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Can vertical farms reap their harvest?

By now, the images of shelves full of perfect greens in hulking warehouses, stacked floor to ceiling in sterile environs and illuminated by high-powered LED lights, have become familiar. Food futurists and industry leaders say these high-tech vertical farming operations are the future of agriculture—able to operate anywhere, virtually invincible against pests, pathogens, and poor weather, and producing local, fresh, high-quality, lower-carbon food year-round.

That future seemed one step closer to reality last year when San Francisco-based indoor farming startup Plenty, which grows a variety of salad and leafy greens hydroponically (without soil) and uses artificial lighting in facilities in three locations, announced that it had raised a whopping $200 million in funding from the SoftBank Vision Fund, whose investors include Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.

“My reaction [to the $200 million round] was both that of validation, excitement,” said Matt Barnard, Plenty’s co-founder and CEO, over a manner of farming he says yields 350 times the produce per acre on one percent of the water used by dirt farming. “Now we must move with speed and efficiency if we’re to accomplish our mission of bringing people worldwide an experience that’s healthier for them and the planet.”

Not everyone is in agreement.

“My first thought was, ‘we could build a lot of greenhouses for $200 million,’” recalls Neil Mattson, a professor of plant science at Cornell and one of the country’s leading academic voices on indoor agriculture, who’s found that high-tech greenhouses that harness sunlight are more cost- and carbon-friendly than vertical farms that use artificial light.


Publication date: 7/3/2018

 


 

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