As society evolves, food systems are changing in tandem. Over the past 40 years, more than one-third of arable land has been lost. Consequently, the agriculture industry in its entirety which includes the lifecycle of produce is heavily impacted. This comes as the world’s population is expected to exceed 9 billion by 2050, with two-thirds of the population living in urban areas. To adequately account for this rise in demand and agricultural instability, current food supply systems need to increase by over 75%.
Climate change and its disruption of global weather patterns and increase in extreme events is responsible for notable shortages and rises in inaccessibility to produce, including lettuce. Large-scale indoor vertical agriculture therefore positions itself with stability as a vital agricultural producer. Indoor vertical farms and their optimal growing conditions for a wide range of crops including leafy greens, strawberries, and tomatoes allows for year-round harvests at increased yields. Notably, vertically farmed agriculture requires zero pesticide and herbicide usage that traditional methods often utilize. Hence, produce are both safer and healthier for consumption and available in stable harvests.
The increase of indoor vertical agriculture is driven by sustainable transitions, in an environmental, economic, and social sense. It stands as one of the most important sustainable practices being that indoor vertical farms use 95% less water and 98% less land than conventional agriculture. With facilities built in closer proximity to distribution centers, food miles and emissions are vastly reduced as well. Substantial capital investments — including the $400 million series E funding that Plenty Inc. received to sell their produce in all California Walmart stores — are also driving the introduction of more large-scale indoor vertical farms across the country.
Job creation is another byproduct, as each facility requires workers for the construction in addition to all positions within finished facilities. In 2022, Plenty Inc. finished their second largest facility in Compton, CA, with a mission of looking at “food justice as racial justice,” while creating over 100 new jobs. This is just one example of the larger community impact that indoor vertical agriculture brings to the table.
It is important to note that the energy usage associated with the majority of vertical farms today is quite high. In order to power the technology, LED lighting, and other systems used within the facilities, copious amounts of energy is required. As clean energy is becoming more available, this energy usage can be mitigated. Renewable energy such as solar and wind can assist in the sustainable and clean energy transitions within these large-scale vertical farms.
Despite the sustainable viability and health benefits, overall consumer and institutional awareness of indoor vertical farming and the associated produce is not as widely known. There is a very apparent gap in the market in regards to communication and understanding of indoor vertical agriculture. This is in part due to lack of research within the industry and lack of access to products, creating a divide within the industry. Vertically-farmed produce is not yet offered nationally, but with increased investment more farms are set to be built across the country, including the largest vertical farming research facility which is set to be finished in 2023 in Laramie, Wyoming by Plenty Inc. The future of indoor vertical agriculture is growing alongside their produce, with further innovations and achievements coming soon.
As part of my research here at The Dynamic Sustainability Lab and in efforts to garner an understanding of consumer perceptions, buyer preferences, and overall comprehension of vertically-farmed produce, I have developed a short 12-question survey.
After analyzing the responses from this survey, we hope to move forward with recommendations on an institutional buyer standpoint, in addition to surveying and gaining a deeper understanding of grocery sustainability transitions. The goal is to expand the awareness of sustainable agriculture practices as well as promote bio-based sustainable transitions in relation to net-zero carbon commitments.
Please take a moment to participate in our research survey linked here.
Framke Vitale is an undergraduate student researcher at the DSL. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.