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The New Urban Indoor Industrial Agriculture… but Why?

Posted by Andrew McGuire | November 16, 2016
Vertical farm crop wall demonstration project. Where is the soil? Photo: State Dept. via Flickr cc
Vertical farm crop wall demonstration project. Where is the soil?
Photo: State Dept. via Flickr cc

There is a new style of urban agriculture appearing around the world. The efforts differ in details, but they all use buildings or structures not originally designed to grow plants – no greenhouses. Carried out in old shipping containers, warehouses, and high-rises, perhaps even in an old factory or two, these “farms” bring agriculture fully indoors. Without sunshine, these farms rely on artificial lights shining on plants 24 hours a day in some cases. Without soil, plants sit in plastic pipes, or float on polystyrene rafts, stacked in tiers.  Without rain, nutrient enhanced water is cycled to the plant roots through piping, pumps and filters. Without wind, fans provide ventilation, ducts and vents deliver heated or cooled air for year-round production.

All this requires energy. These farms are plugged in, reliant on outside power. Outdoor farm fields are off the grid, at least for the production portion of the food chain. Even a continuous corn crop, the scorned example of “industrial” agriculture, is not affected by a blackout. While an outdoor “industrial” crop is still subject to the biological realities of crop growth cycles and seasons, crop production in these indoor farms can be sped up and streamlined. All it takes is lots pipes and tanks, cables and lights.

In the ultimate display of techno-eco-culture, MIT has developed a “digitized growing system” called the Food Computer. This system controls the farm, “a plexiglass-walled walk-in growing module the size of a shipping container, filled with lights, pipes, and

With conventions in Vegas, indoor agriculture is growing in popularity.
With conventions in Vegas, indoor agriculture is growing in popularity.

racks of plants.” A logical extension of Farmville social media game, the system comes with wi-fi, so indoor plant managers can listen to their playlist and post selfies while dialing in the temperature, nutrients, light, and humidity of their “farm”, or better yet, manage all by remote control from their smart phones (for extra cost). This farm is clean, antiseptic, modular. Sensors monitor everything. In fact, a manager really doesn’t have to know how to farm, only how to run an app like “Farmhand Connect.”

All this looks more like an oil refinery than a farm, but that is not what surprises me. Some people claim that these indoor farms are a better alternative (!) to “industrial agriculture,” the outdoor field exposed to sunshine, soil, wind and dust, rain and mud. Apparently, a metal container nearby with wi-fi is preferable to field far away with spotty cell phone coverage. I have no issues with outdoor urban farms and gardens. Even rooftop farming might make sense, but do these indoor food factories make sense? I wonder.

Why go to all this effort to grow crops indoors? Here are a few possible reasons that I came up with, starting with those given by those who are promoting these systems:

  • Food Security. I don’t see it. These farms are growing high value lettuce, other greens, and fresh herbs. These are the only legal crops that will pay the energy bill. Wheat, rice, sorghum, the crops that provide most of our calories, will not be grown. The urban population will never be getting their bread from indoor farms. At most, these indoor farms will give salad security to those wealthy enough to afford their production.
  • Climate Change. Hmmm, this article says that just the lighting, even with LEDs, would require a huge amount of electricity. Given the alternative of free sunshine, it does not seem plausible that these indoor farms would help unless their proximity to consumers makes up for this energy use?

A few of my ideas on why indoor farms are enticing people:

  • Might it be that we have denigrated traditional agriculture to the point that this is the only palatable option for some? Has our preference for “stable, pristine wilderness as the ideal for every landscape” (E. Marris, in Rambunctious Garden) grown so strong that we would rather see prairie and forest than farm? Do we discount farming as just another way in which humans exploit nature, rather than as a life-giving, honorable endeavor? If the problem is now seen as producing food on the land, then agriculture is the problem with agriculture, and indoor food production is the answer. A short period of real hunger would cure this thinking quickly, I suspect.
  • Maybe they think that by farming indoors, the pest problem will be solved? Some proponents of these farms do say that pests will not be a problem in these farms. Perhaps, at the beginning, but as any greenhouse producer can attest,
    Emu farming for the millennial generation? Photo: R. Johansson via Flickr cc.
    Emu farming for the millennial generation? Photo: R. Johansson via Flickr cc.

    fungi, bacteria, then insects, mice, even rats (they are using old factories) will eventually get in.

  • These smart, energetic, urbanites have given up on the rural agriculture, and decided to grow food themselves. Their angst over dependence on those farmers for food has forced them to such drastic solutions.
  • Perhaps it is nothing more than a generation raised on a high-tech diet, expanding their digital playground to agriculture? The desire to control all the variables is factor common to these systems, but they will find that biology is not digital.
  • Might this be the emu farming for the millennial generation? If so, the recommended strategy is to get in now, sell a turn-key system to energetic, aspiring farmers, and then get out and hide in a gated community before all of them fail.

Whatever the cause, these highly engineered, indoor farms are not going to solve our agricultural problems. Indoor farming, like space farming, is an enticing delusion. Growing plants anywhere else than outside in earth’s soils will always be more expensive (transport, as mentioned, could be an equalizer if it gets more expensive). And in this country, we have lots of land, productive land, land we should conserve, improve and use. We must remain steadfast in our commitment to agricultural land.

2017-04 Good article on this topic.

The Obsession with Hydroponics and Indoor Growing Damages Northern Food Security

7 thoughts on "The New Urban Indoor Industrial Agriculture… but Why?"

  1. Tara Zimmerman says:

    Great post Andy! Certainly an interesting topic. One thing that you do not address in this post is the possibility for AND. Why not traditional agriculture where it is needed (grains, livestock, etc.), and indoor agriculture where it works and meets a demand (salad security; tilapia/greens combo production; whatever). In past posts you’ve been an advocate for technology continuing to improve agriculture and helping us to feed the world’s population as it grows. Is this not an example? Not a replacement system but a new tool in the toolbox to augment what traditional ag does well? Why only allow technology to work when it is focused on incremental improvement of field crop production? Why not allow engineers and makers and techy millennials to see the system through their own lens and try new solutions alongside traditional production?

    Not a criticism, just a thought 🙂 Thank you for your posts! Always thought-provoking.

    1. Andrew McGuire says:

      Tara, you may be right. These systems may make sense in some situations, such as in the middle of a huge city, or if transport costs are very high, or where outdoor temperatures limit crop production. But I am not the first one to note the irony of using solar powered lights to grow crops.

  2. Barry Bowman, UC Santa Cruz says:

    I always enjoy your posts Andy. This is another good one.

  3. Gunnar Rundgren says:

    Great post, I just published a blog post in Swedish on the same topic. I calculated that you would need ten times as big area for solar panels as the growing area of each layer for a vertical LED farm, which means that the “saving land” argument is quite nonsensical.
    http://tradgardenjorden.blogspot.se/2017/01/inget-ljus-i-tunneln.html

    1. Andrew McGuire says:

      Thanks Gunnar. If others want to read Gunnar’s excellent post, Google Translate does a good job with the Swedish.

      1. Gunnar Rundgren says:

        Thanks Andrew, and btw. “salad security” is a brilliant expression!

  4. Andrew McGuire says:

    A more recent article on these farms, “The astronomical capital costs associated with starting a large hydroponic farm (compared to field and greenhouse farming), its reliance on investor capital and yet-to-be-developed technology, and challenges around energy efficiency and environmental impact make vertical farming anything but a sure bet.”
    https://civileats.com/2018/07/02/can-vertical-farms-reap-their-harvest-its-anyones-bet/

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