Editor’s note: Chris Taylor is a senior consultant on The Mixing Bowl team and has spent more than 20 years on global IT strategy and development innovation in manufacturing, design, and healthcare, focussing most recently on indoor agtech.
Michael Rose is a partner at The Mixing Bowl and Better Food Ventures where he brings more than 25 years immersed in new venture creation and innovation as an operating executive and investor across the internet, mobile, restaurant, foodtech and agtech sectors.
Since the initial release of our Indoor AgTech Landscape in 2019, the compelling benefits of growing food in a controlled indoor environment have continued to garner tremendous attention and investment.
One of the intriguing aspects of indoor agriculture is that it is a microcosm of our food system. Whether within a greenhouse or a sunless (vertical farm) environment, this method of farming spans production to consumption, with many indoor operators marketing their produce to consumers as branded products. As we explore below, the indoor ag value chain reflects a number of the challenges and opportunities confronting our entire food system today: supply chain, safety, sustainability, and labor. Of course, the Covid-19 pandemic rippled through and impacted each aspect of that system, at times magnifying the challenges, and at others, accelerating change and growth.
Our Indoor AgTech Landscape 2021 provides a snapshot of the technology and innovation ecosystem of the indoor food production value chain. The landscape spans component technology companies and providers of complete growing systems to actual tech-forward indoor farm operators. As before, the landscape is not meant to be exhaustive. While we track more than 1,300 companies in the sector, this landscape represents a subset and serves to highlight innovative players utilizing digital and information technology to enhance and optimize indoor food production at scale.
Supply chain & safety: Where does my food come from?
The pandemic highlighted the shortcomings of the existing supply chain and heightened consumer desires to know where their food comes from, how safely it was processed and packaged, and how far it has travelled to reach them. A key aspect of indoor farming is its built-in potential to respond to these and other challenges of the current food system.
Indoor farmers can locate their operations near distribution centers and consumers, reduce food miles and touch points, potentially deliver consistently fresher produce and reduce food waste, and claim the coveted “local” distinction. The decentralized system can also add resiliency to supply chains overly dependent on exclusive sources and imports.
Growing local has many forms. Greenhouse growers tend to locate their farms outside the metropolitan area while sunless growers may operate in urban centers, such as Sustenir Agriculture in Singapore and Growing Underground in London. Growers like Square Roots co-locate their indoor farms with their partner’s regional distribution centers, and Babylon deploys its micro-farms solution on site at healthcare and senior living facilities and universities. Recently, Infarm announced it was expanding beyond its growing-in-a-grocery store model, to include decentralized deployments of high-capacity “Growing Centers” across a number of cities. Additionally, the value of “growing local” might take on a much larger meaning if your country imports most of its produce from other countries; a number of the Gulf region countries have announced major indoor growing initiatives and projects with AeroFarms, Pure Harvest, and &ever to address the region’s food dependence on other countries.
Organic produce sales jumped to double digit growth in 2020 as consumers are increasingly mindful of the healthiness of their food. The additional safety concerns due to the pandemic only accelerated this trend. While not typically organic, crops produced in the protection of indoor farms are isolated from external sources of contamination and are often grown with few or no pesticides. Human touch points are reduced as supply chains shorten and production facilities become highly automated. Through the CEA Food Safety Coalition, the industry has recently taken steps to establish production standards with a goal to keep consumers safe from foodborne illness.
Indoor farmers market their products as local, fresh, consistent and clean. This story is resonating with consumers as the growers seem to be selling everything they can produce, with many reporting significant sales growth in 2020. The direct connection to consumer concerns is also a key part of their ability to sell their branded products at a premium, which has been critical to financial viability for some growers. This connection can also enable them to collapse the supply chain further, at least at smaller scales, through direct sales and creative business models, e.g., sunless grower Willo allows subscribers to have their own “personal vertical farm plot” and watch their plants grow online.
Sustainability: Is my food part of the problem or part of the solution?
Farming, as with most industries, has been under increasing pressure to operate more sustainably, and indoor growers, with their efficient use of resources, have rightfully incorporated sustainability prominently into their narratives.
We are well aware of the impacts of climate change, including greater variability in weather patterns and growing seasons. The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization projects that over the coming decades climate change will cause a decrease in global crop production through traditional farming practices, causing greater food insecurity. Indoor growing, which provides protection from the elements, consistent high yields per land area, and the ability to produce food year-round in diverse locations, including those unsuitable for traditional agriculture, can help mitigate this trend.
Water scarcity is projected to increase globally, presenting a national security issue and serious quality of life concerns. According to the World Bank 70% of the global freshwater is used for agriculture. Indoor agriculture’s efficient use of water decreases use by more than 90% for the current crops under production. It is also common practice for greenhouses to capture rainwater and reuse drainage as does Agro Care, the Netherlands’ largest greenhouse tomato grower.
On the flip side, energy use, particularly in sunless facilities, is indoor growing’s sustainability challenge. Efficiency will continue to improve, but as recent analysis on indoor soilless farming from The Markets Institute at WWF indicated, there is an industry-wide opportunity to integrate alternative energy sources. Growers recognize this opportunity to decrease impact and improve bottom-line and are already utilizing alternative approaches such as cogeneration, geothermal sources, and waste heat networks. H2Orto tomatoes are grown in greenhouses heated with biogas generated hot water. Gotham Greens’ produce is grown in 100% renewable electricity-powered greenhouses, and Denmark’s Nordic Harvest will be running Europe’s largest indoor farm solely on wind power.
Labor: We’re still hiring!
There are labor challenges and opportunities throughout the food system value chain, and this couldn’t be more acute than on the farm. Farm operators—both in-field and indoor—find it difficult to attract labor for the physically demanding work. Even before the pandemic, the hardening of borders in Europe and the US created a shortage of farm workers for both field and greenhouse production. In addition, grower and farm manager-level expertise is in short supply, exacerbated by an aging workforce and the rapid addition of new indoor facilities. While operators would like to see more trained candidates coming from university programs, they are also looking to technology and automation to relieve their labor challenges.
Automation of seedling production and post-harvest activities is already well established for most crops in indoor farming. In addition, the short growth cycle and contained habit of leafy greens lends them to mechanization. For example, the fully automated seed-through-harvest leafy green systems from Green Automation and Viscon have been deployed in major greenhouse operations like Pure Green Farms and Mucci. On the sunless side, Urban Crop Solutions has uniquely implemented automation in shipping containers, and Finland’s Netled has developed a fully automated complete growing system. Note that many of the larger-scale sunless growers have developed their own technology stacks and have designed labor-saving automation into their systems. For example, Fifth Season has robotics deployed throughout the entire production process.
Despite numerous initiatives, the challenging daily crop care tasks and harvesting for certain crops (tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, and berries) have not yet been automated at scale. However, planned, near-term commercial deployments of de-leafing and harvesting robots offer the promise of significantly altering labor challenges. Software technologies, like those from Nitea and Hortikey address labor management, crop registration, yield prediction and workflow/process management for the indoor sector and strive to improve operational efficiencies for a smaller workforce.
Technologies that provide, monitor, and control climate, light, water and nutrients are already deployed in today’s sophisticated indoor growing facilities and are fundamental to maintaining optimal conditions in these complex environments. They also form the base for the next innovation layer, i.e., crop optimization and even autonomous control of the growing environment based on imaging and sensor platforms (like from Ecoation, iUNU and 30MHz), data analysis, machine learning, digital twins and artificial intelligence. Recent events like the Autonomous Greenhouse Challenge have successfully explored the potential of AI to “drive horticultural productivity while reducing resource use and management complexity”. Emerging commercialized autonomous growing innovations, such as the Blue Radix Crop Controller and Priva’s Plantonomy, promise to extend and enhance the reach of available grower expertise, particularly in large and multi-site operations.
Where do we go from here?
Since we created our initial Indoor AgTech Landscape, there has been positive change and reason to be optimistic about the future. But, as with any evolving market and sector of innovation, it can be a bumpy ride. Some believe CEA is not the answer to our food problems because not everything can be economically grown indoors today. We see indoor ag as just one of the approaches that can help fix our food system and it should be applied when it makes sense. For example, tomatoes sold through retail are already more than likely grown in a greenhouse. Expect more crops to be grown indoors more economically with further advancements.
One aspect of our previous landscape was to increase awareness that, despite the fervor surrounding novel sunless farming, greenhouse growing was already well-established. Dutch greenhouse growers have demonstrated the viability of indoor growing with 50-plus years of experience and more acres “under glass than the size of Manhattan.” The recent public offering and $3 billion market cap of Kentucky-based greenhouse grower AppHarvest also clearly raised awareness! Other high-profile and expanding greenhouse growers, including BrightFarms and Gotham Greens, have also attracted large investments.
The question is often asked, “which is the better growing approach, sunless or greenhouse?” There is no proverbial “silver bullet” for indoor farming. The answer is dictated by location and the problem you are trying to solve. A solution for the urban centers of Singapore, Hong Kong and Mumbai might not be the same as one deployed on the outskirts of Chicago.
Regardless of approach, starting any type of sizable tech-enabled indoor farm is capital intensive. A recent analysis from Agritecture indicates that it can range from $5 to $11 million dollars to build out a three-acre automated farm. Some of the huge, advanced greenhouse projects being built today can exceed $100 million. Given the capital requirements for these indoor farms, some question the opportunity for venture-level returns in the sector and suggest that it is better suited to investors in real assets. Still, more than $600 million was raised by the top 10 financings in 2020 as existing players vie for leadership and expand to underserved locales while a seemingly endless stream of new companies continue to enter the market.
Looking forward, indoor farming needs to address its energy and labor challenges. In particular, the sunless approach has work to do to bring its operating costs in line and achieve widespread profitability. Additionally, to further accelerate growth and the adoption of new technologies in both greenhouse and sunless environments, the sector needs to implement the sharing of data between systems. WayBeyond is one of the companies promoting open systems and APIs to achieve this goal.
As we stated in the beginning of this piece, the indoor ag value chain reflects some of the challenges and opportunities confronting our entire food system today: supply chain, safety, sustainability, and labor. Indoor agriculture has tremendous opportunity. While it is still early for this market sector overall, it can bring more precision and agility to where and how food is grown and distributed.