Words by Poonam Dagli and Josh Martin
According to a 2017 report released by the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, 9.8 billion people will live on Earth in 2050. This projection marks a 34 percent population increase from today’s 7.3 billion headcount and raises the dire question: Will there be enough food? The rising population pushes against natural resource limits, including available arable land and fresh water. Forests occupy 72 percent of total unfarmed habitable land, yet deforestation results in ecosystem loss and emits massive amounts of greenhouse gases. Forests are carbon sinks and the lungs of the earth, breathing in carbon dioxide and breathing out oxygen. Assuming deforestation is not an option, farmers must find ways to use existing land and water more efficiently—a particularly challenging task given plateauing yields on industrial agriculture. Nevertheless, breakthroughs in agricultural science and technology, policy incentives for farmers to conserve resources, and greater awareness among consumers could potentially prevent a global food crisis. Those confronting these problems may have the same goals, but the methods currently being used are quite disparate: Some farmers are returning to small-scale, soil-based models of agriculture, while vertical farms are cutting out the need for soil altogether.
“Seventy percent of freshwater goes to agriculture,” says David Rosenberg, cofounder and CEO of AeroFarms in Newark, New Jersey, whose work on the World Economic Forum’s Global Water Task Force inspired him to find a solution to the depletion and contamination of fresh water. Rosenberg partnered with Marc Oshima and Ed Harwood to convert several industrial buildings— a former steel mill, a nightclub, and a paintball arena—into the world’s largest vertical farm by growing capacity and the first commercial aeroponics production facility. Aeroponics is a growing method that eliminates sunlight and soil. Instead, air-exposed roots are misted with a solute made of water, dissolved oxygen, and essential macro and micro nutrients, including carbon, nitrogen, iron, and other elements. Through aeroponics, AeroFarms uses 95 percent less water than a commercial field farm while achieving 390 times the productivity per square foot.
Stacked in rows as high as the buildings are tall, a variety of greens grow indoors in a hyper-controlled environment, eliminating the need for pesticides. Sensors gather 130,000 data points on factors including pH levels, nutrient concentration, LED light wavelength frequency and intensity, and atmospheric conditions—relative humidity, as well as airflow rate and direction. The information is analyzed by AeroFarms’ data scientists: “We’re as much a data company as we are a farming company,” says Oshima, referring to AeroFarms’ partnership with Dell Technologies. “Every harvest becomes an iterative point we can further optimize.”
Yet, even with advanced data collection and machine-learning algorithms, how have vertical farmers hacked the process and successfully grown plants without soil and sun? The answer is that they’ve deconstructed the essential functions of soil and sunlight and replaced the inputs with nutrient mists and LED lights. Think Soylent for plants.
“Soil is a medium upon which water is absorbed and nutrients are stored,” explains Sam Bertram, CEO and cofounder of OnePointOne, a vertical farm in Santa Clara, California. The company’s name serves as a reminder that 1.1 billion people did not know where their next meal was coming from when Sam and his brother John first began researching technological solutions for feeding the world. In field farming, water often “evaporates, sinks down into the water table, or misses the root structure altogether,” continues Bertram. In comparison, misting roots is a more reliable means of nutrient uptake, as well as being more efficient, since mist contains more oxygen than water. Oxygen quickens transpiration, the movement of water and nutrients through the plant, which helps the plants stay cool and sends nutrients to the leaves for photosynthesis.
Sunlight traditionally provides the energy for photosynthesis, and plant growth varies based on exposure to different wavelengths on the light spectrum. Aeroponics farms rely instead on LED light, which can mimic sunlight. This allows the farms to control plant size, texture, and even taste by emitting a plant’s preferred wavelength. “We look at all the organoleptic properties, like smell and taste,” says Oshima. “Our high bar is that no salad dressing is needed. People are enjoying the greens by themselves.” According to Oshima, what excites buyers is that “they feel like their palates have been woken up again.” In collaboration with local chefs, Oshima is asking, “How do we make the arugula more peppery, or the mustard greens with more heat, the romaine more sweet yet still crunchy?” Experimentation with these questions is made possible by an LED-controlled light spectrum.
Beyond data, mist, and LED lights, Bertram believes infrared cameras give vertical farmers an edge. Human eyes, though good at pattern recognition, “can [only] see wavelengths between 400 and 700 nanometers,” he explains, “and plants manifest their pest and disease stressors first in a wavelength that is outside the visual spectrum of human beings.” Using infrared cameras in conjunction with a variety of other sensors allows vertical farmers the ability to detect problems much sooner than a human eye normally could.
“What’s often glazed over,” says Bertram of the setup, “is HVAC—heating, ventilation, and air conditioning.” One of the biggest challenges for vertical farms is maintaining a static temperature and humidity within a dynamic system. “Each plant transpires about a gallon of water over its lifetime. Your system needs to remove that moisture from the atmosphere, and recycle it in some cases, but let the plant grow between 50–70 degrees Fahrenheit,” he describes. “To implement a constant atmosphere throughout the entire warehouse is a very difficult thing to do, and it’s too often overlooked.”
Labor, electricity, and HVAC are the largest operational expenses for vertical farms, typically in that order. Whether vertical farms will be profitable after seed funding runs out has yet to be proven. Produce from vertical farms, “can be competitive as a premium brand. Selling at commodity prices is a little ways out, and by that, I mean many months away,” says Brock Leach, COO of Oasis Biotech, a 215,000-square-foot vertical farm in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Oasis Biotech, a vertical hydroponic farm, shares AeroFarms and OnePointOne’s goal of scaling operations across the world to dense urban areas and selling local produce, but with a twist: Oasis Biotech is largely vertically integrated and is in the business of selling its technology along with its produce. A subsidiary of San’an Optoelectronics, China’s largest manufacturer of LED lights, Oasis Biotech is operating throughout the value chain. The company sells products such as lights, grow equipment, and a 6,000-square-foot vertical farm referred to as the “6k concept.” They also offer services, such as designing custom farms, trainings on how to run these businesses, and financing.
“We’re working on our 6k concept, a small farm meant to be deployed and used on a small business level,” says Leach. The concept is still in development: “Our parent company just broke land on the prototype,” he continues. The price points for the 6k concept are currently unknown.
“In 1940, 40 percent of the world’s population had some role within the agriculture industry. Today, it’s between one to two percent, and we are feeding millions more people,” comments OnePointOne’s Bertram on the impact of industrial farming on labor. If vertical farms and robotics succeed, we may enter another technological renaissance, one in which there is no direct contact between plants and people throughout the growing process. Oasis Biotech, for one, is developing Uplift: “an unmanned produce robot, automated from seed to harvest,” says Leach. Uplift could “reduce direct labor by 85 percent, reducing total cost of production by a little over 40 percent. That allows us to grow more things at a competitive price.”
From a health and safety perspective, people are a conduit for pathogens. “We will be able to tell the consumer of our produce that they are the first human being who ever touched it,” says Bertram, who studied mechanical engineering and robotics. With vertical farming roboticized, the human role would be to run operations, analyze data, observe plant health, continue to optimize the process, and market the product.
Environmentally, the carbon footprint for vertical farms can be substantial, as carefully controlling the indoor climate and replacing free sunlight with LED lights is energy intensive. “It’s the source at the power plant that matters,” writes Tamar Haspel in a Washington Post article on the viability of vertical farms, adding that the carbon footprint varies whether electricity is generated from a coal-fired versus a nuclear power plant.
Other limitations exist for vertical farms. If the entire agricultural industry went offline tomorrow could vertical farms feed the world? Not unless we’re able to subsist on salad greens. “It’s highly unlikely that in the next 10 years vertical farms will produce a high caloric crop like corn at the scale that industrial farms currently can,” says Bertram, who sees a complementary relationship between industrial and vertical farming. As he believes, “we’re maxed out on productive agricultural land in the United States and around the world, and indoor farming is a 100 percent necessary supplement to the farming industry.”
As vertical farms are eliminating soil, farms like Singing Frogs in Sebastopol, California are doubling down on its use. Owners Elizabeth and Paul Kaiser are applying the longstanding principles of soil science and management published by the USDA—and they believe that these principles could be applied to any patch of soil on the planet. Singing Frogs Farm gained publicity over the last several years for generating about $100,000 in annual revenue per acre. Since transitioning entirely to a highly intensive, ecologically beneficial, no-till soil management system in 2011, “we are bringing in 10 to 20 times more [revenue per acre] than other farms,” says Elizabeth. Their high production three-acre farm feeds around 350 local families each year.
The Kaisers draw inspiration from The Gambia, where they met while serving in the Peace Corps. “I was hoping to see if I, as an American, was human enough to live on two dollars a day,” recounts Elizabeth. There, they first learned to farm in a hot, dry environment. The necessity of water conservation forced a different approach, as tillage is a thirsty practice.
So, why isn’t everyone departing from tilling—a process of agitating the soil to “wipe out what’s there and create a blank slate to put in human food crops,” as defined by Paul—and taking up this method?
“Tillage is a culture, it’s what everyone learns,” says Elizabeth. “If you have a picture of agriculture in your mind, it’s a tractor and plow.” Yet the short term benefits of tilling, including killing weeds and creating fluffy, aerated soil beneficial for crop cultivation, in turn destroy microbial ecosystems. “The history of humans on the planet since we’ve begun doing agriculture has been about tillage,” explains Paul. Over the course of 30 years, a farmer would rotate between roughly six to eight fields, knowingly using and abusing each for three to five years, and return to the original field 30 years later, maintaining soil fertility through slash and burn, tillage, or a similar process.
“That was fine when the world’s population was a billion people or fewer. We had plenty of space. That was a luxury. Now, with billions of people on this planet, for the first time, we are learning how to farm in the exact same space forever. How do we make this acre of land productive and healthy and resilient for the next million years? Which means taking care of the soil biology now,” says Paul.
A key component of soil biology is soil organic matter (SOM). Fifty-seven percent of SOM is carbon, meaning that this layer of living and decomposing organisms sequesters considerable carbon. Tilling breaks larger clumps of soil into smaller clumps, increasing surface area and exposing carbon and nitrogen-based soil compounds to oxygen. Globally, SOM has decreased from six to ten percent to one to two percent. Carbon that could be used to support plant growth and hold water is now contributing to greenhouse gas emissions. “Every one percent increase in soil organic matter can help soil hold 20,000 gallons more water per acre,” according to the Natural Resources Defense Council. Elizabeth notes, “We’ve reduced our watering by 75 percent on our farm because the soil just holds it there.” The soil structure creates resilience during both drought and flooding by increasing water-holding capacity and decreasing erosion, similar to how a strong community can protect people during crises.
Soil management extends beyond eliminating disturbances like tillage. High-intensity production—or replacing a crop harvested in the morning with another variety planted in the afternoon—keeps soil covered and feeds existing microbial interactions. The transplants are ideally hearty: “The nursery is an extremely important part of our operation,” explains Elizabeth. “We want to keep transplants in the nursery as long as possible, just like us humans. We don’t kick our kids out on the day they’re born.” The constant photosynthesis and soil cover provided by this method suppress weeds and remove pest problems.
“Last month, we had a bobcat on the property and I lost a lamb,” says Elizabeth, obviously with mixed feelings, “but to me it's such a privilege to have life and even predators around.” A healthy, balanced ecosystem with predator-prey relationships allows the Kaisers to grow vegetables without pesticides, which have been proven to weaken bee immunity and are commonly applied in industrial and even some certified organic farming. Their attitude towards pests shifted after changing soil management practices: “That took care of nearly all pest problems on the farm,” says Paul.
There are more microorganisms in a teaspoon of soil than there are people on this planet, according to the USDA. “We are only barely starting to understand the relationships,” Elizabeth muses. “By creating a system that’s healthy, we’ve found lots of benefits.”
Such benefits include economic viability, providing employment, and creating a stronger connection to their community. The Kaisers have prioritized outreach because of the systemic change proper soil management can have, including water retention and carbon sequestration.
“There’s an old adage that says the best fertilizer is a farmer’s footstep,” explains Elizabeth. The Kaisers are proponents of small-scale farming because of the power it gives the farmer to closely monitor the plants. “People said, ‘You guys are successful on three acres? Let’s do it on 3,000.’ But that’s not the answer,” she continues.
So, can anyone create their own ecosystem, grow nutrient-rich food, and help sequester carbon? “The principles of soil management work whether you’re in the Sahara or 6,000 feet [up] in Colorado. Do you have a clay-based soil? Is the climate hot and dry? There are changes you need to make, but soil is soil,” according to Elizabeth.
The similarities between vertical farming and the movement toward small-scale, ecologically regenerative farming can be found in their desire to feed local communities and grow produce without sprays like pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides.
Others are attempting to solve problems caused by industrial agriculture and improve plateauing yields with even more advanced technological innovations. Startups like Indigo Ag are coating seeds with microbes that allow wheat to take on legumes’ interactions with nitrogen, which mimics biodiverse crop rotation and a microbe-rich soil environment. Genetic engineering is shifting away from transgenic mutation, which takes the genes from one species and inserts them into another, to a more sophisticated approach using CRISPR-Cas9 genome editing technology, which does not mix genes of different species.
Still, technology alone can’t solve an impending food crisis. “Policy should be performance-based,” says AeroFarms’ Rosenberg. “Outcomes matter, not which technology you’re using.”
“[Oasis Biotech is] able to grow 1,000 pounds of lettuce per day with the same amount of water a household of four uses,” says Leach. Water and farming are closely related: Five billion people will live in regions affected by water scarcity in 2050, according to a U.N. World Water Development report, and those regions will need incentives to use less water (as opposed to the “use it or lose it” water policy in the Western U.S., which incentivizes farmers to use excess water, lest they be allocated less the following year).
Change happens when consumers ask smart questions. Rosenberg challenges us to ask, “Where does my food come from?” and “What does triple-washed mean?” (It means your favorite organic salad greens from Whole Foods are often triple-washed to remove pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides, in addition to removing dirt. Consumers are often misled by marketing ploys.)
Leach wants consumers to ask how far their food has traveled. Currently, the majority of produce in the United States is grown in the water-scarce states of California and Arizona and shipped across the country. “The average pound [of food travels] 1,500 miles before it gets to your plate,” says Leach.
Back at Singing Frogs Farm, Elizabeth Kaiser walks out of the door and squints through the 6 AM fog. She ambles through hedgerows to rows of cabbages and vibrant green kale shoots gleaming from the nutrient-rich soil. It makes you wonder what drives some individuals to dedicate their lives to feeding others, when so many are content to go about their routines and disconnect from food. “Worldwide, the majority of food is grown on small farms of less than two acres,” says Elizabeth. “We need people connected to the land, people connected to their food, and smaller farms that are not sending food across the nation or the world but that are feeding their community. The majority of our food stays within 15 miles of our farm. That’s our community and that’s what’s important to me.”
The problem is a local one: It’s about feeding our mothers, brothers, sisters, teachers, mechanics, and others. The people most qualified to do something about it, according to Elizabeth Kaiser, are you and me—normal, everyday people with backyards or a porch and a few hours to spare. It’s a movement we can all be a part of and it starts with a simple question: Where does my food come from?