By now, the images of shelves full of perfect greens in hulking warehouses, stacked floor to ceiling in sterile environs and illuminated by high-powered LED lights, have become familiar. Food futurists and industry leaders say these high-tech vertical farming operations are the future of agriculture — able to operate anywhere, virtually invincible against pests, pathogens, and poor weather, and producing local, fresh, high-quality, lower-carbon food year-round.
That future seemed one step closer to reality last year when San Francisco-based indoor farming startup Plenty, which grows a variety of salad and leafy greens hydroponically (without soil) and uses artificial lighting in facilities in three locations, announced that it had raised a whopping $200 million in funding from the SoftBank Vision Fund, whose investors include Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.
Flush with cash, Plenty quickly opened a 100,000-square-foot indoor farm outside Seattle that promised to produce 4.5 million pounds of greens annually—and testing some varieties not yet grown for the masses at scale, such as strawberries and tomatoes, at its research and development farm in Wyoming. To Plenty’s leadership and many observers, the cash influx signaled the economic promise of growing food indoors without sunlight and with less soil and water than field farming.
“My reaction [to the $200 million round] was both that of validation, excitement,” said Matt Barnard, Plenty’s co-founder and CEO, over a manner of farming he says yields 350 times the produce per acre on one percent of the water used by dirt farming. “Now we must move with speed and efficiency if we’re to accomplish our mission of bringing people worldwide an experience that’s healthier for them and the planet.”
Not everyone is in agreement.
“My first thought was, ‘we could build a lot of greenhouses for $200 million,’” recalls Neil Mattson, a professor of plant science at Cornell and one of the country’s leading academic voices on indoor agriculture, who’s found that high-tech greenhouses that harness sunlight are more cost- and carbon-friendly than vertical farms that use artificial light.
Most vertical farmers are only hoping to claim a percentage of the conventional produce market, not replace it. To these founders and their investors, the market for lettuce and greens, especially — grown primarily in California and Arizona and shipped worldwide — is ripe for disruption. E. coli outbreaks like the one that hit Arizona-grown romaine lettuce earlier this year, killing a handful of people and sickening hundreds, only further their case.But behind futurists’ fervent predictions about indoor agriculture, claims about product quality, and sexy technology lies a reality known by industry insiders but too often missing from media coverage: The future success of this nascent industry is still very much an open question.
The astronomical capital costs associated with starting a large hydroponic farm (compared to field and greenhouse farming), its reliance on investor capital and yet-to-be-developed technology, and challenges around energy efficiency and environmental impact make vertical farming anything but a sure bet. And even if vertical farms do scale, there’s no clear sense of whether brand-loyal consumers, en masse, will make the switch from field-grown produce to foods grown indoors.