The Pandemic Sparks New Demand For Vertical Farming

Dickson Despommier indicated in a column late last month in The Wall Street Journal that, “The Covid-19 pandemic has disrupted agricultural production and supply chains around the world. Farmers have often struggled to get their food to distant markets, and sharp shifts in demand have repeatedly forced them to dump crops. Avoiding such logistical problems is one of the chief advantages of vertical farms, a new approach to agriculture that aims to grow food closer to population centers.

“Over the past 10 years, hundreds of such indoor farms have sprouted up around the globe, mostly in the larger cities of industrialized countries. They occupy multistory buildings in which crops are grown in water or in misted air instead of soil, with LED lights in place of sunlight, in a controlled and largely automated environment.

Building more vertical farms in cities is especially timely because of the expected effects of the pandemic on urban office towers. Moody’s Analytics REIS now projects office vacancies to rise to 19.3% in the 82 largest metropolitan areas by the end of the year, up from 16.8% last year, and then to continue rising. In June, 82% of employers surveyed by market-research firm Gartner, Inc. said that they would allow employees to work from home permanently. Indoor farms can occupy some of the abandoned or underused office space created by these trends.”

Dr. Despommier stated that, “There are many other vertical-farm startups backed by venture capital and expanding in Europe and the U.S., as well as on the Arabian peninsula, where they can provide an alternative to hot, arid conditions. But other firms have failed, or have canceled expansion plans, as they struggle to manage their costs and compete in local markets. And vertical farms aren’t likely to gain a competitive advantage over conventional farming when it comes to important commodities such as fruits grown in orchards or grains grown in vast fields. Both are possible to raise in vertical indoor settings, but so far, their yields are too low and seasonal to be economical.

The pandemic has sparked new demand for the industry. San Francisco-based vertical farm Plenty says that a significant increase in shipments has sped up its effort to diversify crops. The company has already experimented with strategies to add items such as tomatoes and strawberries.

“Covid-19 has been a harbinger of longer-term problems in food security for our cities. One answer may come from growing more of our food just down the street.”

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