Indoor farms could be the answer to the water crisis bringing food security and year-round fresh produce to communities in need.
In the US, agriculture is responsible for 80% of water use and 90% in many western states. A big part of agriculture is irrigated crops. In 2008, about 72 million acre-feet of water was used to irrigate 40 million acres of farms in 17 western states. About 38 million of those acre-feet were from surface water and about 34 million from ground water. To get an idea of how much water that is, an Olympic sized swimming pool holds about 2 acre-feet of water.
Such large water use in a time of drought demands innovative solutions. One partial solution is indoor farming. Indoor farms aren’t novel in the realm of food production, for example Cornell University created an indoor farming system in 1999 (now operated by Challenge Industries, Inc.) and entities continue to implement indoor farms worldwide. A recent, rather successful, example is Mirai Co., Ltd.’s indoor farm in Japan.
Shigeharu Shimamura, the CEO of Mirai (a company that sells plant factory materials and vegetables), recently built the world’s largest indoor farm. Occupying a 25,000 square foot facility, the Mirai farm produces 10,000 heads of lettuce every day. The farm is quite remarkable because it grows lettuce 2.5 times faster than an outdoor farm, reduces produce waste from 50% to 10%, and reduces water use by 99%. Because of Mirai’s ability to control every aspect of plant growth, it is able to increase farm productivity by hundredfold per square foot. The Mirai farm uses far less water than an outdoor farm by reducing water lost due to seepage and evaporation. Moreover, the moisture that does evaporate off of the growing lettuce collects high above the produce racks and is recycled back into the system. This is an important process because in conventional farming as much as 70% of water never gets to crops.
Problems with indoor farms
Notably, Challenge Industries and Mirai both grow lettuce. However, Shimamura said that technically it is possible to grow any plant in an indoor farm. What is stopping his company and others from growing different plants is economics; these farms use a lot of energy. Therefore, it only makes sense to produce fast-growing vegetables at this time. Another issue with energy is the carbon footprint. Dr. Louis D. Albright, the program director of Cornell University’s Controlled Environment Agriculture program, argues that powering the LED lights creates a larger carbon footprint than shipping produce from coast-to-coast.
Beyond energy, indoor farming also presents a question of employment and how employees fit into this picture. Mirai uses machines to automate about half of the processes at its farm while picking is done by hand. However, Mirai hopes to fully automate the farm once there is an emergence of harvesting robots. Cornell’s farm, which produces 945 heads of lettuce per day, employs only 2 fulltime workers and 1 part time worker. Whether or not this is a problem is a matter of perspective. I view it as a step into the future in which we can redirect human capital to new challenges and innovations. But that’s easy to say as a law student who is going into the knowledge economy. Others may view the near-total robotization of farming to be no more than a job killer. Total robotization of farming could eradicate jobs across the globe; the Bureau of Labor Statistics says there are about 750,000 agricultural workers (this includes livestock workers). Coupled with the expectation that 3D printers will kill the manufacturing industry, indoor farms could put the availability of manual labor jobs in serious jeopardy.
It is also worth being concerned about the public’s potential reactions to indoor farms. People love organically grown food that has not been tampered by human interference. They may be turned off by the fact that computer systems are growing lettuce 2.5 times faster than it would grow outside and that LED lights feed the plants rather than the sun. In fact, Mirai calls its indoor farm a plant factory. It all sounds very artificial. However, people may react positively because indoor farms are pesticide free which would lead to a cut-down in water pollution. Another noteworthy benefit of indoor farms is that they can provide fresh produce year-round in communities that may not have reliable access to crops. Mirai, for example, put its factory in a part of Japan that was devastated by a 2011 earthquake amid fears about Japan’s declining supply of domestic vegetable production.
I honestly believe indoor farms are the inevitable future. Populations and food demand grow while land and water remain finite. American citizens who live in freezing climates like arctic Alaska or in deserts could have a reliable, local source for fresh produce year-round.
USDA Economic Research Service, Irrigation & Water Use (last updated June 7, 2013), http://www.ers.usda.gov/topics/farm-practices-management/irrigation-water-use.aspx.
USDA Economic Research Service, Western Irrigated Agriculture tables 1-8 to -11 (last updated June 7, 2013), http://www.ers.usda.gov/data-products/western-irrigated-agriculture.aspx.
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Rutgers University, Floating Hydroponics Greenhouse (last visited Jan. 18, 2015), http://aesop.rutgers.edu/~horteng/floating_hydroponics.htm.
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Cornell University Controlled Environment Agriculture, People of CEA (last visited Jan. 22, 2015), http://www.cornellcea.com/about/people/albright.html.
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