Aug 28th 2014

The Next-Generation Greenhouse

by Esther Dyson

Esther Dyson, CEO of EDventure Holdings, is an active investor in a variety of start-ups around the world. Her interests include information technology, health care, private aviation, and space travel.

ISTANBUL – The challenge of ensuring adequate, nutrient-rich food for an expanding global population is a daunting one, especially given constraints on key resources like water and agricultural land. As it stands, the two leading approaches to enriching and enlarging the world’s food supply are genetic engineering and industrial processing with additives and chemicals. Now, a third solution is emerging: vertical farming.

Academic studies have found that locally cultivated vertical farms – stacked greenhouses that use artificial light to grow crops – can provide considerable savings, which could then be passed along to consumers. But questions about such farms’ fundamental economics, especially for commodity crops, have persisted.

That may be about to change. About a decade ago, four Dutch engineers – three of whom were also horticultural experts – initiated the “plant paradise” project to learn how high-value herbs, vegetables, and berries (not grains or tree fruits) grow best. They studied how much light green beans need to thrive; which wavelengths produce the most delicious tomatoes; what temperatures cause basil to flourish; and which combination of nutrients creates the healthiest cauliflower. Through persistent experimentation, they began developing recipes for each kind of plant, along with a blueprint for “plant production units” (PPUs) that can provide these ideal growing conditions wherever they are installed.

The project’s potential as a scalable business was enticing, spurring the four researchers to found PlantLab in 2010. Four years later, the company employs 35 people, including a chief partnership officer who previously managed supply-chain logistics for Flora Holland, the world’s largest flower market. The founders remain the company’s only shareholders; they want to retain control of the technology, while working with partners and investors to build the operating units.

Last year, PlantLab began the construction – set to be completed next month – of a $22-million, 200,000-square-foot (18,600 square meters) headquarters, including multiple PPUs and research units, inside the shell of a retail food-distribution warehouse 60 miles south of Amsterdam.

PlantLab’s pitch is that a PPU the size of a city block and just a few stories high could produce the same volume of high-quality crops as a large farm, while consuming fewer resources. The only water that leaves a PPU does so in fruits and vegetables; there is no evaporation into the air, no runoff into the ground, and no pesticides or weeds. As a result, the PPUs consume only about 10% as much water as traditional farms.

Moreover, like 3D printing, PPUs allow production to occur locally (thereby reducing transport costs and wastage) and on demand, under controllable conditions. In other words, any kind of fruit or vegetable can be grown anywhere, year-round (with a lead time of a few weeks). PlantLab proudly shows digitally enhanced photos of the same facility in a city, on a wintry tundra, in a desert, and – highlighting the PPUs’ ostensibly vast long-term potential – on Mars.

Not only do PPUs offer major savings in terms of resources and transportation; they are also not prohibitively expensive to build. Indeed, for something like $100 million, a partner could purchase the required land and construct a 500,000-square-foot (46,450 m2) PPU, with ten growing levels about five feet apart. (Operating costs depend, of course, on local water and electricity prices.)

The resulting farm would employ about 200 people for seeding, growing, harvesting, packaging, sales, logistics, maintenance, and management. And it would supply 50,000 people with a consistently high-quality seven-ounce (198.4 grams) daily requirement of fresh herbs, vegetables, and ground fruits like berries for at least ten years – all in less space that the average multi-story parking lot.

This might sound expensive. But, at just $2,000 per person, the cost is far lower than the $8,000 the average American spends in annual health-care costs. Given that a PPU will last for at least a decade, and offer considerable health benefits to local populations, it is a small price to pay.

If, for example, the world’s vegetable supply more than doubled, fresh, healthy food would become more affordable and accessible. Perhaps demand for corn syrup and processed foods would even decline.

As it stands, the closest approximation to this approach in the United States is marijuana production. With such high-value crops, it is worth honing the details of cultivation to ensure quality and minimize resource consumption. As global water supplies become increasingly scarce, more crops will become “high-value.”

It is not clear whether PlantLab will be the leader of the PPU movement, but it is clearly an important player. If the company’s processes offer all of the benefits that it claims, I hope that its founders license their patents broadly over time.

So why aren’t there already PPUs all over the place? Simply put, businesses, like plants, take time to grow. Part of PlantLab’s new site will be dedicated to Syngenta, the Swiss agribusiness/breeding firm. PlantLab is now seeking additional partners in other markets, such as pharma, cosmetics, and food.

Funding for construction will not be the only challenge that PPUs face in getting off the ground. Traditional farmers are likely to view them as unfair competition. The same thing happened to Amazon when it threatened traditional bookstores’ business model, just as it is happening now to Uber as it challenges traditional taxi and limousine services.

But those objecting are the services’ owners, not their workers. Indeed, it seems that at least half of the Uber drivers I have met previously drove taxis. Perhaps half of vertical farms’ operators will be former farm workers, and the other half will be new to agriculture – or perhaps retired marijuana growers.



Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2014.
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