A worker at Bowery Farming inspects a crop
Green greens: a worker at Bowery Farming inspects a crop. The US-based vertical farm business uses renewables to supply its energy needs © Don Emmert/AFP via Getty Images

When salad shortages hit British supermarkets earlier this year, attention turned to one futuristic farming technique, long touted as a way to shore up local supply chains and keep fresh produce on the shelves: vertical farms.

These indoor factories allow crops to be grown year-round in controlled environments, theoretically reducing the amount of land and water needed to produce food. Investors have already poured billions of dollars into the idea: more than $4bn in the last five years, according to data provider Dealroom.

But, despite this influx of cash, the viability of the farms remain a concern to many in the industry. Most have yet to grow more than leafy greens and herbs and — as the salad shortage arguably demonstrated — they also have yet to make a significant dent in global food supply.

“The industry as a whole right now [is] in a bad place,” says Padraic Flood, a geneticist working at Infarm, one of Europe’s largest vertical farming companies. “There have been the energy spikes, profitability has been an issue, and many companies have gone under in the past few months.” French vertical farming start-up Agricool shut up shop last year and Infarm laid off more than half its workforce in November.

Energy has long been the elephant in the room for the industry — a problem that has grown as energy prices have soared. The farms need electricity to power LED lights, ventilation systems and temperature controls.

This is by far the biggest outgoing for vertical farmers, says Cindy van Rijswick, a global strategist for the fruit, vegetable and floriculture sectors at Dutch co-operative bank Rabobank — and is a key reason many still struggle to sell crops at a profit. “Some of them are pricing the products at the same price as competitors but they are making a loss because of it,” she notes.

Timmy Frey (L) and James McNealey harvest a tray of leafy greens at a Bowery farm in Nottingham, Maryland
The human factor: Bowery Farming workers in Maryland harvest a crop . . .  © Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP via Getty Images
Lettuce grows under artificial lights on an automated growing rack at a Bowery farm in Nottingham, Maryland
. . . though some experts see minimising staffing as a priority for the industry © Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP via Getty Images

However, some vertical farms are now run entirely off renewable energy, isolating them, to an extent, from rising energy prices.

US vertical farming company Bowery is one of them. It grows lettuces, leafy greens, herbs and berries. “We’re already pricing at or below the cost of field-grown organic products [for leafy greens],” says Bowery’s founder, Irving Fain — though he declines to say what Bowery’s margins look like on these lines.

But, beyond energy costs, van Rijswick thinks there are other problems with the vertical farm model. “They still have to cope with high labour costs and generally high overhead costs,” she says. Although some farms are fully automated, others still need people to perform tasks such as planting seedlings.

David Farquhar, chief executive of Intelligent Growth Solutions, which manufactures vertical farming technology, says the model makes sense only when farms are fully automated and remove humans from the growing process. “Whenever you see photos of people wearing lab coats, you know you need to really be avoiding them,” he says.

For Infarm’s Flood, however, the model’s economic shortcomings are dwarfed by the environmental benefits it could bring.

“What I care about is food security in a destabilised world,” he says. “And I’m talking about a climatically destabilised world, which is the reality that we face.” Vertical farms use far less water and land than conventional farming, leaving more room for nature and biodiversity. If they are built in cities, they can also dramatically reduce food miles.

Flood’s work is focused on developing wheat varieties for indoor farms. If vertical farming can crack staple foods such as wheat, he argues, then its real environmental benefits will become apparent.

The industry has so far focused on enhancing the controlled environment around plants, but Flood says the focus is now on genetically enhancing the crops themselves.

Rows of produce grow at the Bowery Farming Inc. indoor farm in Kearny, New Jersey
Bowery says some of its pricing is at or below the cost of field-grown organic products © David Williams/Bloomberg

Infarm has a wheat variety that can produce the equivalent of 117 tonnes of wheat per hectare, Flood says, compared with the average global yield of roughly four tonnes. This wheat can be harvested six times a year, thanks to the controlled environment, which mimics seasonal change at a faster pace.

In addition, though, the viability of vertical farms can depend on their location. For example, there is broad interest across the industry in the Middle East: a region where energy is relatively cheap and governments want to boost food security through more localised supply chains.

Van Rijswick is cautiously optimistic that, if farms are geographically canny, they have a future. “Many of the companies will disappear but some of the strongest will survive,” she predicts. “They will have to carefully select high-value crops and carefully select the regions where they operate.”

Flood, too, is optimistic that the necessity of transitioning to a more sustainable food system will mean some vertical farming companies survive.

“There’s the saying ‘pioneers get killed, but settlers get rich’,” he says. “And I think we’re at that stage where all the pioneers are getting shot. But those that make it through will reap the rewards.”

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