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Could indoor farming help address future food shortages?

By 2050, Earth’s population is expected to rise to 10 billion, while the resources on the planet continue to shrink. Researchers in the Netherlands are experimenting with one way to feed more people with less: growing crops indoors. NewsHour Weekend’s Ivette Feliciano takes a look at how indoor farming could shift our relationship with food.

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  • Megan Thompson:

    The United Nations estimates that by the year 2050, the world’s population will grow from today’s 7.5 billion people to nearly 10 billion. And as natural resources like farmland and water become scarce, feeding everyone will become an even greater challenge. In tonight’s Signature Segment, NewsHour Weekend’s Ivette Feliciano reports on how there might a solution well underway in the Netherlands. This story is part of our ongoing series, “Peril and Promise – the challenge of climate change.”

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    Just south of The Hague, in the Westland region of the Netherlands, miles upon miles of greenhouses are spread across the landscape. They’ve been built by Dutch farmers as part of a 20-year movement by the country to pursue sustainable agriculture by growing indoors.

    Dutch farmer Hans Zwinkel grows tomatoes in two greenhouses that cover 20 acres of land. His annual harvest of two-and-a-half million pounds of tomatoes is more than double the average yield of an outdoor farm.

  • Hans Zwinkel:

    The plant started over there as a small plant, stands about five meters, six meters further.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    Zwinkel and growers like him achieves high yields by controlling the climate and water for their crops under glass. Filtration systems allow them to collect and recycle the plants’ water supply. Crops receive direct sunlight — supplemented as needed by artificial light — and are protected from unpredictable weather events and insects, which almost completely eliminates the use of chemical pesticides.

  • Hans Zwinkel:

    It’s nice to see the plants grow. You–it gives you energy.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    These growing techniques have helped foster an indoor growing boom in the Netherlands. Greenhouses now produce 35 percent of the country’s vegetables–despite occupying less than one percent of its farmland.

    The Netherlands’ Wageningen University has led much of the research on how to best grow crops indoors. Leo Marcelis–a professor at the university–says that in the era of climate change, the Dutch agricultural revolution needs to move beyond greenhouses, which still rely on some outside forces like sunlight.

  • Leo Marcelis:

    We wanted to control the production process, that we can control the yield, the quality, that we can give guarantees towards the consumers. Although we can control a lot we’re still dependent on the outdoor conditions. So the next step would be to have a further control. So we can in fact guarantee how much produce we will have tomorrow, or on any date of the — of the year, of a guaranteed quality.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    Marcelis is now experimenting with indoor vertical farming–growing plants stacked on shelves to maximize space–and completely cut-off from the outside. As in many greenhouses, water for the plants is drained, collected, and reused, reducing their dependence on an outside water source. And instead of sunlight, the researchers use l-e-ds — light bulbs that can replicate solar light in a variety of colors and intensities.

  • Leo Marcelis:

    Whether we are growing tomatoes, whether it’s about getting fruits, or whether it’s a lettuce, or a leafy vegetables. You can imagine that you want a different type of plant. And that may require therefore a different light. With LEDs, we can also put them in between the plants. And that’s very good. Because usually there is maybe too much light on the top, but insufficient at the bottom. So we can have a much better distribution of the light in the plant.

    But growing indoors isn’t cheap. Marcelis says a quarter of the expenses for indoor growers in the Netherlands relate to construction–something farmers who grow in fields don’t have to worry about. Then there’s the energy costs of round-the-clock climate control and artificial lighting. But Marcelis says a key advantage to indoor farming is that by creating ideal growing conditions and maximizing space, it can produce much higher yields, in some cases, up to 350 times the yield of a conventional farm of the same size.

  • Leo Marcelis:

    What really matters is if the income is larger than the cost. So if the investment costs are high, and also the other costs are high, well, if the income is then also very high, then it is about the balance.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    Marcelis says one important part of their work is developing techniques that can be replicated anywhere, even in arid climates like the Middle East or sub-Saharan Africa. The United Nations estimates as the world’s population grows, global food demand will rise 70 percent by 2050, even as the amount of water and farmable land shrinks due to the global warming.

    The Netherlands is already doing its part to feed the world. Propelled by indoor farming, it’s become the second biggest food exporter in the world, accounting for nearly 90 billion dollars last year. This is all the more astounding given that the Netherlands is less than one-percent the size of the United States, the world’s number one food exporter, where indoor farming is also gaining a foothold.

    Here in Kennett Township, Pennsylvania, mushroom growers have been practicing indoor farming for over a hundred years, and today produce half the U.S. mushroom crop.

    An hour outside Philadelphia, this small community of eight thousand people harvests half a billion pounds of mushrooms every year — all of it indoors and at a low cost of about one dollar per pound.

  • Chris Alonzo:

    We invested nine years ago into a Dutch-style farm.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    Chris Alonzo owns this indoor farm that uses the vertical farming methods seen in the Netherlands.

  • Chris Alonzo:

    We put in aluminum shelving instead of wooden beds, we invested in equipment which made the job less labor intensive. We have heat in the room, air conditioning in the room, and air flow. And we use those tools to make sure that the room environment is specifically controlled for what the mushroom likes.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    Using these techniques, Alonzo’s facility alone is responsible for more than one percent of the nation’s mushroom crop — growing 11 million pounds of mushrooms a year — protected from potentially harsh outdoor conditions.

  • Chris Alonzo:

    The only day we take off is Christmas. And the consumer wants fresh produce year-round. So we’re able to meet the needs to have locally grown produce all year-round. As opposed to some crops where they’re only grown seasonally.

    This is our environmental control unit…

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    Alonzo says the difficulty with indoor farming–as with outdoor farming–is finding the balance between your harvest’s revenue and its expenses.

  • Chris Alonzo:

    Mushrooms has been sustainable for– for generations. However, land is – is — affordable, because Mother Nature provides rain, Mother Nature provides sun. Growing indoors is very capital intensive. You have the building, you have the infrastructure, you have energy costs. But if you can maximize productivity and having consistent quality year-round, yes, it’s economically viable, but the margins are still very tight.”

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    Most indoor farmers can’t grow at the same scale as mushroom farmers in Kennett Township. But where they — and some venture capitalists — see the future of indoor agriculture lying is in small-scale urban production in areas with no farming industry of their own.

  • Matt Barnard:

    The place where we’re stepping in now is to serve demand that is unmet.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    Three-thousand miles west of Alonzo’s farm, indoor farming pioneer Matt Barnard heads a major agriculture project in San Francisco called “plenty.” Its farm is a retrofitted former warehouse, now with walls of fresh vegetables that stretch for 100-thousand square feet.

    Currently it grows leafy greens like spinach and kale–the easiest and most affordable crops to grow indoors–but it will soon start growing tomatoes and strawberries as well. The plants grow directly out of vertical columns. Similar to Dutch researchers, the company also uses l-e-d lighting, water recycling, and climate control.

    No genetically modified seeds or pesticides are used in production. Instead, it’s the environment that’s modified, carefully crafted around each type of plant to give them the ideal conditions for growing.

  • Matt Barnard:

    The advantages that we find are because of that control– we, for example, don’t have to use pesticides. Instead of using 15 gallons of water to produce one head of lettuce, we use less than one-fifth of a gallon to produce that same head of lettuce. So we’re saving a significant amount of water. We can actually influence the way the food tastes by making sure it has exactly the right nutrient recipe, the right light recipe, the right water recipe.

  • Ivette Feliciano:

    Plenty hopes to become an industry leader in indoor farming. The company recently received 200 million dollars of private funding, which it plans to spend on building farms in the ten most populous American cities and hundreds more worldwide.

    But, as in the Netherlands, plenty has to overcome certain challenges — the upfront cost of building or retrofitting indoor spaces suitable for farming…and the energy costs of indoor lighting and climate control.

    But Matt Barnard believes that the advances that have been made in indoor agriculture will make it a key player in feeding the world’s ever-growing population.

  • Matt Barnard:

    We’ve added, you know, six billion people since the tractor came around, and so we believe this is one of the core innovations that’ll help us, you know, serve the next two to three billion people that we add to the planet.

    Peril and Promise is an ongoing series of reports on the human impact of, and solutions for, Climate Change. Lead funding for Peril and Promise is provided by Dr. P. Roy Vagelos and Diana T. Vagelos. Major support is provided by Marc Haas Foundation.

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