Paul is one of the world's leading experts in vertical farming, with many years of experience both in academia and industry managing research teams. After Princeton University and Bowery Farming as Director of R&D, he has recently joined the University of Queensland and Queensland Alliance for Agriculture and Food Innovations to shape the future of farming in the APAC region. His research focuses on developing advanced, economical solutions to grow a wide range of tropical and sub-tropical crops. Read this short interview to learn more about Paul's take on the upcoming opportunities of CEA and vertical farming within the APAC region.
Has traditional agriculture reached its limit in terms of scale? How is novel food production like Indoor AgTech supporting the agri-food ecosystem to subsidize traditional forms of food production? What unique partnerships are we seeing between traditional and novel agri-food players?
Currently, traditional farming is being challenged by climate change and urbanization as areas where we used to grow crops efficiently are no longer suitable to grow, and cities are now expanding toward the arable areas, removing agricultural spaces for building houses. It is no wonder why UN-FAO released in 2005 a challenge of increasing food production by 77% by 2050 in order to feed the world population. For decades now, Indoor AgTech has been supporting food production, allowing the Netherlands, for example, to become a world leader in greenhouse production and an essential food source for the entire European market. However, the expansion of the greenhouse/glasshouse industry worldwide has been limited compared to population growth, and because land remains limited, it is likely to reach a plateau in the near future. Indoor AgTech has historically been supporting traditional farming by providing healthy seedlings to farmers or diversifying crop portfolios for farming companies. Dyson Farming in the UK has, for example, combined crop-waste energy bio-generation with a high-tech greenhouse to produce strawberries ten months a year. In the vertical farming world, we are now seeing hybrid systems where seedlings are produced in a fully enclosed environment and grown to harvest in glasshouses.
CEA and vertical farms will have different agendas in different regions – what is the agenda for setting up in Asia? What makes this region unique and ripe for Indoor AgTech solutions?
Vertical farms are part of the broader CEA industry. So I am guessing you meant greenhouse/glasshouse vs vertical farms. It is always a question of fit for purpose, and it depends on the final use of the technology and customer needs. Some parts of the world where there is mild temperature, enough sunshine, and cheap lands may go more toward single-layer greenhouses/glasshouses, whereas another part with more expensive land, reduced space, high population, and inclement weather may be more willing to go toward indoor vertical farming.
The reality is that no matter where you are in the world, climate change is significantly impacting traditional farming, and it remains difficult for farmers to sustain their business long-term. In Asia, the food demand has been increasing with the fast growth rate of its population, and this population is now asking for healthier and more nutrient-dense food. So, CEA has been developing in Asia quite rapidly. Japan was a pioneer, with the first vertical farm built in the early 80's, while they have used greenhouses for much longer. Korea and China have also significantly developed CEA over the past 20 years and are now pushing toward vertical farming. Of course, Singapore, because of limited land access for a large growing population, has been developing vertical farms for many years as well.
Because of the size of the population and the limited spaces available, Asia is a unique environment for CEA, with market opportunities by 2050 of more than $800 billion for food supplies. Not addressing food security for the Asian-Pacific region by 2050 would increase the risk of instability and a massive food crisis.
What opportunities are there to future-proof indoor farms? What forms of diversification and 'sector hopping innovation' are we seeing?
Today, the challenges remain on the energy aspect of indoor farming and the lack of knowledge surrounding its potential. Greenhouse/Glasshouse have proven their efficiency at scale, and we already know what is the range of possibilities. But greenhouses/glasshouses are still limited by the weather and the outdoor environment where they have been installed. For example, in Australia, while the country has a lot of sunshine, it can be too hot in summer, and cooling would not be economically viable, so production is usually done in wintertime when temperatures are more manageable. Closer to the poles of the planet (Iceland, Greenland, Sweden, Canada, etc.), the limitation remains day length and light intensity, so greenhouse/glasshouse growers have been using artificial lighting to supplement. Such supplementation has a cost too, which leads to increased input cost for only one layer of crops.
So vertical farming can be useful in both situations as they are independent of weather conditions, and productivity is, in theory, predictable. So, the opportunities are at the forefront of energy efficiency and yield optimization at scale. Vertical farms can, in theory, increase production by a factor of two, and some crops have never been optimized or bred for such a controlled environment. The amount of innovation in terms of new systems of indoor farming is probably quite limited now, and most of it would rely on the adjustment that needs to be made to integrate plant physiology into mechanical systems for optimizing growth and plant health, as well as OPEX. The fact that we are now seeing a broader range of crops (cacao, coffee, wheat, strawberries, etc.) being grown indoors is a sign that indoor farming is now seen as part of the future of farming, but the science is still lacking. I believe that global food security is a major problem for humankind, and countries need to work together in a consortium to help drive innovation and succeed in achieving our goals by 2050.