New Technologies Boost Indoor Farming

There’s an interesting article today in the Guardian titled “Tech entrepreneurs set their sights on urban farming” by Martin LaMonica which looks at the current state of indoor farming which is turning out to be a growing business. New technologies such as LED lighting combined with automated production systems are helping bring down the costs of intensive farming in enclosed spaces.

Indoor farming allows crops to be grown year-round in any climate, and has many advantages over traditional farming in certain circumstances, including the ability to increase crop yields through precision control of growing conditions such as plant nutrition, lighting, heating, watering, etc. — and at the same time reducing the use of water, fertilizer, pesticides and herbicides. Food grown in indoor farms can be grown closer to where it is consumed, reducing transportation costs which can make up 40 per cent of the cost of food products.

From the article:

“Proponents contend that indoor farming and urban farming are necessary to feed a growing global population. Urbanites could potentially purchase locally grown, pesticide-free food year-round, lowering emissions associated from tractors and shipping products. Producing food indoors also means that consumers are shielded from disruptions in the food supply caused by natural disasters and that farmland could be restored to ecosystems, such as forests, that could absorb greenhouse gases. Growing food indoors uses 98% less water and 70% less fertilizer than traditional methods, and has a higher yield, according to the Association for Vertical Farming.

“So far, indoor farms still contribute little to the global food system because production costs are higher than conventional growing methods. And they tend to use more electricity. But businesses are starting take advantage of new technologies, including energy-efficient LED lighting and automated systems, to bring down costs. As these technologies become standardized, indoor farming will make sense in more locations, says Chad Sykes, CEO of Indoor Harvest, which builds custom indoor farms for professional growers.”

I think that technologies like LENR will only serve to increase the adoption of indoor farming. I am sure that LENR powered heating could be very attractive for indoor farming operators in cooler climates if it can be significantly cheaper than current heat sources. There could be additional savings if cogeneration LENR plants could be used to provide both heat and electricity — maybe cooling too with trigeneration as often you will need refrigeration and air conditioning facilities where food is produced.

One limitation I see with indoor gardening at this point is that there are limited crops that can be grown economically in the current kinds of facilities. The article mentions that leafy greens are most suited indoor farms, but while these are tasty, nutritionally important and widely consumed, they are not staple crops that form the basis of human diet. LaMonica writes, “Food is a low-margin business and indoor growers have higher operating costs – after all, they’re paying for light to grow food rather than relying on the sun. That’s why many producers sell their goods as premium organic products to high-end restaurants and supermarkets, which is a small market in the global food system.”

Indoor farming is certainly not able to provide food for the masses at this point, and maybe it never will. Technological developments will certainly be employed in traditional agricultural settings to increase efficiencies — but indoor farming does seem to be a growing niche, and as technological developments continue as we expect (especially if energy becomes very cheap), there could be innovative ways to expand the use of indoor farming so that it becomes increasingly competitive with more traditional agricultural systems. Maybe indoor growing systems could be developed on a micro-level, too. I grow food in a vegetable garden, but that’s only possible during the summer months. I would like to see the day where I will be able to have an are inside my house devoted to year-round production of fruits and vegetables that we can enjoy and that can help us reduce our food costs.