It’s no secret that the world’s food system needs help. Our growing global population is urbanizing at a rapid rate – it’s estimated that 9 billion people will live in cities by 2100 – and traditional food sources will fall woefully short of being able to meet their needs. Vertical indoor farming is poised to become a transformational and indispensable part of our food system as we face the challenge of feeding those people. We’ve begun to see the first glimpse of successful vertical farming in the market, and system-wide automation will be the key to unlocking its full potential.
Already, urban dwellers around the world are enjoying freshly harvested produce grown locally on spare rooftops, in old shipping containers, and in repurposed warehouses. These farms provide tremendous benefits to consumers and producers: they can grow pesticide-free, nutritious leafy greens year-round in a controlled, space-, time- and resource-efficient way. The industry has experienced a rapid acceleration of growth and interest, with the likes of Jeff Bezos and Eric Schmidt placing early bets on the potential of this industry. Along with substantial investments, major partnerships with airlines, retailers, and governments are increasing the presence of vertically grown produce in our day-to-day lives.
However, despite the demonstrable consumer demand and investment around vertical farming, there is a significantly low volume of vertically farmed produce in the market. Why would this be? These farms are offering fresher and cleaner food than urban consumers have traditionally had access to before, and these products are arriving at a time when the local and organic food industries are positively booming.
What it comes down to is a simple fact that vertical farming is currently not a profitably scalable venture. In 2017, 73% of vertical farms were not profitable, even considering the premium at which their products are often sold. The vast majority of vertical farms have not been able to successfully expand to different locations and different markets. Overcoming this hurdle is essential if vertical farming is to capture a meaningful share of the retail and food service market in the US and abroad. The only way that vertically farmed produce can become a mass-market product is through system-wide automation.
Currently, no vertical farm has automated sufficiently or successfully enough to scale effectively or be price competitive in the current mass-market supply chain. This is not due to a lack of intellectual or capital resources, but rather the tremendous inherent complexity of automating the growth of a living plant and replicating it continuously. Given this incredibly high barrier to entry, why would developing system-wide automation be a worthwhile endeavor?
Agrilyst reported that in 2017, labor accounted for 56% of production costs for vertical farms. Labor remains the single highest operating cost for even the most well-capitalized vertical farms in the world. Vertical farms must find more efficient ways to operate through strategic and sparing use of human labor in order to overcome this tremendous barrier. Total system automation must be developed if vertical farms hope to deliver on current promises and change our global food system.
Vertical farming companies have known this for a long time. The phrase “automated vertical farming” has been touted for many years, although without a clear definition, standardization, or validation process. Below is the first proposed framework to standardize levels of automation in vertical farms. Taking principles from categories of car automation, the framework below can be used to categorize the current and future automation potential of vertical farming companies and technologies.
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