What it means when big business listens

Big companies developing vertical farming technology means it’s catching on.

 

“The ability of farmers to manage risks in long-term, multi-generational contexts, has helped make U.S. agriculture extraordinarily resilient,” says Gregory Page, Executive Chairman of Cargill Inc., one of the world’s largest food companies.  “That resilience is also built on innovation and on investments made decades ago.”

 

Click the image to read to full Risky Business Report/

Click the image to read to full Risky Business Report

Page’s comments come in light of the new report Risky Business Report: The Economic Risks of Climate Change in the United States.

Climate change and its environmental impacts are poised to fundamentally change agriculture as it is in America. Just one example; the Great Plains and Midwest risk up to a 70% loss in annual crop yields (corn, soy, cotton, and wheat) due to rising temperatures according to the report.

Of course, that loss only occurs absent any agricultural adaptation or innovation.

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Wheat crops like this will suffer from climate change.

While innovation could come from anywhere, more and more big companies are recognizing vertical farming as a potential next step in the evolution of the world’s food supply.

Last week, we saw Panasonic make its first steps, but huge multinationals like Phillips, Sony, and GE are testing the potential of controlled environment agriculture as well.  It is only natural that those controlled environments adapt for efficiency.  That adaptation is vertical.

 

So what are we trying to say?

 

There are a number of profit-driven pressures converging to push big companies into vertical farming.  Whether this comes from an overdue consensus in the business world on global warming (Risky Business board includes businessmen like Michael Bloomberg, Gregory Page, and Tom Steyer) or recognizing isolated urban markets with a demand for local produce as is the case with Panasonic, businesses realize there is enough money in this to warrant further research and experimentation.

 

Concept for Plantagon, an urban vertical farm in Sweeden.

Concept for Plantagon, an urban vertical farm in Sweeden.

As innovative and sustainable agriculture becomes a focal point for combating climate change (over 44% of greenhouse gas emissions come from agricultural production, a number that has been steadily climbing), more and more companies with the resources to experiment will take note of vertical farming as one possible solution.

This is important because the number one critique of vertical farming has always been its expense, and the majority of that is front-loaded.  This means that before vertical farms can be profitable, a huge initial investment has to be made.  Look at last week’s data on Sky Greens; $28 million dollars to build 2000 3-story towers.

That’s a lot of money.

And what better place for that money to come from than companies already raking it in?

 

The first vertical farm showdown: Why you need to know what’s happening in Singapore

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Singapore may be the most important country in the world for vertical farming right now.

Corporate giant Panasonic’s new project debuted just this week and challenges exactly what the country knows about its food supply.

Inside Panasonic's new urban vertical farm

Inside Panasonic’s new farm

This is a monster blog post, but there’s a lot of information synthesized here you won’t find anywhere else.  I’m going to walk you through why Singapore is important, then I’m going to show you what is happening there with Panasonic and another company called Sky Greens, and then I’m going to explain what that might mean for the evolution of urban vertical farming.

No scholar could come up with a better  hypothetical test case for vertical farming than the realities in Singapore.  Key conditions indicating the success or even the possibility of an industrial vertical farm include:

  • Dense and urban population (Singapore is an island a little more than 3 times the size of Washington, DC with a population of 5.6 million people.  Their population is 100% urbanized)
  • Production proximity to market (New, government-sponsored industrial parks allow companies to build their businesses on the island)
  • Existing infrastructure (Singapore is a developed, high-tech country whose purchasing power parity ranks 41st in the world)
  • Cheap energy (Energy is reliable and affordable, especially when supplemented with renewable resources)
  • Legislative Support (Singapore’s government not only has the laudable sustainability goals of 20% self-sufficiency in the coming years, but also established a 20 million dollar fund to boost domestic food production.  This helps enormously in the face of insane vertical farming start-up costs.)
  • Local Demand (Expensive imports from China and Japan currently fill Singapore’s supermarkets.  Singapore only produces 7% of the produce it consumes.)

Singapore embodies each of these conditions better than almost anywhere else on the planet and I’d be hard pressed to argue that what works here, in this first battleground, is not going to affect the rest of the vertical farming industry.  To see what might be working, let’s first look at the older of the two companies, Sky Greens.