Growing food out of thin air?

AeroFarms, an American company founded in New Jersey, is a pioneer in aeroponic farming – farming where, instead of plants being rooted in soil, their roots hang free! Nutrients are administered via an automated and continually sprayed mist. This allows for warehouses with a relatively small footprint to produce high food yields extremely efficiently. These warehouses can be located anywhere and run 24/7, 365 days a year, unlike conventional agriculture which is highly seasonal and the success of the yield of which is largely dictated by the location of the farm.

Although vertical farming isn’t necessarily a new idea, the way in which AeroFarms uses big data to automate the process means that, for the first time, this highly efficient method of farming is at a point where it is price competitive with traditional methods of agriculture.

To appreciate the magnitude of AeroFarms’ achievement, there are three key statistics that should be taken into consideration:

  • 55% of the world’s population live in cities, a figure estimated by the UN to rise to over 68% by 2050. Solutions need to be found to move food production nearer to people to reduce the environmental cost.
  • 30% of the world’s farmable land has been lost in the last 40 years.  This level of usage is unsustainable given population growth and climate change
  • 70% of our fresh water usage is used in agricultural production. This could reduce to 10% using modern technologies.

The so-called ‘4th industrial revolution’, therefore, seems to be one that can actually start to combat the problems facing humanity at large. Big Data and AI can be used in harmony to allow for higher efficiency rates, more localised production, and more creative, environmentally focuses solutions.

However, given the prevailing anti-technology sentiment that many feel and is prevalent in the environmentalist movement, maybe this is too much too soon. People still want to imagine the rural idyll and GM is still banned on this side of the pond.  But can we really afford to ignore the ingenuity of creatively minded people, coupled with the exciting new possibilities presented by AI and Big Data? They might well be our best shot at meeting the needs of population growth and combatting climate change.

It is certainly something investors and leading food production firms are watching closely.

A new type of agriculture – vertical farming – has been developed that offers hope, and food, for the future. And it is all made possible by data and lean manufacturing.

By Rebecca Garland on 08/04/2019