Adaptation and Mitigation: Food Production in a Rapidly Warming World

So I’ve been advocating a move to indoor food production for a while, and I often get pushback on it, some of which… seems to miss the point. Someone linked me an article from 2018 over on Bluesky (follow me, as a reason why vertical farming “won’t save the world”. It’s an interesting article, for what it is, but it crucially does not address the main reason why I believe what I believe. Before I get into that, however, I want to address one other issue, because whenever this subject comes up, and I mention indoor farming and microbial food production, people ignore that latter part, to focus on the former. My guess is that this is because most people don’t know much about microbial food production, and so don’t have much to say about it, in which case, I should probably do more to talk about it. I’ll give an overview here, but I’ll also just try to post more about it going forward.

Mass production of microbial food is, as I understand it, a fairly new field. It focuses mostly on yeasts, edible bacteria, and microaglae, all of which can be grown in more of a factory than a farm. In both cases, the focus usually seems to be on growing them as a source of protein, to replace animal agriculture and soy beans. Because of that focus, a lot of discussion around this stuff seems to focus on the inefficiency and cost of animal agriculture as a source of emissions, rather than about the fact that food grown in a factory setting is less vulnerable to weather and pests than food grown in fields.

The main concern I have at this point in time – something I’m emailing scientists about – is how well it could replace grains. There’s no question that finding better sources of protein is important, because while I didn’t mention it in my recent post about simultaneous crop failure, one of the likely effects of that is the mass culling or starvation of livestock, because that’s what we do with 77% of the soy we grow. People in the US, at least, could stand to eat considerably less protein, but I don’t believe that forcing that through crop failure is a good way to go about it. That said, humans do actually need carbohydrates, so if microbes can’t produce enough of that, then we may need to think about other options.

I think microbes are still a part of those other options, too. If we do actually need to continue relying on outdoor grain farms, then we should probably not be using that land for things that we don’t need, like mass production of beef. In that way, even if we can only rely on algae and bacteria for protein, we’ll be able to grow and store more grain to guard against famine, so it still seems worth major investment to me.

With all of that dealt with, let’s go back to this article about vertical farms, that was presented as a rebuttal to my belief that we should be moving food production indoors, to guard against global crop failures. My problem is that it in no way addresses my concern, but rather discusses vertical farming’s expenses, and vertical farming as a way to reduce carbon emissions:

First, these systems are really expensive to build. The shipping container systems developed by Freight Farms, for example, cost between $82,000 and $85,000 per container — an astonishing sum for a box that just grows greens and herbs. Just one container costs as much as 10 entire acres of prime American farmland — which is a far better investment, both in terms of food production and future economic value. Just remember: farmland has the benefit of generally appreciating in value over time, whereas a big metal box is likely to only decrease in value.

Second, food produced this way is very expensive. For example, the Wall Street Journal reports that mini-lettuces grown by Green Line Growers costs more than twice as much as organic lettuce available in most stores. And this is typical for other indoor growers around the country: it’s very, very expensive, even compared to organic food. Instead of making food moreavailable, especially to poorer families on limited budgets, these indoor crops are only available to the affluent. It might be fine for gourmet lettuce, or fancy greens for expensive restaurants, but regular folks may find it out of reach.

Finally, indoor farms use a lot of energy and materials to operate. The container farms from Freight Farms, for example, use about 80 kilowatt-hours of electricity a day to power the lights and pumps. That’s nearly 2–3 times as much electricity as a typical (and still very inefficient) American home, or about 8 times the electricity used by an average San Francisco apartment. And on the average American electrical grid, this translates to emitting 44,000 pounds of CO2 per container per year, from electricity alone, not counting any additional heating costs. This is vastly more than the emissions it would take to ship the food from someplace else.


Proponents of indoor techno-farms often say that they can offset the enormous sums of electricity they use, by powering them with renewable energy — especially solar panels — to make the whole thing carbon neutral.

But just stop and think about this for a second.

These indoor “farms” would use solar panels to harvest naturally occurring sunlight, and convert it into electricity, so that they can power…artificial sunlight? In other words, they’re trying to use the sun to replace the sun.

But we don’t need to replace the sun. Of all of the things we should worry about in agriculture, the availability of free sunlight is not one of them. Any system that seeks to replace the sun to grow food is probably a bad idea.


Sometimes we hear that vertical farms help the environment by reducing “food miles” — the distance food items travel from farm to table — and thereby reduce fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions.

This sounds logical, but it turns out to be a red herring.

Strange as it might seem, local food typically uses about the same amount of energy — per pound — to transport as food grown far away. Why? Short answer: volume and method of transport. A larger food operator can ship food more efficiently — even if it travels longer distances — because of the gigantic volumes they work in. Plus, ships, trains, and even large trucks driving on Interstate highways use less fuel, per pound per mile, than small trucks driving around town.

Plus it turns out that “food miles” aren’t a very big source of CO2 emissions anyway, whether they’re local or not. In fact, they pale in comparison to emissions from deforestation, methane from cattle and rice fields, and nitrous oxide from over-fertilized fields. And local food systems — especially organic farms that use fewer fertilizers, and grass fed beef that sequesters carbon in the soil — can reduce these more critical emissions. At the end of the day, local food systems are generally better for the environment, including greenhouse gas emissions. Just don’t worry about emissions from food miles too much.

No shame to the author of this article, of course. He didn’t set out to discuss the merits of vertical farming as a guard against crop failure, so he didn’t do that. My problem is with the person who linked this article, because it doesn’t even acknowledge the main reason I want to move food production indoors, as much as we can. The article makes good points – building and operating something like a vertical farm absolutely is very resource-intensive, and the recommendations made at the end – that we focus on better farming practices – are 100% on-point. We need to do that.

But the question – for me – is not whether vertical farms are the most efficient way to grow food, compared to existing, more conventional methods, or whether they’re as profitable (accounting for subsidies). It’s whether they’re a more reliable way to grow food, in a rapidly warming climate. I don’t have a clear answer to that, in part because the focus in this sort of discourse is still mostly about reducing emissions and preventing the warming. That’s all important stuff to take into consideration, but I think we’ve reached a point where we also have to consider what it will take to keep people alive, because we haven’t actually made all of those changes to agriculture that everyone’s been talking about for the last few decades. The clear answer I do feel I have, is that the odds of global crop failure are increasing, and if we don’t plan for that eventuality, a lot of people are going to die needlessly.

The other point made on Bluesky, and I think it’s a good one, is the concern that a shift in food production would hurt people who are currently farmers. My answer to that is twofold. First, as with fossil fuel workers, we as a society have a responsibility to make sure that farm workers are not left destitute because of a societal change over which they had no control. I think nobody should be left destitute in a world with abundant resources, but we should also have dedicated programs to making sure farmers are taken care of.

Second, and I think this is more important, investing in indoor food production should not come at the expense of outdoor food production, at this stage. The reason I want to do it now, is that we don’t need it now, but everything I’ve seen about the rate of warming and the effects of warming suggests that we will need it in the not-so-distant future. I expect that if we make this investment, and shift away from animal agriculture, that will free up farmland, which can then be put to different use, but the first priority is feeding humanity, which means that at this stage, we still need normal farms, operated more responsibly as the article above suggests. We have the resources to do both, while also working to end fossil fuel use, and one of the downsides of so many decades of inaction is that we now also have a growing need to do both, as the temperature continues to rise.

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  1. says

    it also needs to be spread around, in case one region is smashed by disaster. a good model is the green power sources farmers are sometimes incentivized to put on their land, where excess power can be sold to the state power grid or whatever. modest facilities spread around instead of megafacilities in few places.

    i often remember what i was taught in history classes about how in WWII the whole economy was bent to support it, and that we need to treat our ecological crises like that to have any hope of avoiding incredibly bleak shit happening 5ever.

    another one I thought of is increasing albedo by painting every roof white, and other surfaces besides. painted metaphorically, don’t wanna increase paint production and there may be other ways to up reflectivity. i’d like to see every inch of civilization heat reflecting on top except for solar panels and other things that just can’t be. hell, figure a way to make the blacktop lighter while we’re at it, melt a few less senior citizens in arizona.

  2. says

    I think maintaining the whiteness would be difficult, but yeah, lighter building materials couldn’t hurt.

    Less asphalt is another reason to invest in rail.

  3. Dunc says

    Microbial food production is definitely a promising field that we absolutely should be pursuing, but I do have some concerns… For one thing, I simply don’t think we have anything like a complete enough understanding of human nutrition to be able to design an adequate diet from scratch – sure, we can probably keep people alive, but we’re only just starting to understand the role that diet plays in many chronic health conditions. I worry that we’ll end up making all of the existing inequalities around did and health much, much worse…

  4. says

    @Dunc – That would be why I explicitly said that this is not incompatible with conventional agriculture, and should be scaled up in addition to conventional agriculture, with improved practices.

    It is also why I keep saying, on this topic, that there will be problems that cannot currently be foreseen, which is why it’s so important to work on this now, before there is a crisis.

    And, on the issue of inequalities, starvation and malnutrition for the poor is already a major problem without any “designed” diet, which is why I probably talk about the need for political and economic change on this blog, more than any other action.

    Global warming, from everything I’ve seen, is going to exacerbate most inequalities, if we don’t change how things are done, is it not? That seems to be a reason to address the source of those inequalities, not to avoid scaling up indoor food production.

  5. Dunc says

    Sorry, did you miss the bit where I said it’s “definitely a promising field that we absolutely should be pursuing”? I’m definitely not saying that we shouldn’t be doing it.

  6. Dunc says

    That’s OK Abe, lots of people having a bit of a hard time these days… And I do understand that most criticism of these ideas comes from the “this is a terrible idea and will never work” side of things, rather than the “this is a good and necessary idea, but here’s a couple of things we need to watch out for along the way” point of view. Also, I’ve noticed that lots of people seem to struggle with the idea that something can make a valuable contribution to improving matters without being a perfect silver-bullet solution to all our problems, and even maybe having some additional problems of its own. Having said that, I do get a bit nervous when I see certain commentators (George Monbiot comes to mind here) who seem to be taking the most optimistic possible view presented by the people developing these technologies as gospel, and not really asking any of the obvious questions. I get not wanting to do down a promising technology that really could make an important contribution in the years ahead, and I get the desire to be optimisitic about something for a change, but my nature is always to ask “so what could possibly go wrong?” – not because I’m trying to be negative, but because I think looking out for potential problems before they occur is better than just hoping for the best and then running into them by surprise. Sorry if I came across as overly negative.

  7. says

    I get the concern. The world seems to be full of people who are certain they know The Right Way, and will denounce all who disagree, even slightly, as being in league with the Devil. I mean, we are (Hail the Great American Satan), but the overall problem kinda clutters things up. I could probably stand to adjust my language on this a bit, but I do try to include caveats etc. It’s just not practical, if I want to have posts that are pleasant to read, to cover every possible angle in every single blog post.

  8. Dunc says

    It’s just not practical, if I want to have posts that are pleasant to read, to cover every possible angle in every single blog post.

    Of course not! That’s what comments are for… 😉

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