Indoor farming & the future of food

A need to feed

There are currently 7.9 billion people on Earth. If you think that sounds like a lot, it might shock you to learn that this number is expected to reach a staggering 9.7 billion by 2050. To produce enough food to feed this growing population, our global food production will need to increase by up to 60% over the next 30 years. And if that wasn’t challenging enough, our food security is also under threat from climate change, with changes in temperature and rainfall impeding crop production.

How can the agricultural industry meet this growing demand for food while also combatting environmental challenges? One solution may be indoor farming, which has the potential to protect otherwise vulnerable crops while producing greater and more reliable crop yields. But what is indoor farming and is it the answer?

What lies indoors?

Indoor farming involves growing plants inside glasshouses (greenhouses), warehouses, and containers, as opposed to outdoors. It is also referred to as controlled environment agriculture (CEA) and consists of two main sectors: ‘greenhouse’ and ‘vertical farming’.

Greenhouses use natural sunlight during the day and artificial lighting at night, with plants usually grown on one level. Vertical farms on the other hand grow crops in multiple, stacked layers using solely artificial lighting.

The advantage to growing in a controlled environment is that you can tailor your growing conditions to suit the needs of your plants. Ideal temperature and humidity levels can be maintained with climate control technology. Greenhouses allow light to enter and trap heat to keep plants warm. If things start to heat up, ventilation systems can be used to cool the greenhouse and keep temperatures from getting too high.

In certain climates, heating systems are also used during the colder months to keep plants from getting too cold. Vertical farming uses both heating and cooling systems to create the ideal artificial environment. Indoor farms can also hold higher levels of carbon dioxide gas, which increases photosynthesis (plant energy production) and improves plant productivity.

Another benefit of indoor growing is the use of soilless (hydroponic/aeroponic) systems which allow plants to be fed with a customised mix of nutrients that cater to that specific plant needs. All of this enables faster plant growth and higher yields; however, indoor farming is not without its drawbacks.

The pros and cons of indoor farming

Unlike traditional farms, indoor farms are not limited by location, weather conditions or the availability of arable land, and crops can be produced year-round. If we were to repurpose existing buildings close to cities, we could provide fresh produce directly to local consumers. By shortening the time from harvest to market, we could reduce both transport costs and the likelihood of food spoiling. In this way, indoor farming has great potential to eliminate ‘food deserts’ by improving community access to affordable and nutritious food.

Growing indoors can also be highly efficient and productive if space and resources are optimised. A 36 square foot vertical farm can produce roughly the same quantity of herbs, fruit, and vegetables as a standard acre of farmland (43,560 square feet). In addition, controlling pest populations is easier when growing indoors, reducing our reliance on pesticide use.

Despite all of this, the main obstacles to indoor farming are electricity costs. With light installations that run for 12-18 hours per day, vertical farms tend to have huge energy bills. When comparing greenhouses, and vertical farms, an additional concern is carbon footprint – the total amount of greenhouse gases produced.

If we want to avoid rising global temperatures, then we need to reduce our global carbon footprint. When the energy used to power vertical farms is not renewable, the carbon footprint that they produce is substantially greater than greenhouses, while the reverse is true when renewable energy is available.

By growing locally in vertical farms, we could markedly reduce the carbon footprint of foods that would otherwise be transported long distances. Technology in this space continues to improve. However, certain crops are currently more cost-effective than others. Leafy greens, tomatoes, and potatoes are strong candidates as they are fast-growing, and they represent a promising start.

The role of plant tissue culture

When it comes to growing plants indoors, another area of innovation is plant tissue culture. Plant tissue culture allows for the rapid production of up to thousands of identical plants from plant tissue samples. This enables growers to preserve and improve plant performance, consequently increasing plant yields and revenue.

In order for indoor farms to grow as much produce as possible in a confined space, a large number of plants needs to be grown. Using plants that are the same height and size allows for the maximum number of plants to be grown in a small area. It is normal for plants of the same species to vary in height and size; however, variation can be reduced through plant tissue culture methods to help growers achieve a greater planting density.

In addition, plant tissue culture uses strict sterilization processes to make sure that the resulting plants remain free from contamination. This means that crops are less likely to be negatively affected by plant pathogens.

Also, tissue cultured plantlets can gradually adapt to the required growing conditions inside controlled indoor nurseries. Acclimatization is an important stage in tissue culture, and we may acquire robust, disease-free plants with the help of indoor nurseries.

The future is now

In our quest to produce enough food annually to feed almost 10 billion people by 2050, we will need to improve our farming methods to grow a greater amount of nutritious and accessible food. Indoor farming has incredible potential to revolutionise the way that we produce food, with unprecedent control over food crops and their environment.

Using indoor farms will allow us to harvest more plants more often while reducing our dependence on particular locations and weather conditions. To realise the full benefits of indoor farming, we will need to incorporate sustainable energy and improve profit margins. However, if you would like to catch a glimpse of the future of food, you need to only look inside.

For more interesting articles on controlled environment agriculture, keep checking this space.

By Laura Steel | 26-April-2022

About the author

Laura is a Melbourne-based writer and science communicator with 4 years of experience working for an Australian medicinal cannabis company. She completed a bachelor’s degree with Honours in Biological Sciences at Monash University and is currently undertaking a PhD in plant developmental and reproductive biology with La Trobe University and the ARC Research Hub for Medicinal Agriculture.