It’s been well publicized that our planet’s population is growing faster than our ability to feed it. In the next 30 years, in the midst of a rapidly changing climate, we will need to feed 10 billion people with less water and less arable land. Faced with fewer resources, successfully feeding the world will require more innovative and reliable ways to grow safe food. Fortunately, agriculture is the world’s oldest, most adaptable industry. If we take a look back at some of humankind’s earliest cultivation practices, we might get some ideas for how to reshape the future of our food system.
Historical Precursors to the Modern Indoor Vertical Farm
The Babylonians are the innovators behind the most well-known example of early advanced agriculture systems. Built nearly 2,500 years ago, their hanging gardens are thought to be the earliest prototype of a vertical farm (vertical refers to the practice of growing the plants upward to maximize growing space).
Beyond this ancient Wonder of the World, there are myriad examples of how civilizations have worked to manipulate their environments to make farming easier and/or more productive. One thousand years ago, the Mesoamerican Aztec society pioneered a form of hydroponics (hydroponics is the science of growing plants without soil in a nutrient-rich solution). The Aztecs grew plants on marshy ‘rafts’ suspended in rivers and shallow lake beds. The remnants of these small, rectangular areas of fertile, arable land, known as chinampas, can still be seen in Mexico City today.
More “recently,” in the 1600s, the French and Dutch grew Mediterranean fruits in their chilly Northern European climate using elaborate stone “fruit walls” that served to capture heat during the day and release it during cold nights, protecting the fruit.
Controlled Environment Agriculture: What is it?
These farming methods are all variations of a practice known today as Controlled Environment Agriculture, or CEA. In its modern form, CEA is a type of farming defined by growing in spaces whose conditions can be controlled and manipulated to match the needs of specific plants. Similar to smart thermostats in modern homes, wherein certain rooms can be set to different temperatures, today’s smart farms allow for variations in humidity, temperature, light, and nutrients from area to area within a single farm. This means that different plants can grow in one indoor farm, but have their environments customized to their individual needs.
Modern Day Vertical Farming
Vertical farming, the latest innovation in CEA, which is how Bowery Farming grows its crops, is…exactly what it sounds like: farming upward. Unlike traditional farming, or should we say “horizontal farming,” where plants are arranged in rows spread across vast tracts of land, vertical farms like Bowery’s place rows of crops on top of each other in what are creatively called “stacks,” all of which are contained in an indoor warehouse environment. One of the most obvious benefits of indoor vertical farms is space—a lot more space. Vertical farms are able to dramatically increase productivity per acre by accommodating many more crops to grow upward, all while occupying the same amount of land. But how does it all work?
The Infrastructure of Modern Vertical Farming at Bowery
Starting at the ground level, traditional farming in the field relies on soil as the main growing medium. This soil is reinforced over time, through manual inputs, such as organic or inorganic chemical fertilizers, to contain enough nutrients to support healthy crops. Soil is also the reason farming isn’t spread evenly around the country. In rocky, unglaciated areas like the mountain west, the soil lacks the nutrients or composition required to grow plants with scale. Conversely, on flat, heavily glaciated areas of the Midwest, layers of nutrient-dense topsoil (the result of glaciers crushing rocks and organic matter 10,000 years ago) give plants a perfect environment to thrive.
Vertical farms don’t use soil, and are therefore not bound to one geographical location. Instead, plants can grow hydroponically, aeroponically, or even aquaponically. Just like the Aztec method referenced earlier, Bowery grows hydroponically. This means that at Bowery, plants’ roots are suspended in nutrient-rich water. This filtered and purified water is packed with a carefully calculated mix of plant-specific nutrients, such as nitrogen, phosphorus, and calcium, and carried throughout the grow system to the plants.
Bowery’s indoor vertical farms also don’t use sunlight, another advantage over traditional farming. Whereas traditional farms’ growing cycles are determined by seasonal variations in temperature and sunlight, indoor vertical farms supply their own light source for year-round photosynthesis through energy-efficient LED lights. In fact, as the cost of LED lighting has gone down, there has been a correlated increase in vertical farming systems around the world. Without the lights, nothing could grow. At Bowery’s smart farms, the lights are connected to a central operating system, the BoweryOS, which controls not only when the lights go on and off, but also the intensity of the lighting itself.
Automation unlocks Bowery’s ability to give individualized plant attention at scale. The BoweryOS tracks everything growing in one of our farms, starting from the second a seed is planted. From that point forward, our operating system tells our Modern Farmers how many days that seed should germinate, when it should be moved into the grow room, and when it’s ready to harvest.
Why is Vertical Farming Important for Our Future Food System?
While this elaborate system might seem extravagant compared to the Old MacDonald image of farming we grew up with, there is reason to believe in indoor farming as an important way forward.
This next frontier of farming boasts some important advantages: it allows farmers to produce more output, use fewer resources, and reduce transportation by locating operations closer to the point of consumption. At Bowery, we’re developing and implementing technological solutions into our indoor vertical farms to address many of the key issues humans are facing, including:
Irresponsible Water Usage:
About 70% of the world is covered by water, but only 2.5% is fresh. Only 1% percent of freshwater is easily accessible — and agriculture consumes 70% of it globally. That’s a lot of water!
Because Bowery grows hydroponically in a protected, indoor environment, we can give crops a precise amount of purified, nutrient-rich water to thrive. Water is continuously recirculated in our irrigation system, resulting in significant water savings compared to field-grown crops.
Loss of Arable Land:
Over the past 40 years, we’ve lost 30% of Earth’s arable land due to damaging practices, such as urban encroachment and pollution, that cause both topsoil erosion and poor soil health.
Bowery turns industrial spaces outside of cities into smart indoor farms where every square foot is put to use year-round. Our efficient design stacks crops vertically, making our farms 100x more productive than field-grown operations, all while using the same footprint of land.
Use of Pesticides:
Every year, the U.S. uses more than one billion pounds of pesticides, which can impact ecosystems and diminish soil health. An estimated 70% of U.S. produce has traces of pesticides.
Bowery grows pesticide-free produce in a controlled, protected environment.
A Fragmented Food System:
The precarious global food supply chain is susceptible to environmental and economic disruption. Climate and crisis events such as COVID-19 have laid bare the fragility of our food system.
Bowery’s indoor, vertically integrated farms can grow 365 days a year and are located right outside of cities. This means our farms offer a secure, fresh, and consistent supply of food to local communities.
Since 2006, leafy greens have been involved in at least 46 multistate E. coli outbreaks (mostly due to contaminated irrigation water from nearby livestock operations). Tracing the origin of outbreaks is difficult because greens from various farms are mixed at processing plants and then redistributed by third parties.
At Bowery, our indoor environment not only offers safety from pathogens, but it also enables us to control the entire journey of every crop, from seed to store, at an unprecedented scale. A fully traceable and simplified fresh food supply chain, which doesn’t rely on third party intermediaries and delivers straight to a grocery store, drastically reduces vulnerabilities to outbreaks.
Can Indoor Vertical Farms Feed the World?
While indoor vertical farming provides unique advantages to the problems we’re going to face to feed a growing planet, the output of these farms alone wouldn’t be enough to feed the entire population. Traditional and indoor growers must continue to work together to create a more resilient, sustainable food system.
At Bowery, our agricultural scientists are continuing to research what’s beyond leafy greens, diversifying the potential output from vertical farms in the near future.
The Future of Indoor Vertical Farming
Interested in what the future of indoor farming has in store? Take a deeper dive into the efficiencies Bowery is working toward by leveraging machine learning, artificial intelligence, and new software to pave a path toward a greener future.