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WWF report examines environmental and economic viability of scaling indoor agriculture systems

The Markets Institute at World Wildlife Fund (WWF) released an Innovation Analysis examining the environmental impact of various systems of indoor soilless farming. These systems include hydroponics, aquaponics, and aeroponics in greenhouse and vertical settings. At scale, this method of farming could have positive effects for the environment by decreasing pressures on land, biodiversity, natural habitat, and climate. However, the industry also faces hurdles that prevent it from moving beyond its current specialization in high-end leafy greens.

“Indoor soilless farming could have a significant impact on how we grow food in the future, in certain categories. Right now we are looking at whether or not it can be viable—both economically and environmentally—to grow more fruits and vegetables in these systems at a large scale,” said Julia Kurnik, director of innovation start-ups at WWF’s Markets Institute. “If we can address the challenges and make this happen, it could be a real game changer for communities that do not have access to fresh fruits and vegetables for much of the year, or places that are food insecure.”

While these systems make efficient use of land and water, the energy footprint from lighting and cooling can, depending on the local energy source, increase the overall environmental footprint. Indoor soilless farming is also considerably more expensive than traditional agriculture. However, there are several innovations under development that could significantly change the cost and environmental footprint to drastically alter the mid-to long-term viability of the industry. These include progress in lighting, fiber optics, AI and machine learning, gene editing, renewable energy, co-location and co-generation, and waste and recycling.

The report details the next phase of the project, which aims to help solve the challenges identified in phase I. WWF will explore using stranded assets—large infrastructure investments such as power plants and postal hubs that have depreciated in value but will continue to be used in a limited capacity for 10-50 years—and build a robust coalition of local partners, including The Yield Lab Institute, to launch a pilot farming system in St. Louis.

"The Yield Lab Institute, working with World Wildlife Fund and the McDonnell Foundation, is proud to be a part of a distinguished, local team of community volunteers who are working to bring local, indoor and sustainable food production to the St. Louis area,” said Thad Simons, Co-Founder and Managing Director of The Yield Lab Institute. “It will also spark innovation among our ag-tech entrepreneurs and is intended to provide access to nutritious food to the underserved areas of our community.”

Read the full report here.

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