Seeds of Innovation: The Next Step In Vertical Farming

Unlocking the Future of Indoor Vertical Farming through Tailored Seed Technology and Diversification

Using seeds tailored to these specific environments remains limited in the burgeoning vertical and indoor farming sector. Predominantly relying on greenhouse-adapted seeds or those meant for conventional agriculture can lead to suboptimal yield and inconsistent output for indoor farming systems.

Addressing this gap, companies like Unfold.ag are entering the market to provide tailored seed solutions for vertical and indoor farming operations. These specialized seeds enable a more efficient and profitable farming experience for growers. Moreover, companies must navigate challenges in automation, robotics, and plant breeding techniques as the indoor farming industry strives to diversify its crop offerings. This push for innovation could lead to the development of new crops and a more resilient global food system that can better address the supply chain vulnerabilities we are witnessing today.

Thanks to John Purcell, Chief Strategy Officer of Unfold, and Brindha Narasimhamoorthy, Director of Leafy Crop Breeding at Unfold, for their valuable time and insights for this article!

What Makes It So Important?

Seed quality, which encompasses a plant's physical quality and genetic potential, is a critical determinant of agricultural productivity and has been the subject of extensive academic research. Across diverse farming sectors, it has become evident that superior seed quality directly correlates with improved plant output, irrespective of crop variety. The recognition of this relationship has prompted industry stakeholders to prioritize sourcing and developing high-quality seeds for their operations.

However, using varieties tailored to these specific environments has been relatively limited in the emerging vertical and indoor farming field. Instead, the industry relies predominantly on greenhouse-adapted seeds or those meant for conventional agriculture, which may not optimize yield or standardize output for indoor farming systems. Consequently, companies have had to invest significantly in acquiring seed technology firms or to allocate substantial resources to research and development to generate specialized seeds that is suited for their environments.

A significant gap in the vertical farming industry concerning the availability of tailored seed solutions has allowed companies like Unfold to enter the market. Unfold's mission is to ensure a more streamlined and efficient production process by providing customized seeds to vertical and indoor farming operations. The company's current portfolio of five crops caters to industry partners such as Good Leaf Farms, Bowery Farming, and Sustenir, highlighting the growing demand for specialized seed solutions in this sector.

“Our Innovation Program with partners on four continents also creates an environment suitable for further development and innovation. This, in turn, broadens our scope of action as an industry,” adds John Purcell.

The Need For Diversification

The indoor farming industry acknowledges that it must expand beyond traditional crops like leafy greens, aromatic herbs, and flowers to broaden its market appeal and demonstrate its expected flexibility and scalability. This diversification is crucial to proving the sector's viability and competitiveness, particularly compared to more established forms of controlled environment agriculture (CEA), as demonstrated by various reports such as CoBank’s latest report on vertical farming.

Nevertheless, questions still need to be answered regarding the readiness of vertical farming companies to embrace a broader range of crops. Moreover, current market conditions suggest that many businesses in the sector need help competing with their counterparts in traditional CEA (Greenhouses and Polytunnels) in crops such as leafy greens or aromatics. This raises concerns about their capacity to diversify their production while maintaining profitability and efficiency successfully, as some have yet to prove their business model.

Purcell argues that while indoor farming companies are poised to expand beyond traditional crops, it may take an estimated 3-5 years before these new crops become commercially viable. He suggests that fruiting crops like tomatoes, peppers, and berries will likely be the next frontier for indoor/vertical CEA, given their higher added value than leafy greens and aromatic herbs.

Recent developments within the sector corroborate this trend, with numerous companies announcing trials or initiating strawberry production. These pioneering ventures indicate a gradual shift toward cultivating fruiting crops in indoor and vertical farming environments.

Examples of companies exploring fruiting crop production include 80 Acres, Bowery Farming, Oishii, OnePointOne, and Plenty, all based in the United States. Their involvement in growing fruiting crops highlights the industry's increasing interest in branching out and exploring new avenues to bolster the viability and sustainability of indoor farming operations.

Brindha Narasimhamoorthy highlights several other factors to address before fruiting crops become mainstream in vertical farming. “In fruiting crops, plant architecture, short production cycle, and harvestable yields are critical factors that plant breeders are actively working on. Plants with a compact growing habit for efficient space use are very attractive to growers. Similarly, varieties that produce more fruits in a short growing cycle make it more profitable,” she explains.

Are The Concerns Over Plant Breeding Techniques Legit?

Plant breeding techniques have been employed for thousands of years, and in some instances, they occur naturally. However, there often needs to be more clarity and understanding surrounding plant breeding. Many erroneously conflate it with genetically modified organism (GMO) techniques commonly used in crops such as soybeans or wheat.

Narasimhamoorthy explains that modern plant breeding techniques resemble intricate puzzles scientists must solve. She emphasizes the critical role of machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI) in today's plant breeding processes: "We input relevant data, including phenotype, genotype, and growing environment data, and build algorithms that can predict the outcome. Consequently, plant breeders today are increasingly adopting the role of data scientists, rather than focusing solely on traditional plant breeding techniques."

As Purcell points out, controlled environment agriculture (CEA) offers significant advantages over conventional agriculture regarding plant breeding. The ability to regulate environmental stressors and understand their effects allows for more efficient problem-solving and seed development. In CEA settings, new plant varieties can be developed in as little as 2-4 years, compared to the 6 to 10-year timeframe typically associated with conventional agriculture.

By leveraging the power of machine learning and AI, CEA practitioners can expedite the plant breeding process and create new varieties with greater efficiency. The fusion of data science with traditional plant breeding techniques is shaping the future of agriculture as experts work tirelessly to optimize crop performance and sustainability in indoor and outdoor farming environments.

What Will Be The Next Wave Of New Crops?

Recently, some companies have explored the cultivation of staple crops, such as wheat and potatoes, within vertical farms as the global agriculture industry seeks to secure supplies and circumvent supply chain disruptions similar to those currently experienced in Ukraine. This innovative approach aims to mitigate risks associated with traditional agricultural methods and create a more resilient food system.

Purcell shares their perspective on this trend: "I don't envision a scenario where billions of hectares dedicated to conventional agriculture are converted into vertical farms or greenhouses, as that wouldn't make much sense. However, I foresee a future where food companies incorporate vertical farms to grow staple or critical crops, thereby de-risking their supply chains and avoiding the expenses incurred during events like the COVID lockdowns." Furthermore, vertical farms could increasingly serve as research hubs, given the fewer stressors involved and the enhanced control researchers have over the production output.

As the global agricultural landscape evolves, vertical farming is emerging as a potential solution to address supply chain vulnerabilities and ensure a stable food supply. In its earlier stages, vertical farming is not necessarily ready to replace conventional farming practices. That being said, vertical farming’s unique advantages make it an attractive option for food companies and researchers as we look to manage a limited food supply and a continuously expanding population. Traditional farming businesses can better manage supply chain risks by integrating vertical farms into their operations. Further, by investing in cutting-edge research, these same companies will contribute to a more resilient and sustainable food system.

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