Novel farming systems are new methods of farming living ingredients, many of which are traditionally grown outdoors.
Consumers are scrutinizing the agrifood industry more than ever for its widespread use of natural resources such as water and arable land, and for its negative impact on the environment. The agrifood sector is neck and neck with heating and cooling as the global industry producing the most greenhouse gases. Industrial farming can also have a damaging environmental impact with the application of chemicals and fertilizers contributing to soil degradation, drinking water contamination, and run off harming local ecosystems.
As a planet, we are also faced with the challenge of increasing food production despite decreasingly nutrient-dense soil and a warming planet. While some are attempting to lessen the extractive nature of conventional farming in soil, or to create seeds and crops that can thrive in these new conditions, others are working on removing land and soil from the equation altogether.
To alleviate these pressures, startups and innovators are finding new ways to produce food and ingredients with novel farming systems in the hope of doing so more sustainably, using fewer natural resources.
Further, many novel farming systems focus on the farming of fish, insects, and algae which have the potential to alleviate the environmental pressure of increasing global demand for protein, where cattle farming is bearing the majority of the burden.
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Novel farming systems have also emerged as a captivating solution in the eyes of the public and investors precisely because they could change the paradigm of traditional agriculture so dramatically. Though, as we will explore in our upcoming agrifood tech investing report, public and media excitement are not always met with equal investment.
Novel farming systems, as a category of agrifood tech, includes:
- Indoor farms — growing produce in hi-tech greenhouses and vertical farms
- Insect farms — producing protein alternatives for animal and aquaculture feed and for human food
- Aquaculture — producing seafood and sea vegetables including algae
- New living ingredients such as microbes for use in food, as well as for other industries and applications
- Home-based consumer systems using the technology of any of the above
Here is a closer look at the components of our novel farming systems category of startups ahead of the AgFunder MidYear AgriFood Tech Investing Report.
Controlled Environment Agriculture (CEA) or Indoor Agriculture
The concept of farming indoors in not new; greenhouses have been around for centuries. But in recent years, greenhouses and more insulated indoor spaces like warehouses and shipping containers are rapidly picking up pace as a means to grow food closer to consumers, remove many of the unpredictabilities of outdoor agriculture, and drastically reduce the inputs necessary for outdoor farming.
There are only a few key ingredients needed to grow food: light, water, and nutrition. By growing food in a controlled environment, indoor farmers aim to give plants the perfect amount of each, reducing waste, but also maximizing yields. They can also manipulate the doses of each of these ingredients to impact flavor, color, and texture.
Tomatoes, strawberries, peppers, leafy greens, herbs, flowers, and cannabis are all frequently grown in controlled environments. Greenhouses specifically are also an important part of the tree crops industry as most rootstock starts in a greenhouse.
By some estimates, there are more than 40,000 indoor farming operations in the US alone, producing food worth more than $14.8 billion in annual market value. These numbers exclude the cannabis industry, which brings in an additional $6.7 billion in sales.
The different configurations of CEA include greenhouses and indoor vertical farms, and within these two categories, there is much variation in terms of physical growing structures and architecture, delivery systems for light, water, and nutrients, light source, growing medium, automation, data collection, and environmental controls.
Greenhouses are covered structures made of glass or plastic that allow sunlight to get in but offer varying degrees of temperature control. They have been used commercially to grow fruits and vegetables for decades, but there are various ways greenhouse technology is being used today beyond its simplest form of growing plants under glass in pots of soil.
Soilless hydroponic growing systems — where the plants are grown in a watery medium as opposed to soil — have been used in greenhouses for more than a decade by major growers like Village Farms and Backyard Farms. And today, computer vision, artificial intelligence, automation, and precision agriculture techniques are arriving at the greenhouse. Some greenhouses are fully kitted-out with sensors using machine learning to detect disease, facilitate efficient use of space, and identify anomalies both within the environment and with individual plants.
Some greenhouse technology has come a particularly long way, with incidences of hybrid greenhouse and indoor operations growing cannabis, like Supreme Pharmaceuticals, as well as innovative locations — like Gotham Greens above Whole Foods in Brooklyn, New York — and business models.
Main greenhouse crops today include lettuces and, leafy and micro greens, tomatoes, peppers, and cannabis.
Ranging from as small as a shipping container to as large as an airplane hanger, indoor vertical farms are growing steadily in number, although some have already failed in what’s a capital intensive field.
Most operating vertical farms today are growing only leafy greens and microgreens due to the short growing cycles and high yields. There are a few growing strawberries such as Japan’s Ichigo Company.
Vertical farms use LED lights for photosynthesis and some form of hydroponics for water and nutrition. The fairly simple equation is nutrient-enriched water, moved either in a mist or through channels or tanks around the roots of plants. The roots are planted in various media ranging from spun concrete to coconut husks to cloth, which are submerged in the water or mist.
Every one of the elements involved in growing the plants can be manipulated precisely to influence the outcome — such as lighting wavelengths, timing, the types of nutrients, and so on. This can be particularly effective if sophisticated data collection and analytics are in place; many farms claim that their own internally-created software and hardware tools enabling this are their main differentiator.
The largest vertical farms by capital raised include AeroFarms, Bowery Farming, and Plenty which are all starting to use artificial intelligence and machine learning to manage their plants and boost yields.
Robotics are also slowly making their way into indoor agriculture, though they are currently only used for crops that grow in containers such as rootstock for apple, cherry, and almond trees, and in these cases, the robots move the containers as opposed to more complicated tasks. But fruit-picking and sorting robots are on the way with several startups in the space making advancements and raising funding. (Stay tuned for our Farm Robotics deep-dive article coming soon!)
Aquaponics is a smaller subset of indoor farming where farmers grow vegetables integrated with, and on top of, fish farms, so that the waste generated by the fish can fertilize the plants. The technology set up is very similar to a vertical farm, but the monitoring of the input composition and the physical layout differ greatly from operations purchasing plant nutrition. Aquaponics operations, like Edenworks in New York and Organic Nutrition in Florida, sell both vegetables and fish.
Aquaculture is the cultivation of sea creatures and vegetables for human and animal consumption.
According to United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization data from 2010, aquaculture makes up half of the seafood consumed by humans today. This includes the farming of all varieties of fish, along with oysters, scallops, shrimp, mussels, and other shelled creatures. Most of the innovation in this space is currently geared towards fish feed for farmed fish rather than the technology used at the farms themselves. Fish feed is a particularly crucial challenge as currently 30 million tons of wild caught fish per year are used to feed farmed fish, which is a third of global wild fish harvest. With global stocks of wild fish declining, and some sources pointing to the crash in some forage fish populations, this is an unsustainable source of food for farm-raised fish long-term, even with increasingly sustainable practices employed by the fishmeal and fish oil industry. This problem, valued at $100 billion, will likely be solved at least in part by some of the other types of novel farming systems listed here, especially insect farming.
Algae farming represents an underdeveloped sector within novel farming systems but has great market potential. It has been estimated that the algae market will reach $45 billion by 2023 and algae, especially macro algae like edible seaweeds, are farmed in most cases completely without technology or digitalization. Macroalgae can be grown in open water as well as in tanks while most microalgae, which are single-celled, must be grown in a controlled setting. Algae farming startup EnerGaia is growing spirulina (microalgae) on rooftops in Bangkok, Thailand.
Microbe farming is another emerging field with various applications. Ginkgo Bioworks, for example, genetically engineers microbes for partner companies in the flavor, fragrance and food industries. These microbes are primarily forms of yeast or bacteria that can be designed to replace a natural alternative; rose oil, for example, would be expensive for some companies to manufacture as an ingredient given that roses are not a commodity crop. But Ginkgo can manufacture that fragrance or flavor in-house by writing new DNA code to re-program the genome of a microbe to have it do what customers want. These DNA designs are proprietary to Gingko, as well as the robotics and other technology the company uses to culture the microbes, mostly through a fermentation process. Zymergen and Novozymes are other startups growing microbes, in these cases to make agricultural inputs.
Insect & worm farming
Insects and worms are set to become an increasingly important protein source for both animals and humans with demand far outpacing supply. Insect farming is mainly touted as a more sustainable alternative to animal protein, particularly as the quality of the protein insects offer is actually quite high. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO), “insects have a high food conversion rate, e.g., crickets need six times less feed than cattle, four times less than sheep, and twice less than pigs and broiler chickens to produce the same amount of protein.” Further, insects require very little land or energy to produce, and they can be produced quickly and all year round, unlike other animal feedstock such as soybeans. Insects can serve as a protein-rich substitute for the aforementioned wild-caught fish that are often used as aquaculture inputs, potentially turning aquaculture into a sustainable solution to overfishing. Netherlands-based Protix makes animal and fish feed as well as fertilizer from black soldier flies.
Crickets, fruit flies, grasshoppers, and mealworms are all also being cultivated for inclusion in consumer products in this nascent industry. Grasshopper farms like Israel’s Hargol, are racing to get their production capacity up since the demand for alternative proteins for both animals and humans remains much higher than current supply. While very secretive about their designs, many insect farming groups claim to have very high-tech operations using robotics, to create automated insect farming factories, such as Ynsect in France.
Consumer growing systems
Home paramours for almost every novel growing system exist, whether or not they’ve gone mainstream (yes even insect farms). Tabletop hydroponic systems like Plantui, aquaponic systems that have decorative fishtanks topped with produce like Grove, and even mini refrigerator-sized growing towers like Hydro Grow, are available for the shortest farm-to-table experience out there.