Last week New York City was host to the Indoor AgTech Innovation Summit, an event that drew 600 attendees, featured 90 speakers, and included representatives from 42 countries. For a sector with some history of hyperbole about its role in feeding the world, the presentations and discussions during this event featured an overall balance of optimism and pragmatism. Many different kinds of “indoor” facilities were being considered at this meeting ranging from basic greenhouses all the way to multi-level “vertical farms” of the type pictured above. Industry players prefer to call their sector “controlled environment agriculture” or CEA. That is in contrast to mainstream agriculture, which has the advantage of free solar energy and rainfall but must also deal with all the variables associated with weather and the limitations determined by geography.
These facilities can be built closer to markets that are far removed from traditional produce growing regions. This reduces transportation time and cost while also delivering a fresher product. That reduces food waste at the retail and consumer level. The Northeastern US online marketing/home delivery players, Fresh Direct, which has already shortened farm-to-consumer delivery for west coast produce, sees a further 4-7 day advantage from regional CEA sources. The indoor growers can also speed up and slow down production with input about demand fluctuations from marketers who are taking online orders.
There are also global trends that favor CEA expansion, including Climate Change. Prolonged drought is compromising crop production in major growing regions like California, and climate change is disrupting historically important growing microclimates across many regions. As a panelist at the Indoor AgTech meeting from the berry industry put it, there is a need to “future-proof” the produce business.
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