The Rise of Indoor Agriculture

Darryn Keiller, Chairman of Autogrow spoke at the 2016 Ag Innovation Showcase as a part of the Opening Keynote: Views from the Farm on Tuesday, September 13th. This post was originally published on the Ag Innovation Showcase Blog.

Indoor ag is here to stay, and it has nowhere to go but up. Literally.

What is Indoor Agriculture? With so many names, sometimes it’s hard to tell. It’s been labelled as protected cropping, controlled environment agriculture, greenhouse, glasshouse, grow rooms, urban and vertical growing.

It is, of course, all of the above, and more. In its broadest definition, it also seeks to claim aeroponics (another variation of methodology) and aquaponics, or more colloquially ‘fish farms.’

Let’s look at a few facts. Mexico is now the World’s 10th ranked producer of tomatoes, with more than 10,000 hectares of ‘under cover’ greenhouse production. That bears repeating. 10,000 hectares of ‘under cover’!

Indoor ag’s range of possible crops is staggering. Just like its outdoor cousin, indoor ag functions as both a producer of volume commodity crops e.g. lettuces and tomatoes, to specialist crops including herbs and micro greens, peppers and berries. Changes in dietary needs, especially among the economy-driving middle class, are fueling the rapid growth of specialty growers and the diversification of existing mass producers attracted to the preferential economics of higher value foods.

Indoor Ag Technology
Still don’t believe me? Let’s take a quick look at technology in this sector.

At their most advanced, today’s greenhouses include magnetic rails and robots – an ecosystem of technological wonders. Infrastructure, plastics, venting, HVAC, hydroponics systems, pack house integration, advanced sensors, electronic hardware and software have been advancing quietly in the back ground. Today’s greenhouse is barely recognisable from the quaint, broken windowed greenhouses I know from the rural car trips of my childhood.

The advantages
There are clear advantages to indoor agricultural production. Harvests year round. Control over climate, water, energy and nutrient inputs. You can minimise (if not completely eliminate in some settings) pest and pathogens. Sure, it’s a capital intensive method at first, but the trade-off is year-round production. And, arguably of even higher value is the crop density, which is at multiples to field based production.

More mouths to feed by 2050
One of the top global issues scientists and farmers face is producing enough food to support a population that is expected to increase by 2.5 billion by 2050. It’s an astounding number. Whenever I hear it, it occurs to me that asking folks to be realistic about human consumption might be an unrealistic proposition. That’s also right around the same time I start talking about indoor farms.

If you consider the advantages this confers on us, as food producers in the developed West, then think about the potential for the developing nations where conditions are materially bad. Africa north to Egypt is already in a severe food production crises, due to environment and skill issues. They are now actively pursuing trials to establish the most basic of indoor agricultural methods including protected cropping and controlled irrigation.

Increasing urbanisation
The 2014 United Nations prediction is that by 2050, 66% of the World’s population will be urbanised. The size of that statistic makes this a global factor. Whether Nairobi, Sao Paulo, Mumbai, Moscow or Boston, we’re all going to have population concentrations that are going to strain city infrastructures, which will require a new approach to the supply chain for food.

All of which neatly takes us back to urban and vertical growing, aka, indoor farms. The time for indoor ag is nigh.

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