How Vertical Farming And AgTech Can Help Address Food Insecurity
Bryan Fried, Chairman and CEO of PANGEA Global Technologies.
According to recent U.S. Census data, 24.5 million Americans reported not having enough to eat, representing a substantial increase from 18 million a year ago. This increase means food insecurity, a situation where people have limited or unpredictable access to food, due to geographic, financial, social or other roadblocks, is increasing at an alarming rate.
There’s a confluence of factors driving an increase in food insecurity, including the reduction or elimination of support programs offered during the pandemic and increased inflation. Insecurity also comes from “food deserts” which, according to the USDA are areas where at least one-third of an urban population is more than one mile from a supermarket. This distance impedes the ability for lower-income households to reach these stores without undue time and expense, which can then lead to limited or poorer food choices and nutritional deficits. Unfortunately, food deserts often plague areas where low-income individuals reside.
Addressing food insecurity is an important issue for many businesses, including my company. Since 2017, we have been in continuous development of specific integrated software and hardware products to assist the efficient indoor production of a wide variety of plants and foodstuffs.
Waste, Insecurity And Tech
Food insecurity causes disruption and poor health outcomes on a global scale. Food insecurity also comes from the persistent and high amount of food waste. According to USDA data from 2010, 30% to 40% of food is wasted. This means food that could have helped feed families in need is sent to landfills. Also, the water, labor, energy and other inputs being used to produce, process, transport, prepare, store and dispose of discarded food are lost too.
Due to the need for extended shelf life, shipping times and costs, there’s an emphasis on food that stays fresh over extended periods, which comes at the expense of nutrition and often flavor. Growers and suppliers also need to ship foods in bulk to make shipping costs viable. This can lead to waste as foods might sit for too long in a warehouse until more stock arrives so the shipper can send their desired bulk quantity.
A cost-effective and scalable solution to food insecurity in urban areas is vertical indoor farming. Advancements in AgTech improve indoor farming productivity so that firms can produce greater amounts of product in year-round operations. For example, these types of farms can boast water reductions up to 95% compared to traditional farmland producing the same amount of food.
Indoor farms enable growers to grow produce with reduced water and fertilizer usage. They also do not require tracts of farmland. Vertical farms located in urban areas can provide produce direct to consumers or to local stores with minimal transportation costs, which means fresher products on the shelves due to short delivery times.
Leveraging Smart Technology
Indoor farming in urban areas can help with reducing food insecurity because of advancements that enable year-round production of nutrient-rich foods. Controlled indoor grow environments are easily built, or growers can leverage and repurpose existing buildings that can bring businesses to underutilized or abandoned urban areas.
Indoor vertical farming offers improved yields through technology such as AI and automation that boost yields, reduce resource usage and allow farmers to grow a variety of foods. These technologies include energy-efficient LED lighting that offers lights using multiple spectrums which growers can correlate to certain plant species that perform best under specific spectrums. (Disclosure: My company provides lighting solutions, as do others.)
Smart technology also improves the transparency of food growing operations, which allows consumers to trace the food from the seed supplier to the grow facility to the retailer. This meets the needs of consumers who want to know how their food is grown.
When building an indoor grow, start with output goals. What yields do you envision producing? This drives how many levels of production will be required and what your infrastructure needs will be. Make sure that whatever technology you choose is scalable and flexible. Your needs are likely to change as your grow expands, so choose technology that can grow with you.
Run small test cycles to ensure your yields are what you expected. Based on those tests, expand your software and hardware footprint. Consider running several tests with different metrics and grow cycles to see what produces your optimum yield. You may want to test different lighting spectrums to determine which is optimal for the particular plants you are growing. Each plant thrives under different light spectrums. Remember to record your data so that it can be analyzed for optimum results and to ensure that data is secure with a robust security protocol.
As with any newly acquired technology, learning to navigate the nuances of that technology can be a challenge. The tendency is to learn what is necessary initially to operate your ecosystem and not more. However, a robust tech platform will provide necessary functionalities required for the success of the grow. So, taking the time to learn what the entire scope of the platform can do is essential initially.
Identifying your potential buyers in advance, including their price points and shipping schedules, is another aspect of a successful grow that should be in the initial business plan. Your grow cycles should be planned around what the potential buyer needs.
Finally, it’s important to understand the entire grow ecosystem prior to purchasing any capital equipment or infrastructure at all. For example, recently a grower took advantage of a great deal on HVAC. On its surface, this seemed to be a great idea. However, he purchased the HVAC units without an interface card (software) required for remote operation of the units. The cost of purchasing the cards for a subsequent retrofit was over $100,000. Had he thought through what he needed beginning to end, he would have purchased an HVAC system that integrated with his technology. The moral of the story is to ensure what you build will serve all of your business purposes and, hence, what you purchase should support those goals.
By adding indoor farming facilities to food-insecure regions, growers can offer consistent food production, reduced resource consumption and streamlined supply chains that can address food insecurity at the source.