5 percent of America’s tomato crop.

It’s not even clear if indoor farming would be viable or scalable if it did solve its energy problems. Investors ranging from Google and Walmart to Bill Gates and Natalie Portman have also poured cash into horizontal greenhouses that deploy many of the same technologies that make vertical farms so exciting, while still using daylight to hold down energy costs. But industry darling AppHarvest, which was valued at $3.7 billion after going public in 2021, has dropped 99 percent from that peak and is now flirting with bankruptcy as well.

This is a bummer, because feeding the world without frying the world is one of humanity’s most urgent and massive challenges. By 2050, farmers will have to grow about 50 percent more food while using much less land and water and emitting much less carbon. As I wrote earlier this year, that means we can’t turn up our collective noses at new food and agriculture technologies like meat or dairy substitutes engineered from plants or cells, or genetically modified or edited crops, livestock, bio-fertilizers or bio-pesticides. We might not need all of the above,” an outdated energy slogan that’s become more ideological than practical, but we’ll probably need a lot of the above.

The problem will be figuring out how to make any of the above work at a reasonable cost on a global scale. The vertical-farming swoon is a reminder that technological solutions to the world’s food and agriculture problems, while super-necessary, will be super-hard.

Outdoor agriculture has been around for 12,000 years, and it’s a bit surprising that nobody’s come up with a better way to grow food.

It’s incredibly hard work to convert sunlight and soil into sustenance, especially for poor smallholder farmers in the developing world who lack tractors and planters and harvesters. It’s also incredibly risky work. Crops get wiped out by droughts, floods and storms, by heat waves and cold snaps, by pests, weeds and diseases.

And farmers in wealthier countries create new problems when they fight back against Mother Nature, dousing their fields with chemicals that poison the air and the soil, fertilizers that pollute lakes and oceans, and irrigation water that sucks rivers and aquifers dry. But the 8 billion people on Earth need to eat, so agriculture keeps expanding its footprint at the expense of nature’s footprint, bulldozing forests and vaporizing their carbon to grow more food.

What’s so tantalizing about vertical farming is its potential to solve all those problems. It replaces backbreaking labor and diesel-fueled tractors with robots and automation. It replaces weather and winter with climate controls. It replaces nighttime with LEDs. It replaces pivot and drip irrigation with hydroponic and aeroponic systems that only provide the water plants need, a huge advantage in adapting to increasingly persistent droughts. As Vice President Kamala Harris pointed out after visiting vertical farming company Babylon Micro-Farms in Virginia this May, Growing more food with less water will be one of the defining challenges of the 21st century.”

Vertical farms also use much less fertilizer manufactured from natural gas than outdoor farms, and they don’t allow any of it to escape into the environment in the form of nitrous oxide that boils the planet or runoff that degrades water bodies like the Great Lakes and the Gulf of Mexico. Birds can’t poop on crops grown indoors, reducing the risk of food contamination. And vertical farms can be built near their customers, reducing spoilage as well as transportation costs and emissions.

Worker in lab coat, hair net, and gloves tends to plants stacked on vertical shelves in a facility bathed in pink light
(Jonas Gratzer/LightRocket/Getty Images)

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