The views expressed in this guest commentary are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of AFN.
Imagine walking into the grocery store and picking up a head of lettuce. The label not only tells you it was grown locally, just a few miles from the store, but also how much energy and water it took to produce.
This vision could soon become a reality.
Eco labels are being piloted in Europe to inform consumers about the environmental cost of their food. With consumers and investors increasingly wary of unsubstantiated claims of environmental and social impact, a similar system could soon be on its way to North America.
This presents an opportunity for the indoor farming sector to improve its energy footprint.
Indoor-grown produce is part of the climate solution, bringing nutritious, fresh produce to people while using a fraction of the water, fertilizer and land necessary for conventionally-grown crops. But making the indoor farming industry more energy efficient is key to reaching its full potential to sustainably feed a rapidly growing planet.
Growing sustainably at scale
The advantages of indoor growing are manifold. Growing food in controlled environments uses up to 99% less water than traditional agriculture, and essentially eliminates the need for pesticides. It can also substantially boost crop yield by up to 20 times over open-field farming, and reduce “food miles” by enabling crops to be grown closer to the people who will eat them.
But there is one area where indoor farming lags behind traditional agriculture: energy consumption.
The average indoor farm uses 38.8 kilowatt-hours of energy to produce one kilogram of food — that’s enough power to run 17 loads of laundry in a washing machine. Most of indoor farming’s energy is used for the thousands of LED lights that mimic the sun and keep the climate temperate and consistent.
Until now, many small indoor growers have back-burnered energy efficiency in favor of just gaining recognition and traction with consumers as a viable alternative for sustainable, local food production. But with the industry growing up and gaining market share, energy efficiency may be the key to taking it mainstream.
A 2021 census of the industry revealed that 64% of growers didn’t have a process in place to reduce their energy footprint, while nearly 40% didn’t track their energy use at all. This presents an opportunity for even simple steps to track and reduce the industry’s energy usage. Doing so would certainly bring more credibility, and cement indoor growing as a leading form of sustainable food production.
Indeed, software programs are already being developed to help indoor farmers better track and manage energy use.
The benefits go beyond satisfying conscientious consumers. Rising energy costs are difficult for producers to shoulder and ultimately get passed on to consumers, who already feel the pinch at the grocery store. Addressing this issue now could alleviate the financial toll of high energy use on both ends of the supply chain.
Innovation in the industry
First, indoor growers can look to other sectors for inspiration. Europe’s wine industry, for example, has taken steps to reduce its energy footprint in recent years. The International Wineries for Climate Action was formed to bring industry leaders together to share best practices and identify energy-intensive points in the wine production process. As a result the entity has developed a plan to achieve zero carbon emissions by 2050.
The indoor farming sector could do the same.
Modern indoor farm operators have another model to look to: greenhouses. With its long history, the greenhouse industry has paved the way for energy reduction. Greenhouse growers pioneered putting plants on tracks to bring the light closer, for instance. They also supplement LEDs with natural light during peak sun hours. There’s much to be learned from cross-industry collaboration with the original indoor growers.
Second, the integration of alternative energy sources like wind and solar offers significant opportunity to improve indoor farming’s energy efficiency in the years ahead. These forms of power often constitute substantial upfront capital costs for growers today, but with the price tag falling — fast — more companies are developing their own sources of green energy.
New York’s Bowery Farming, for instance, uses 100% renewable energy sources, including hydro, to power its operations. A new farm set to open in 2023 by Upward Farms also plans to run on 100% renewable energy. And Scotland-based Intelligent Growth Solutions uses precise automated controls to dramatically reduce energy consumption across its operations.
Third, there can be greater optimization around which controlled-environment growing technologies are used for which crops. Modern indoor growing systems are optimal for salad greens, but they are now increasingly used for more diverse crops, such as berries, broccoli, celery and potatoes. Greenhouses, meanwhile, will continue to play an important role in growing specialty crops like tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers. Staple crops with a longer shelf-lives, like root vegetables, are good candidates for traditional farming.
It’s important for the indoor farming industry to concentrating efforts on where the technologies will be most effective and have the greatest environmental impact.
Indoor growing has the potential to be a critical component in feeding our world sustainably and protecting our planet for future generations. As long as we continue to innovate and work together, this goal is well within our grasp.