A scarce water supply, rapid population growth, and climate change pose a serious threat to our food production. But Silicon Valley thinks it has the solution.
Using freight containers equipped with hi-tech gadgets, entrepreneurs are disrupting the very essence of what it means to farm; bringing the outdoors, inside.Freight farming, also known as vertical farming and hydroponic farming, allows for year-round agriculture, anywhere.
How it works
Born under the ‘agtech’ movement, freight farming uses a system which replaces soil with circulating water, delivering necessary nutrients to the plants. It also uses LED lights to replace natural sunlight, for photosynthesis.
By repurposing a freight container with LEDs and enhanced water, freight farming can control its climate with pinpoint accuracy.
Seeds are grown in vertical trays to maximise capacity. In urban communities where land is scant, and the demand for local food is rising, freight farming provides a convenient solution.
In New York City’s trendy Williamsburg neighborhood, the freight farm startup ‘Square Roots’ installed ten farms in the parking lot of an old factory. Founded by Kimbal Musk, brother of Elon, Square Roots is one of a growing number of freight farm operators hoping to scale agriculture into a container.
Is it too good to be true?
Some would say yes. Freight farming is controversial.
For one thing, it’s expensive. The average freight costs $80,000 with an estimated running cost of $1,000 per month. The net effect to consumers is $4 for a pound of lettuce. This likely explains why freight farms mostly sell to high-end restaurants and gourmet food chains.
Then there is crop availability. Freight farming cannot produce our most staple crops at an economically viable rate. According to NASA researcher and agricultural scientist, Dr. Bruce Bugbee, wheat, for instance, would cost 100 times more than it’s worth (per bushel), to produce in a freight farm. Only greens such as Kale, Lettuce, Swiss Chard, and the herb Basil are cheap enough to yield economically.
What about the environment? Freight farming brands itself as a low carbon alternative to traditional agriculture. Freight’s are insulated to use less energy. But the LED lights consume significant electricity, the kind, which in the U.S. is still derived from fossil fuels, such as coal.
Most of all, freight farming has come under attack for its bullish yield claims. A freight is only 40ft wide, but some boast they’re producing the equivalent to 5x an acre of land. According to Bright Agrotech, this is ridiculous. Here’s why:
- An acre is about 44,000 square feet. A freight farm is 400 square feet, around 1% of an acre
- A traditional farm can produce twelve tonnes of lettuce, per acre, per harvest. There are two harvests per year = 24 tons
- Freight farms have ten harvests per year
- Depending on the size of the lettuce, this could yield between 2.16 tons to 6.48 tons per year
- Even at 2.16 tons, which is roughly 10% of 24 tons, would make freight farming a decent alternative to land farming
But 10% is not five times more.
Disruptive innovation is a cool concept when it works. But is agriculture ready for a tech makeover? Indoor farming methods do not necessarily improve agriculture or reduce carbon emissions. Above all, would you eat synthetically grown Kale? Some things are better left to mother nature.
As always, pushing for health.