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Vertical Farming & broader CEA: Can you hear the music?

To attempt to understand CEA's future, we need to understand its past to promote the narrative that innovation (especially in agriculture and for staple crops) requires time and patience and is much needed for the sector.

Organised plant agriculture began with open-field cultivation of precursor crops in the fertile crescent at least 12,000 years ago with semi-controlled structures, which we now refer to as greenhouses, arising in around 30 CE[i]. It took much longer to get to controlled-environment-agriculture ("CEA") models (vertical farming falling under this definition), which have been around for around 72 years[ii] following the development of phytotrons.

After the development of phytotrons, research was initially focused on space exploration and looking forward to the next millennium. The advent of the most recent phase of CEA, with a greater emphasis on vertical farming, has only been around for the past 15-20 years or so and has been predominantly U.S.-led, riding on the coattails of the growing climate change narrative, substantial initial investments in the hundreds of millions of dollars into vertical farming operators, the availability of capital, technological improvements, and the search for a new asset class that could deliver on returns comparable with other climate-focused technologies, such as solar.

The concept of CEA is, therefore, nothing new, but the key question for today's vertical farms that remains broadly unanswered is whether the combined technologies, models, and teams that make up the businesses involved in this sector's "new wave" can simultaneously deliver on both consumer demands (ideally at price parity) and investor return expectations.


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