I’ve written before that agriculture is likely to be our biggest challenge as the planet warms. This is not because of the size of our population, but rather because while we currently grow more food than is needed to sustain a larger population than currently exists, the vast majority of agriculture depends on historical weather patterns that are increasingly unreliable. Humanity now lives on a planet whose seasonal patterns and multi-year climate trends are increasingly alien to us, which means that our food production is going to have to change. Some of that can be through the kinds of food production envisioned in various works of dystopian fiction. Algae, bacterial cultures, and fungus can all be grown in conditions unlike those used for conventional forms of agriculture, and are likely to be an important source of base nutrients like carbohydrates and protein.
That said, the goal is not merely survival. My goal is for humanity to thrive, and to have free time and free energy to pursue those things that fill our lives with meaning, and that can improve life for future generations. That means not just the bare minimum of food bricks or “meal replacement” drinks, but also things like fruit and vegetables that provide other nutrients, and more importantly, that allow food to continue to be an active part of our cultures. Food and drink are central to human socialization, celebration, and ritual, and while it’s certainly possible for us to exist without that, it’s a poorer existence. Even in a world that has little to no capacity for reliable agriculture exposed to the elements, I think it’s important that we have, if not conventional farms, at least conventional crops. Vegetables, fruits, spices, and drugs – both recreational and medicinal – are part of what makes life worth living.
So it’s nice to see advances being made in the field of indoor farming.
Plenty takes the flat farm and performs an Inception transformation on it: ripping up horizontal rows of plants and hanging them vertically from the ceilings. Sunlight from above is replaced by full-spectrum LED lights from all sides. Huge robots grab large hanging racks of growing vegetables and moves them where they’re needed. Artificial intelligence manages all the variables of heat and light and water, continually optimizing and learning how to grow faster, bigger, better crops. Water lost by transpiration is recaptured and reused. And all of it happens not 1,000 miles away from a city, but inside or right next to the place where the food is actually needed.
It turns out that growing, while natural, is also hard. At least at scale.
400X greater yield per acre of ground is not just an incremental improvement, and using almost two orders of magnitude less water is also critical in time of increasing ecological stress and climate uncertainty. All of these are truly game-changers, but they’re not the only goals, Storey says.
The key goal: great produce that tastes amazing.
The startup is fairly early in its mission to reinvent how produce is grown. It has a farm in San Francisco, dubbed Tigris, and another under construction in Compton, California. (Just think about that statement: a farm under construction.) Plus, the company has plans for much more expansion, using $400 million in capital injected by investors including Softbank, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, and former Google chairman Eric Schmidt.
It should surprise nobody reading this that I don’t believe work like this should be dependent on the voluntary whims of wealth hoarders like Bezos, but as long as we’re stuck with the system we have, it’s good to see these advances happening. Because a farm like this could be built virtually anywhere, it means that, combined with the algal and bacterial food production I mentioned earlier, cities could begin to come close to being able to feed themselves. I’d love to see a lot of current farmland either returned to wilderness, or used for carbon capture and sequestration, and vertical farming could not only move us in that direction, it could do it in a way that increases our resilience, as a species, to a global climate that makes conventional crop failures increasingly likely.
Despite everything happening in the world right now, life goes on, and I’m still required to spend money in order to live. My work is supported by a group of wonderful people over at patreon.com/oceanoxia, and I would be immeasurably grateful if you would consider joining their ranks. How much you give, and for how long are entirely under your control, and every little bit helps a great deal, as my household is very short on money right now. Thank you for reading, and take care of yourselves.