a new farming industry
is growing up
Growing populations mean we need more food from less land, so vertical farming may be the key to building a better working world.
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“The culture here is very much one of challenging the status quo,” says vertical farmer and AeroFarms co-founder Mark Oshima. “Our mission originally was about enabling food production to nourish communities with safe, locally grown food. This past year, we’ve changed that to aim to grow the best plants possible for the betterment of humanity.”
“When we started AeroFarms, we wanted to identify the best technologies to meet the need for more efficient urban agriculture to feed expanding populations,” he continues. “We researched for months, looking at technology from all over the world. And then found a possible solution almost in our backyard.”
This research phase led Oshima, who focuses on monetization, and co-founder David Rosenberg, a former EY US Entrepreneur Of The Year finalist, to Ed Harwood, now the firm’s Chief Science Officer. Formerly an academic at Cornell University, researching how technology could help farmers, Harwood had left the lab to try out his ideas in the real world on a farm in upstate New York – not quite the New Jersey-based AeroFarms’ back yard, but certainly not that far.
“We researched for months, looking at technology from all over the world. And then found a possible solution almost in our backyard.”
Mark Oshima, AeroFarms co-founder
Demand for food is increasing, innovators are using new technology to design sustainable …
10 Jul 2019 EYQ
The big idea
“What makes AeroFarms unique is the breadth of experiences we have,” says Oshima. “It’s that nexus of all three of us thinking about how we could change agriculture, create more efficient farms and improve the environment.” The three AeroFarms founding partners decided to continue this philosophy of complementary collaboration in expanding the vertical farming company, now 150-strong.
“We have mechanical engineers, electrical engineers, industrial engineers, plant scientists, horticulturalists, crop physiologists, ecologists, and biological engineers all in-house,” Oshima explains. “But we’re also about commercialization – finding ways to turn this technology into large-scale food production – so we have also brought together people with expertise around supply chains, food safety, distribution, and preparation.”
Part of the challenge in developing next-generation farming – to feed a world population predicted to hit 10 billion by 2050 – is that the skillsets needed are so diverse, no one person, or even one organization, could hope to have them all.
“We’re now partnering with universities to develop the next generation curriculum that’s needed with this kind of farming,” Oshima explains. “Not only is there not that expertise in understanding this but there’s also not the workforce. So we’re in the process of helping develop that.”
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Controlled environment agriculture allows farmers to control risks related to weather, pests, and seasonal cycles. Stacking units mean more crops can be grown on minimal acreage. AeroFarms is one of these firms.
And it adds some of its own ingredients to the vertical farming equation. Instead of soil, its crops are suspended in a fine mist of water and nutrients. This is known as aeroponics and saves 95% of water compared to soil agriculture, and 40% compared with hydroponics (where roots are submerged in water).
Lighting is also controlled – photosynthesis only requires light from the red and blue extremes of the visible spectrum (chlorophyll reflects back the green mid-range). AeroFarms makes sure its plants get only this light, improving efficiency and reducing energy costs.
And the mission seems to be working. The company claims its yields are – on average – 390 times higher per square foot than those of field agriculture.
Vertical farming practices like those utilized by Aerofarms and others, like Grow Pod Solutions or BrightFarms could lead to extremely efficient forms of food production. Vertical farms can be set up in the middle of urban areas, enabling the production of healthy, nutritious fresh food at the point of maximum demand, reducing the need for transportation and storage.
What we can learn
Vertical farming could have an impact far beyond allowing stores to grow to produce in-house. “Centuries ago, the producer and the consumer had a personal relationship based on proximity and individual needs,” says Rob Dongoski, EY Agribusiness Leader. “Over time, we’ve created a distance.
“Now, consumers again increasingly want to understand their food’s producer, the nutritional value, whether it’s organic – and they want to be able to trust the food they’re eating is healthy. The way you do that is data.”
But the full potential of data is yet to be realized in the food production and supply chains.
“The current food system is facing significant reinvention,” Dongoski continues, echoing Oshima’s identification of the status quo needing to change. “If we have an e-coli break out on romaine lettuce, we clear all the shelves, because we can’t track the outbreak effectively. Controlled farming allows us to do that tracking. And more generally, consumers want to know how and where their food is produced. This is difficult in traditional production but a controlled environment offers some real promise.”
“The kind of highly-controlled technology and data-driven approach to farming is the future,” Dongoski says. “When you’re farming in an indoor environment, you control all the variables, therefore, you don’t need herbicides, pesticides, and so on. It’s an environment with much stronger biosecurity that ensures safety and trust.”
However, the benefits go beyond data into becoming a genuine societal necessity. “With the projected rate of urbanization – you have some forecasts upwards of 70% – the traditional concept of growing food out in the countryside and bringing it into towns and cities becomes logistically difficult on many, many levels,” Dongoski says. “Vertical farms, which can grow food in the heart of cities, are likely to become essential to urban food supply as the world’s population heads towards 10 billion by 2050.”
“This increased proximity of food production to where it’s going to be consumed in cities will, in turn, boost the sustainability of indoor farming even further. Not only will there be less need for transportation from the countryside to the city, but you also remove seasonality from the equation,” he continues. “Rather than flying apples halfway round the world to meet demand, you create new ways of thinking about food. This approach of bringing together people with different skillsets and experiences simply means they’re ahead of the curve.”
“This increased sustainability, data insight, visibility of provenance, and the control all of that will bring, will enable entirely new ways of thinking about food. AeroFarms approach of bringing together people with different skillsets and experiences simply means they’re ahead of the curve.”
“As consumers demand more local crops and large row crop farmers continue to innovate their production practices, opportunities in controlled environment agriculture will continue to emerge for farmers and non-farmers alike.”
Vertical farming is an alternative to feeding a growing global population sustainably and efficiently. New Jersey-based AeroFarms is one of the first businesses to work on this solution.