Upending agriculture: Advances in vertical farming turn crops sideways for protection from the elements, and better yields

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.


  1. says

    I cannot watch the video, so I am only reacting to the text.
    I am not very optimistic about this. Closed systems like these are very fragile – as long as everything is OK, everything is OK, but if for example a pathogen gets inside, it spreads extremely quickly and can bring the whole system down like a house of cards. Spider mites do this to ordinary greenhouses regularly. Outdoor agriculture is a bit more resilient because there is always some biodiversity, which includes predators and parasites of pests.
    On a similar note, some crops require wind pollination. And that might be easier to make indoors than what some other crops require – insect pollination. Bees cannot thrive indoors on a diet of only (for example) tomatoes. They already have trouble surviving near rapeseed monocultures outdoors.
    Then there is energy for those led-lights of course. It has to come from somewhere and currently that somewhere is probably fossil fuels. And even if it were from renewables, there is also a huge amount of materials needed for constructing these facilities. Whereas outside in the field sun shines for free and no wiring is needed.
    And on a technical note, photosynthesis only uses red and blue lights, so full-spectrum LEDs are not, strictly speaking, optimal use of energy, since all green light just gets reflected off of the leaves without use. LEDs that emit only the wavelengths utilized in photosynthesis would be a better use of energy.
    I think it is an important component of our future, but I do not believe that it will ever be a serious contender for mass food production.
    I cannot find it now, but I have read about another project with a similar goal – growing food under solar panels. There are many crops that do not mind the shade under the solar panels and the shading has reduced the use of water too, despite it being oudoor.

  2. says

    I’m working on a sort of “downsides” companion post to this, which should be up tomorrow Wednesday, but yeah – you’re right about the limitations to stuff like this.

    Assuming the things requiring bee pollination aren’t dealt with using manual or robotic pollination, it could also be possible to basically have building-wide hive access and a variety of crops in rotation, since they can grow year round. There are a lot of kinks to work out.

    Most of the indoor growing operations just use red and blue LEDs, for the reasons you mentioned.

    The resource cost is my biggest concern, both for the facilities themselves and for the power generation.

    The main reason I want attempts like this to continue is that we already spend a lot of resources on irrigation of crops and transportation of food, and it seems more than likely to me that the rising temperature is going to make everything to do with farming more difficult and unpredictable.

    As a general rule, it’s fair to assume that no single thing I write about is something I’m presenting as “the solution”. I think any effective response to climate change is going to require a diversity of approaches, precisely because of the problems that may arise with any one of them.

    Crops grown under solar panels (I’ve seen that one as well, and I like it) are good until they run out of water or there’s a locust swarm, at which point it’s worth having one or twenty backup plans.

    Unfortunately we’re at a point now where none of the options are going to be entirely GOOD, just better than alternatives.

  3. anat says

    Why are LED lights necessary? Can’t they use fiber optics to bring outdoor light in?

  4. dangerousbeans says

    ooh, build one nearby and i could get some really fresh basil in the middle of winter

  5. says

    @anat – there’s a limit to how much light you can get with that, so if you’re trying to grow more in a smaller space by stacking the plants, I don’t think that would give you enough photons for the crops to grow well

  6. StevoR says

    FWIW I vaguely recall that there was a kids book talking about visions of the future from I guess it would’ve been about the 1970’s~ish that mentioned ideas like this incl having buildings covered by plants and contrasting it with the dystopian “brutalist”” (?) modern cities. Anyone else remember that one?

    @ 1. Charly : Bees~wise, I think I heard somewhere there’s a modern issue when itcomes to almonds and bees and .. (googles) yup, see :


    The process of getting the bees to the almonds adds another stressor. Each January, the sluggish bees are prodded into action much earlier than what would be their normal routine. They are fed substitutes for their natural foods of pollen and nectar so they will quickly repopulate the hive to be ready for almonds. They are then loaded onto trucks and shipped across the country, plopped in an empty field and fed more substitute food while they wait for almonds to bloom.


    The intel used to gauge the number of bees in the country is surprisingly imprecise. The bee count offers just a small snapshot in time and relies on beekeepers’ responses to a poll. The numbers are approximate, with undercounts more likely than overcounts. Yet the trend lines are clear: Unless something changes, at some point in the near future we won’t have enough bees.

    As the article there notes there’s alot of negative factros and problems combining tomake things worse here fromtehVarroa mite to pesticide abuse and economic pressures, etc..

  7. says

    The children’s books don’t ring a bell, but that’s not far off from the version of NYC I’m building as the setting for a story series that takes place in a flooded Manhattan a couple thousand years in the future.

    It’s sort of an artificially constructed cloud forest archipelago.

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