International Agriculture News, New Agri Technology

Can Indoor Farming Solve Our Agriculture Problems?

Food is central to our lives – that’s a given – but our relationship with it is problematic: agriculture is one of the leading causes of climate change. With the world’s population growing rapidly in the next few decades, the global demand for food is expected to increase by 70%. However, the production of this food is costly: meat and dairy have the highest global carbon footprint and agriculture uses 70% of the world’s freshwater, to name just a few problematic aspects. This coupled with a higher demand and pressure from the effects of climate change creates a vicious cycle. How do we break it?

Photos courtesy of Bowery Farming

Bowery Farming believes it has a solution. The company’s high tech, indoor farms use a hydroponic system, requiring 95% less water than traditional agriculture to grow produce. Additionally, vertical farming requires less space, meaning that Bowery is 100 times more productive than a traditional farm on the same amount of land. Because the farms are indoors, in closely controlled environments, there is also no need for pesticides. These are just a few of the ways that Bowery is rethinking contemporary agriculture systems.

We wanted to know more, so we reached out to Bowery CEO and co-founder, Irving Fain, to discuss his vision for today’s farming practices and the role that technology can play in improving our relationship to food.

Bowery CEO and Co-Founder Irving Fain. Image: Michael Baca

What was your inspiration and mission for founding Bowery?

I’m a big believer in technology’s ability to solve difficult problems. After building my last company, I wanted to spend my time working on an area that I was personally passionate about and a set of problems that were broadly important. Agriculture sits at the epicenter of so many global issues today. Over 70% of our global water supply goes to agriculture, we use over 700 million pounds of pesticides each year in the US alone, and industrial farming practices have caused a loss of over 30% of the arable farmland in the last 40 years. At the same time, our global population is growing to 9-10 billion people by 2050 and we will need 70% more food in order to feed a population of that size, meaning that more food will need to be produced in the next 30 years than has been produced in the last 10,000. After becoming obsessed with the question of how to provide fresh food more efficiently and sustainably to urban environments, I teamed up with my co-founders David Golden and Brian Falther to build Bowery. Bowery combines the benefits of the best local farms with advances made possible by technology in large-scale commercial indoor farms to grow produce consumers can feel good about eating.

What sets Bowery apart from traditional farming?

While traditional farming methods waste resources and endanger our future food supply, indoor farming allows us to grow more efficiently and with fewer resources. Bowery farms use zero pesticides, 95% less water, and are 100x times more productive on the same footprint of land than traditional agriculture. We’re also able to grow a wide variety of crops  twice as fast, more crop cycles per year, and more yield per crop cycles than the field, regardless of weather or seasonality. BoweryOS, our proprietary software system, uses vision systems, automation technology, and machine learning to monitor plants and all the variables that drive their growth 24/7, while combining software and automation with industrial process management to optimize production, fulfillment and distribution. By applying proprietary machine learning algorithms to millions of points of data collected by an extensive network of sensors and cameras, BoweryOS can make automatic adjustments to environmental conditions to improve crop quality, health, yield, and flavor.

Since we’re able to provide consistent conditions for crops (many which are tough to grow outdoors, especially with changing global climates), there are truly endless possibilities to what we can grow at Bowery. And because we’re close to the point of consumption and don’t have to worry about growing crops to withstand long travel distances or shelf life, we can grow more flavorful, less commodified crops.

Additionally, because we grow in a completely closed environment, we drastically minimize the risk of contamination from foodborne illness. Unlike outdoor farms, which are vulnerable to contamination from animal waste, tainted groundwater or irrigation run-off, Bowery produce is grown in a closed-loop indoor system that recirculates filtered municipal water free of contamination. And because we control the entire process from seed to store, our greens aren’t matriculated through large distribution and fulfillment centers that often lead to additional exposure to contaminants.

Technology and agriculture aren’t often thought of together. Do you see them as natural counterparts?

Agriculture and technology are historically deeply intertwined. While many people think of technology as purely digital, agriculture is actually one of the first major human technological breakthroughs, and is the basis for the creation of towns, cities and civilizations. Over the years, there has been constant innovation in agriculture, and it’s supported the growth of human populations through today. So tech and agriculture have always had a close relationship.

Today, agriculture is at the epicenter of many of our global challenges. At Bowery, we began with the fundamental conviction that technology is critical to developing both a scalable and sustainable solution to those global issues.

What kind of produce do you grow?

Our proprietary technology BoweryOS allows us to grow a dynamic portfolio of different crops on a smaller footprint of land. We currently offer 9 SKUs at retail partners, including spring blend, kale mix, baby kale, arugula, butterhead lettuce, romaine, bok choy, sweet & spicy mix, and basil. Beyond that, we’ve experimented with over 100 varieties. Right now we’re focused on delivering the best leafy greens and herbs possible to our retail and restaurant partners, but we’ve already started experimenting beyond leafy greens with root vegetables such as turnips, and plan to expand our offerings in the future.

How did you finance the company – which VCs or companies invested?

With Bowery, we were fortunate to have a number of world-class investors excited about Bowery’s mission, the technology we’re creating, the team we’re building and most importantly, the food we are growing. When we built our first farm, we were fortunate to work with Rob Hayes and First Round Capital who led our seed round, along with a number of other fantastic investors. To date, we’ve raised $122.5M from leading investors such as Google Ventures, General Catalyst, and GGV. Bowery has also welcomed noteworthy thought-leaders in the culinary industry as investors, including Chef Tom Colicchio,  Chef José Andrés, Chef Carla Hall, David Barber, co-owner of Blue Hill, and the founders of sweetgreen, among others.

Where are you currently located? Plans for expansion?

We currently have two farms located in Kearny, New Jersey. This past December, we announced our Series B funding round of $90 million and we plan to use the capital to scale our operation in new cities across the country and expand our network of farms in 2019.

As CleanTechnica has already covered, Bowery has announced plans to use a microgrid that will run in part off of solar power to support an indoor farm year round. Can you talk a little bit about the benefits and challenges of using the microgrid and when this project will be underway?

We are working to incorporate a proprietary hybrid microgrid system that uses distributed energy resources, including a rooftop solar array, a natural gas generator equipped with advanced emissions control technologies and lithium-ion battery energy storage system. These solutions will help cover a meaningful amount of our energy consumption needs for this farm and will set us up with the knowledge and experience to install significantly more sustainable solutions in future farms. We will continue to meaningfully increase this percentage over time as we innovate on our electrical energy distribution efficiency.

What are the costs of urban farming like in comparison with traditional produce?

The existing food supply chain has a lot of inefficiencies. Because we’re located near the point of consumption, we cut out much of the waste and cost in distribution while delivering a fresher, better product. At the same time, the technology we’ve developed allows us to grow in a way that is 100x times more productive than traditional farming on the same footprint of land, which enables us to keep the cost of our produce competitive with organic products grown in the field.

Do you foresee urban farming as the solution to issues caused by growing populations, climate change and increasingly limited resources?

Yes, we view urban farming as one of the solutions to issues caused by growing populations, climate change, and increasingly limited resources including food and water supply as well as environmental degradation.

For one, there simply is not enough arable land in the world to feed the growing population using today’s conventional methods, and fresh produce loses 45% of its nutritional value when shipped. At Bowery, we solve for this by reappropriating previously unusable industrial space to grow crops indoors, closer to the point of consumption, at a rate that is 100x more productive per square foot of land than that of traditional agriculture. Produce is also typically grown in one central area, shipped to cold storage, then driven via long-haul across the country, and finally transported by last mile shippers to stores. In the U.S. alone, food trucking is responsible for 12.5% of total emissions. By locating close to the point of consumption, we drastically minimize the carbon footprint of food distribution. Additionally, while the agriculture industry uses 70% of the world’s freshwater and over 700 million pounds of pesticides in the U.S. alone, we use 95% less water than traditional farming and absolutely no pesticides.

What are your goals for Bowery in the next few years?

Our goal is to open more farms in new cities to give people access to fresher, safer, more sustainable produce. And, from a macro level, in order to provide food for a growing population, we need to feed the world with more than just lettuce and herbs. Getting these right is an important first step, but in order to keep up with current customer demand, we’re working on growing more types of produce as we build more farms, with an eye toward greater access for more people. There’s a huge opportunity to deliver a vast variety of fresh, delicious produce to people around the world with Bowery’s technology.

About the Author

Erika Clugston Erika is a writer and artist based in Berlin. She is passionate about sharing stories of climate change and cleantech initiatives worldwide. Whether it’s transforming the fashion, food, or engineering industries, there’s an opportunity and responsibility for us all to do better. In addition to contributing to CleanTechnica, Erika is the Web and Social Media Editor at LOLA Magazine and writes regularly about art and culture.