I'm an industrial systems eng. w/ a specialty in polymer-textile-fiber engineering. (Mostly useless skillsets in the US now)
Gonna share a few lessons here about agriculture that I try to convey to EECS, econ, Neuroscience, and the web developer crowd.
- You can only grow non-calorically dense foods in vertical farms
- It takes 10-14 kwh/1000 gallons of water to desalinate. More if it gets periodically polluted at an increasing rate.
- Large majority Agrarian populations exist because the countries are stuck in a purgatory of <1 MWh/capita annum whereby the country doesn't have scaleable nitrogen and steel manufacturing.
- Sweet potatoes and sweet potatoes are some of the highest satiety lowest input to output ratio produce. High efficiency.
- In civilizations where you are at < 1MWh/capita annum - there is not enough electricity to produce tools for farming, steel for roads, and concrete for building things. The end result is that the optimal decision is to have more children to harvest more calories per an acre.
- Property, bankruptcy, and inheritance law have an immense influence on the farmer population of a country.
I remember telling some "ag tech" VCs my insights and offering to introduce my father who has an immense amount of insight on the topic from having grown things for as long as he has....My thoughts were tossed aside.
Oh this is fascinating! I never thought of this but of course energy consumption per capita is going to be an indicator of how industrialized a country is. I briefly checked the two countries I am a citizen of (Canada, Hungary) and counterchecked with one of the poorest countries I know of (Chad) and the numbers are as expected: 14.6, 4.1, 0.013 (oof).
Energy availability is wealth.
Purslane (Portulaca oleracea) grows on the sidewalk already, and often next to some wild amaranth (Amarathus Hybridus). What is the point of more efficiently producing specific crops, when there are all these underutilized nutritious plants growing without any human input (or should I say growing despite human input)? This is another problem that I see with the technification of food production in general (including the Green Revolution). Some food wants to be free, but people keep looking for whatever makes the land produce more money in the short term, not what makes it produce more nutrition, etc., because the latter does not adapt so well to the market.
Just because you noticed "Hey, this unpopular grain grows so easily it's popping up from the sidewalk!" does not mean you can actually then go and scale that to providing food for hundreds of millions of people.
We developed modern agriculture the way we did for a reason. Some of those reasons are no longer valid, true, but a whole lot of them are still very very pertinent.
I think vertical farming / rooftop farms / etc are at this point largely an exercise in virtue signaling more than they are actually improving the food system. They might be improving it for high-income Whole Foods types who are upset Amazon owns their favorite store now (ie: us here on HN) - but those people aren't exactly the ones who need to see improvement.
There are food sources that can be had if they were grown local, and grown in a way that makes sense for that locality. By "local", I mean at the neighborhood, and home level. They can be grown synergistically. Even the old, but simple idea of (thoughtful) companion planting can create better yields than monoculture crops.
Our current food system is optimized towards the kind of scale that allows an easier way to control and meter food resources. VCs chase after multiples on investment, and are not incentivized to truly decentralized food systems.
For others following along, there _are_ already people who have guardens with a synergistic diversity of plants. And not only that, have practices that, over time, create yields that require less time to maintain. The permaculture design community have been exploring and implementing these ideas for over 50 years, and people have gotten them to work. They may not have achieved 100% self-sufficiency, but you would be surprised how much they are able to achieve by synergizing not only plants, but also animals, and human social inclinations into the whole system.
I was happy when parsley sprung up like a weed around my house, but it all died out in the drought. Hopefully it comes back soon.
But in the end you have several tons of concrete covering tens of square metres of ground, to allow one or two square metres of cereal grains to grow. That is not particularly efficient use of time or resources.
Furthermore, there are several techniques to help trap moisture that does not require a concrete lid. I'm in the Phnoenix desert, and I use the trimmings from my zucchinni plant as green mulch. Along with the palm fronds that my neighbors love to trim, they create very effective moisture traps. I need to trim my zucchinnis anyways for their optimal health.
I could also plant things in a way to take advantage of the vertical spaces as well. Okra, for example, thrives in the low desert, and provides dense shade that already traps moisture. If I add something that likes shade, and stays closer to the ground, that forms a kind of living mulch that does not require a lot of ongoing maintenance. And if I plant pole beans to take advantage of the sturdy okra stalks, they fix nitrogen and help keep the soil fertile.
I didn't come up with these ideas. They may not be widely known, but people have come up with these design patterns and used them well.
the VC that use to approach us for insights would just never listen. my father literally knew the researchers that tried it in the past and failed.
it did not stop this VC from investing his LP's money in a vertical farm. although i suspect his willingness to allocate other people's money in this manner, for this particular company, had more to do with the social side of things re the founders and other investors.
Is this a typo? Did you mean to write a second vegetable?
HN just keeps delivering. It is almost impossible to believe how much embedded technical knowledge is lurking here. You could colonise Mars with it.
Of course, in this context you should be prepared for the possibility that if you could tap all that expertise what you'd actually get is "reasons that colonizing Mars actually can't work". ...hopefully not, of course, but beware mixing hopes and dreams and reality.
Which brings up another issue, which is energy density/m2 of land. To support industrialization/high density urbanism the only fuel sources that do this are currently fossil fuels, or nuclear, but none of the renewable fuels have the energy density.
So if these countries want to increase the amount of MWh/capita, the most efficient (only?) pathway is through high-energy density fuel sources, which right now is being achieved through the use of fossil fuels. To me, this is (one of) the main reasons nuclear energy needs to be prioritized as a climate change solution.
ETA: And, now that I think about it, another way to squeeze more effectiveness from your grid is to build super energy-efficient buildings that reduces the overall and peak grid energy consumption.
So on the distribution side, they have a population of only 13 million, with a geographic size of 1.2 billion sq metres, which lands us at roughly a thousand times the amount of energy they need to meet the 1MWh per annum per Chad citizen. If they were harvesting it that is. (And that's using 20% efficient solar panels alone. No wind, etc.)
Chad's problem is a lack of anything to trade in exchange for the equipment to harness the sun and build the storage and distribution network. (Grid distribution infrastructure, maybe a liquid air storage facility or 3, solar panels etc)
But the sun itself provides them more than enough energy to meet that 1MWh per annum per capita target.
Also, energy density is not nearly as important as you seem to fundamentally believe. It’s pretty much all about cost and availability.
In countries that use very little energy per capita, even just a single solar panel (with a small inverter and a lead acid battery) per person (or even per family) is life changing, giving them enough energy to run a small refrigerator, a light bulb, and a place to recharge their smartphone without having to go into town and pay someone.
In deep urban environments, space is definitely at a premium, but I struggle to imagine that many people are excited to set up a dirty diesel plant in the town square when air quality is already bad enough due to heavily polluting vehicles running in the city center, let alone set up a small nuclear plant, even if wealthier countries would allow such a proliferation of nuclear technology and fuels. Once the nuclear fuel is spent, then you have this extremely toxic, dangerous waste that has to be put somewhere, and those people probably have a lot of other things on their minds, so you could just be rad poisoning their town by giving them nuclear if they don’t dispose of the waste properly.
On the other hand, the rooftops are prime locations for solar panels and solar water heaters, and because 175W/m^2 of solar converted electricity is actually a ton of energy, it’s still plenty of power.
Unfortunately, cost and availability are king. Wealthy countries are happy to sell old assets at a steep discount, and so shiny new solar panels have to compete with second hand fossil fuel plants / generators that don’t lend themselves to great air quality.
Solar is an extremely sensible solution. Nuclear is not a clear answer at all for developing countries, unless you happen to have the design for a clean, portable cold fusion reactor in your pocket. Fission has a lot of problems that are manageable, but managing those problems takes significant money.
Things I've done with it. Run a Engel Cooler. Run a microwave. Boil water. Probably 1-2 gallons a day. Charge batteries for power tools. Run a skill saw. Power lights indefinitely.
With just that you're getting close to a middle class lifestyle.
Vertical farms make a lot more sense with fresh vegetables like leafy greens that grow quickly, command high prices if grown organically, and benefit from being closer to market.
Potatoes are the exact opposite. If it ever becomes more cost effective to grow corn, wheat, and potatoes in virtual farms then outdoor agriculture is dead. While I don't agree with the article that it will never happen, it might require energy advances like fusion power or drastically higher _rural_ land values and water prices.
Greenhouses make sense long before vertical farming, just look at agriculture in the Netherlands, it's mind boggling how much they produce for such a tiny country.
I get that to store a calorie in a potato I need to supply a calorie of energy from somewhere else.
But why is fusion power required instead of better UV lamps in my vertical farm? (Assuming I had enough electricity to run them)
Sun + water is cheap and plentiful. Small scale farms can sell potatoes at $0.50/lb
or less. Amish farms with oxen can go a little less.
Capital and operational costs for vertical farms don’t seem to make sense, unless there’s some disaster in the Colorado watershed or a trade war that makes hothouse winter produce a viable business again.
 Don't get me wrong, it's a spectrum and some socialism is a very good thing. But not like in Cuba or the old USSR.
Because of the second law of thermodynamics. Your UV lamp is not going to produce light that contains more energy than the electricity you used as input. That energy needs to be produced via solar panels if you want maximum efficiency. If we ignore nuclear or fusion all energy on earth is derived from sunlight.
From an environmental perspective, this is certainly a 'win'. Reducing the amount of land needed for agriculture is a win to both consumers and the environmentalists and the farmers.
> Could one imagine a material that would absorb solar spectrum and emit the preferred frequencies? Something like a polymer one could stretch over fields to get more from the suns rays.
Would you call that a "solar transmitter"?
> Generators of radio waves for heating or industrial purposes, such as microwave ovens or diathermy equipment, are not usually called transmitters, even though they often have similar circuits.
Would "absorption spectroscopy" specialists have insight into whether this is possible without solar cells, energy storage, and UV LEDs?
(edit) The thermal energy from sunlight (from the FREE radiation from the nuclear reaction at the center of our solar system) is also useful to and necessary for plants. There's probably a passive heat pipe / solar panel cooling solution that could harvest such heat for colder seasons and climates.
Also, UV-C is useful for sanitizing (UVGI) but not really for plant growth.
> UVGI can be coupled with a filtration system to sanitize air and water.
Is that necessary or desirable for plants?
> The light that plants predominately use for photosynthesis ranges from 400–700 nm. This range is referred to as Photosynthetically Active Radiation (PAR) and includes red, blue and green wavebands. Photomorphogenesis occurs in a wider range from approximately 260–780 nm and includes UV and far-red radiation.
PAR: Photosynthetically active radiation:
Grow light: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grow_light
Are there bioluminescent e.g. algae which emit PAR and/or UV? Algae can feed off of waste industrial gases.
Bioluminescence > Light production:
Quantum dot display / "QLED":
Could be possible? Analyzing the inputs and outputs is useful in natural systems, as well.
As a community, vertical agriculture need to focus on high calorie crops like potatoes or sweet potatoes or at least something useful like beans.
But circling back to the beginning. You can't really grow a potato with less industrial input vertically than you can with regular land, so unless you are really out of land (and the United States at least is not running out of land anytime soon), it doesn't really make sense to do so. Potatoes are really easy to grow -- you stick them in the ground and dig them up a few months later. Anyone can just buy a few acres of land, fertilize it, stick in some seed potatoes, and get a pretty decent crop that more than covers their costs. This is currently way easier than the amount of setup it would take to use containers. If you were to use conventional growing containers, you would need to import large amounts of soil / substrate. If you were using hydroponics, you'd also have to buy large amounts of hydroponic substrate or expensive nozzles for aeroponics. Either way, it's more expensive.
Anyway... wish me luck, I'm starting some potato growing experiments this summer to see if I can develop new container, vertical, and hydroponic techniques. I'm particularly interested in growing potatos without a substrate and without expensive aeroponics. Currently investigating 'aeroponic' drip systems.
For a photo-essay about this there's the New Humanitarian article here: https://www.thenewhumanitarian.org/report/94947/lesotho-weat...
It describes the interaction between climate change, HIV/AIDS, and poverty.
(It used to be called "Too poor to farm").
Guatemala or Peru are short hops.
Thanks for the insights!
How about seeds and sprouts?
You need adult plants to produce seeds, defeating the purpose.
> and sprouts?
Alfalfa sprouts? That's very much a non-calorically dense food.
- You are able to work with space and time in a way to maximize yield (not 1 crop yield, but but multi crop)
- It focus on being biodiverse
- It builds forests
So in this systems you will see rows of trees intercalated with rows of beans, corn, soy anything "weedy" or grasses... Harvest this small plants for many years, after a few years you harvest fruits, and after 2 decades you harvest the wood and start over. All with extensive pruning.
This way you end up with better soil each time without machines or fertilizers (sure you can speed even more the process with them), its a type of agriculture focused on nature's processes instead of inputs.
There's an interesting video about it showing some big farmers here trying to build machines better adapted to this kind of agriculture, this is the biggest bottleneck to scale because right now most machines are very focused on monocultures: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gSPNRu4ZPvE
I think that framing agriculture's transition (hopefully) away from mono-culture into a more ecosystem focused idea seems like a tractable optimization problem. If we look at the reasons for mono-culture, I would argue part of the reason is that traditionally bigger yield is linked to bigger tools -- tractors are much larger than horses, spraying a chemical is easier when only one thing needs to survive. Monoculture makes it easy to apply big things, harvesting one row of corn is easy to scale to ten rows of corn just by making the combine harvester wider -- the harvester's problem statement is generic and scaleable in this way.
The hard problem, that you raised at the end, is how do we scale harvesting non-mono-cultures. The constraining variables are quite different when we need to perform a set of ten actions with no locality guarantees (Monoculture just guarantees locality of similar actions). I think one natural perspective is to look at how we do things non-locally at scale, which effectively reduces down to a distributed systems problem.
edit: few small changes
When he slows down for retirement, he has a few million bucks worth of hardwoods that he planted right out of college on land that wasn’t good for other purposes. Mostly black walnut and maple, which he also produces syrup with and may start making booze with!
Definitely a tension I've found in life between working in an urban software world and a more bucolic, fostering atmosphere of a farm. I hope more people find a balance in life like your friend, seems they have found the best of a couple worlds.
It is still hard, though, to scale this approach in the way that modern factory farms (Or even small family farms, to be honest - harvesting 400 acres is still non-trivial compared to the average of 150 acres in the 30s ) have done with the monoculture.
I would probably assume your friend has a small family style farm, which is what 90% of the farms in the US are . Total farm output has tripled , a top of the line tractor costs nearly half a million, it really makes the equation of making an integrated farm a much more complex scenario. If I start doing a more bespoke culture, these tools are probably much less effective - that's the core challenge I think that needs to be solved, how do we increase output of heterogenous cultures.
If I had to bet (And I don't go to Vegas often for a reason), there's likely an inflection point where micro-technologies come to farming in a more direct way, possibly supplanting the way we do a lot of things today. I hate the appeal to nature, but it does seem prescient, in that a bunch of small organisms (Bees, butterflies, and birds) contribute so much to the overall health and harvest of an ecosystem. Maybe there is some, excuse me, cross-pollination to be found between that world and the one we've constructed.
Interesting history of farming I found https://www.thoughtco.com/history-of-american-agriculture-fa....
First I wanted to just grow berries, then I realized, pesticides and so on, so add another plant to fight that attacker instead of pesticide, then add another plant to protect that plant by being attractive for those other bugs which kill the bad bugs. Then I realized, this would eventually be a forrest with just more berries and edible fruits than normal. Thats where the problem appeared, reaping it would be hard to scale, indeed even planting such a forest would be hard to scale with current mechanical means.
I have a few designs for robot-like planting and pickery, yet all I currently have in realization is 2sqm dirt with potatos, carrots, strawberries and another pot of blueberries. :-/
Then another depressing realization, even if I made this on 100ha of land and produced a lot of nice fruits, berries, roots, the pay-off in money would probably not be worth it.
Soon I'll be pumping it into the house for plumbing, etc.
My reasoning is, in 20 years I'll have a cool project to talk about, or I'll be sitting on a fortune in freshwater.
If you want to make money you start a vertical farming AgTech, which will not be profitable, but will attract the trendy funding. Pay yourself well while it last.
Capital intensive to develop the automatic reaping bots, which will also cost more to operate compared to current "pour diesel into tractor and pull the earth up and shake it to extract so many potatoes". Destruction just costs less.
I dropped out of Agroecology course in 2018 but I actively work with it or did before the pandemic at least.
All of this happens due to the green revolution & mass automation. We have papers plus empirical evidence you can turn any used up soil into good farming soil, if only we mimic the way nature does it, creating micro-climates with different cultures next to each other. One of the good outcomes of this method is that you don't even need chemical pesticides, because policultures are inherently more resistant to plagues. That and with this method, we attempt to use natural predators to cope with them too. It's basically a method of rebuilding forests, which is why it's called an agroforestry system
I am aware that family farms are more productive per acre and more sustainable usually, but there just aren't that many farmers or people who want to be farmers as a percentage of the population... it's hard work and exactly the kind of labor I'd expect to see automated right back away again ASAP.
Helping farmers with new automation tools that enable sustainable farming seems like a far better option than trying to disrupt farming in a way that intentionally increases the labor required to feed people. If the goal is to help people get back in touch with nature that's a great goal. It's just not a goal I think could be widely adopted.
Farmers are very smart, as the article mentions. If you give them the tools they need, they will use them if they make sense. Heck, farmers are pushing hard for the right to repair and modify their equipment (i.e. http://repair.org/agriculture/)
Edit: In case this is still unclear (it's hard to phrase right), I'm trying to make the point that you're better off trying to create a win-win with existing farmers rather than trying to start from scratch. If they are given better tools they will generally prefer to make their farms and soil healthier because it improves their bottom line. I don't think it makes sense to flip it around and completely change the agriculture system twice.
I fully support the underlying message, but automation has been happening at large scale for 70+ years now, unemployment rate doesn't follow automation, jobs are just shifted to other industries/sectors.
However there is a darker side to automation. What if automation is used without any competition? e.g. your company has a first mover advantage and it takes 4 years for the competition to catch up. What happens is that the potatoes stay at the same price but the company is increasing its profit margin which benefits the owners/shareholders of the company at the expense of workers. This isn't about unemployment. This is about wealth inequality. When a company replaces a worker with a machine it becomes more profitable but the worker gets nothing.
Society needs to change in a way that the laid off workers benefit from automation to the point that people are hoping their job gets automated or they decide to automate their own job. If someone gets laid off by automation for the third time that person should be happy, not sad.
"Hitherto it is
questionable if all the mechanical inventions yet made have lightened the day's toil of any human
being. They have enabled a greater population to live the same life of drudgery and imprisonment,
and an increased number of manufacturers and others to make fortunes. They have increased the
comforts of the middle classes. But they have not yet begun to effect those great changes in human
destiny, which it is in their nature and in their futurity to accomplish. Only when, in addition to
just institutions, the increase of mankind shall be under the deliberate guidance of judicious
foresight, can the conquests made from the powers of nature by the intellect and energy of
scientific discoverers, become the common property of the species, and the means of improving
and elevating the universal lot. "
They were spending a lot of money to extract marginal agricultural products from soil that wasn't well suited to monoculture, and some eccentric estate managers decided to stop spending the money, and allow the estates to "re-wild": no more shrub pruning, earth-moving, etc.
One of the "big ideas" they had, which might be useful to you, is to reintroduce "mega-fauna" to their ecosystems (in their case, ponies, "wild-ish" bovines, pigs, goats, and deer. They found that these fauna did an excellent job of pruning the wilds, but they had a new, second-order problem in pruning the fauna; they'd like to reintroduce wolves, to do the culling for them, but can't for somewhat obvious NIMBY reasons. :)
They're at the point where the estates more or less run themselves; they mostly make income from selling flowers, culled remains, and ecotourism.
Anyways, all this to say that you might consider leveraging some organic automatons to do some of the "extensive pruning" for you. Herds of goats in particular are very efficient pruners, and they can pay for themselves.
Sources (great reading/listening): https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2020/02/17/can-farming-ma... and https://www.econtalk.org/isabella-tree-on-wilding/
I'm now looking to merge this two worlds and work as a developer on solutions for agriculture/forests. I have a product in mind which I'm currently working on, lets see :)
If you don't have woody material, just leafs works too, the key is organic matter build up and photosynthesis. So we tend to cut weeds (when they start to mature/flower usually) very cleanly for them to grow bigger and better, not killing them, focus is to build soil for more demanding plants.
That said, if you want a quick primer, "Crop ecology: productivity and management in agricultural systems" is a good primer on most of the basic ecological systems in agriculture. I've read it cover to cover many times.
However, you don't need a grad-level education to farm (believe me, I have been reminded this endlessly) - this is more for people doing research. For applied/actionable specifics for cold climates, your best friend is going to be local crop-extension services (in the US, most land-grants run an extension service). They will have tested techniques for your area and will be able to point you to good resources for farmers, not people researching agriculture.
Looking forward to the product you mentioned in another post too! :)
If you are considering vegetable farming commercially, don't unless it is an extremely boutique product like truffles or exotic mushrooms, the economies of scales are crushing. The other option that is still viable is small plot that produces and end product. e.g you own a vineyard but you are not selling grapes you are selling wine. You own a pepper farm but your end product is hot sauce. Those are still viable for small plot.
The best thing you can do with a decent tract of land is to plant it full of expensive hardwoods such as black walnut and occasionally prune the trees to promote straight growth for lumber.
I have 7 acres and I planted 4 of it with African Ebony, one of the most expensive woods in the world. They are not native to my area so there is no issue with harvesting them and they require little in the way of care. They will provide a nice cushion for my children when they mature given that a single tree is worth between $300,000 to $1,000,000 (at current market) depending on size and quality of lumber. I planted about 50 trees per acre. The math is pretty self evident and it is the best use of land agriculturally if you are looking to maximize profit via small plot agriculture.
My wife uses some of the other land for personal farming but that is her gig, I grew up on a farm (citrus) and after NAFTA swore I would never scratch a living out of dirt again. I told her she was on her own with the vegetable farming other than helping her with where to plot certain vegetables and when to plant them.
How did you decide on your species and how do you know other people don't have the same thing in the ground right now?
Some of the limitations on everyone planting is that most of these species are protected, so you have to be able to plant them in a similar environment where they are not native or you run the risk of having to pay impacts for every tree harvested. Others are land availability and the other is many people don't want to encumber their land for a return they personally will never see. Most of the stuff you hear about from 30 years ago where faster growing trees in the pine and oak families which you could see harvestable maturity in 10 (pine) to 20 (oak) years and while it did cause a price crash, those people did make money. Just not FU money.
Contrast this with any African blackwood and you are looking at 50 years minimum till maturity and possible as long as 100 year. I don't need the money (not that I am rolling in it) but it is generational insurance for my children and their grandchildren. For a little back story I own a house that sits on 7 acres on the ocean, I plan to will the house to my descendants and keep it in the family as a place to come back to and congregate, for all generations to use. The trees are the hedge that their will be money to support that vision, as well as provide for the family if need be.
That being said the whole thing could flop, but at least I planted some trees that are in serious danger of going extinct in their native habitat and my descendants will be in possession of some really resilient hardwood.
Most of the politicians on both sides of the isle where and are complicit in it because they view food pricing as a national security issue. The government has a vested interest in keeping the price of food and necessities low as people tend to become pretty violent when they are starving. That being said, it was a huge transfer of middle class wealth to large conglomerations.
Agriculture is a brutal, pitiless world of perfect competition, commoditisation, and winner-takes-all consolidation. There’s an old farming joke: “What would you do if you won the lottery? I’d farm until it was all gone”.
Even with the more realistic mods, which brings the most basic things like seasons(!!!), it is a futile fight against the bugs and bad UI.
farm sim is nothing but an advert for tractor brands.
Watch a couple youtube videos but NEVER pay it. you've been warned :)
Same advice I'd give someone in agriculture looking to get into code.
Well and then you are ready to decide. Being small farmer is tough: not a lot of money and a lot of work, but it is rewarding by many means.
I personally decided to be in more play farm: few acres of vineyards, small wine production. It is still professional operation but I don't expect to be making full living off it.
If you look for "agroforest academy" in youtube you may find a video course in english on this syntropic agriculture topic too.
That syntropic agriculture video was powerful.
Any way to contact you to understand how you've made the transition?
Having trees increases rainfall but need to grow the trees with little rainfall first!
It's also a very US-centric view. There is a ton of innovation happening in other world markets, especially with smallholder farmers. Especially around financing.
The author completely ignores financing (even saying there is no VC money in agriculture which is false), which with larger farmers is actually one of the biggest issues for farmers today. Given that farm equipment is getting bigger and more costlier, a lot of thought goes into financing that equipment. Insurance is also a huge deal, and there's certainly a lot of room for streamlining the process of insuring crops and obtaining payouts.
- Indoor farming would not have to worry about things like drought. As a water feeding system can be led all the way to the ocean and the salt removed using pure sunlight as power.
- Indoor farming has shown to yield crops with 96% less water in many cases, again solving the problem mentioned previously.
- Many areas don't have ready access to tons of water so these water conservation techniques will be absolutely necessary.
- The lack of need for pesticides and weed killers and other poisons will also have major advantages.
- The indoor operation can be significantly less emitting in terms of greenhouse gasses. Without the need for large gas powered machines for harvesting, these crops can be way more efficient.
- The indoor operations can be built vertically thus allowing cities to feed themselves without having to ship food across the globe, further providing exhaust benefits.
Are you aware of how much water it takes to produce the output of the Midwest or Central Valley? We'd be talking about the largest desalination project in human history by orders of magnitude.
As of 2013, Israel had a desalination capacity of 500 million cubic meters per year.
As of 2015, the US used ~450 million (edit: fixed from billion) cubic meters PER DAY for irrigation.
Obviously not exactly a fair comparison for numerous reasons, but it gives a sense of the scale we're talking about here.
I think you mean to say 450 billion liters, which would be 450 million cubic meters.
Your source says this:
"For 2015, total irrigation withdrawals were 118,000 Mgal/d"
So roughly speaking Israel desalinates in a year how much the US uses for irrigation in one day. That doesn't sound so outrageous. Israel is a small country.
US coastline (not including Alaska): 5,800 miles
So the US has 33 times the coastline. It sounds like we're only one order of magnitude off to meet those desal needs.
ps. If we include Alaska, which is another 6,600 miles of coastline, we could again halve that need.
All those rivers dumping into the ocean demonstrate how rarely it’s needed. Long term pumping water from the eastern US to the Midwest is vastly cheaper than the kind of massive and effectively pointless desalination effort required.
This is off course not a big deal in USA and desalination and economics of certain agri crops if reassigned can lead to better outcomes. However i am sure India can do with the level of desalination Israel has (scaled up to its population size) as can other middle Eastern countries. If not today, then may be a decade or 2 in the future. This can enable habitation in many areas in land and water scarce countries.
That might be possible, I don't know enough about it to say for sure. I could see us needing somewhat less just due to evaporation differences, but I'd think plants need basically the same amount of water to do what they do regardless. How do we get down to 5-10%?
Sunlight is delivered as electromagnetic power (watts) proportional to surface area. Plants naturally grow on the surface of the earth, and therefore receive a small proportion of that power which they use to convert CO2 into sugars and eventually plant mass which we eat. Stacking a bunch of plants on top of each other cannot change that the lower plants must receive less power, and therefore cannot grow as much. And that's ignoring the added complexity and logistics (read: overhead) of maintaining a system that stacks plants on top of each other, which would surely obliterate whatever 2-digit% efficiency bonus you can eke out of stacking. The universe doesn't work like Minecraft.
Chemical and water use reduction seem to be a pretty good outcome, as well as being able to ignore seasonality.
I would like to see some numbers on farm equipment (in?)efficiency before throwing that out as a fact. Color me skeptical but it doesn't seem obvious at all that rebuilding a 10000-acre greenhouse every 20 years will necessarily produce less greenhouse emissions than running a few tractors. Or even that harvesting food in a greenhouse takes less energy than doing it with a tractor.
The kid gets patted on the head. Those who know better, immediately recognize there is no great increase in power obtained as the 'shadows' caused by the raises structure invariably decrease the efficiency down to that of a plane.
Anyway, vertical farming reminds me of this. You would defintyl need artifical lights.
Akyway, it's amusing watching amateur would-be tomatoe growers get excited about a technology that has been around as long as Cheech and Chong.
Using these systems for decorative purposes, on the other hand, is a cool idea. It's a fast and cheap way to make an 'instant' hedge. I have a 'wall' of pole beans planted in this manner which thrive and create a solid mass of greenery within a month of planting.
On the other hand, I've also read (old, long-lost) sources that state that the energy cost per loaf of bread is about $10 for indoor farming, vs $5 for outdoor farming.
These specialized lights won't save vertical farming today, but I will keep following the progress. If nothing else brings value to vertical farming, the fact remains that local food independence is valuable; growing food in a dense apartment or a dense city will pay dividends in the event of large-scale famine or civil unrest.
That assumes all light comes from straight up. That isn’t even true if the sun is straight overhead, and definitely not true close to the poles.
I don’t know whether it’s profitable, but I would think the economics of vertical farming on Iceland (sun lower in the sky, greenhouse heating cheap, imports expensive) are different from those in Equatorial Guinea.
I thought the common idea (and implementation) of indoor vertical farming used artificial lighting at each level. Possibly only using light in the wavelengths actually used by the plant, not "wasting" power at other wavelengths like the sun does.
The only things I ever see grown in those vertical farms are low calory, short-shelf-life leafy greens, and the occasional bland tomato.
Greens are nice and all, but calories are what keep us alive. Until they can produce calories, I will continue seeing them as a pointless distraction.
I will also note that in 2020, we have no shortage of leafy greens.
If you count using fossil fuels to make fertilizer as unsustainable, you're probably right. But that is very debatable.
But consider my second point. If there is no caloric crop sustainability crisis in our future, then there is definitely no leafy green sustainability crisis looming on the horizon. The problems that vertical farming of kale solves are... Not very impactful ones. If all the kale in the world disappeared tomorrow, most of us wouldn't even notice.
If you're thinking pipes, the water might become toxic after 500km or so.
Instead of natural gas -> Fertilizers route, a solar or renewable energy -> LED route can help for certain crops provided they do grow efficiently.
Then again most of the crops people are talking about doing vertically are things that are planted and harvested mostly by hand, so maybe that's not such an oversight.
One example of an advancement from The Land Institute is their focus on domesticating a perennial cousin of Modern wheat. This is no small task given humans have been domesticating modern wheat for thousands or years. Although the cousin still yields relatively less grain, it has significantly deeper roots, is much more resistant to weeds and big in turn requiring less pesticide and can harvested with existing equipment. With time it’s not unreasonable to think it would have comparable yields to modern wheat.
They have a number of projects and been focusing on sustainability since 1976.
The other big benefit is carbon sequestration. Perennials typically root far deeper into the soil, giving prairies enormous amounts of (carbon sequestering) root mass. This also has benefits in terms of erosion control — soil loss is one of the biggest, not talked about threats to society.
Finally, perennials can help — again through extensive root systems — improve water capture, recharging aquifers.
Moreover, agricultural sciences is probably just not a very commonly pursued degree for people in the city (citation needed).
So that brings me to my main point: disrupting an industry is usually done by people who want money when all the other good ideas have been taken. There is nothing wrong with this, but the cost with this fast paced approach is that the oldest and most complex industries like agriculture are going to put you in your place if you haven't done the work to understand them.
It seems like farmers are still beholden to long "if-then" chains and risk analysis (what to plant, where to plant, how to plant, etc. based on predictive yield), just that the underlying mathematics hasn't been as accessibly documented because it's not as profitable.
So "generational knowledge and tradition" are important, but I don't see how that changes the fact that this sort of thing can be written down and analyzed.
(Edit: I should clarify that I am not in favor of "disrupting agriculture" and I also do not think that mathematicians can somehow usurp farmers and plan better farms than the ones that already exist. I'm just wondering what's stopping the logic and practices of the ones that already exist from being documented and reproduced without "lifetimes" passing, as you say.)
It is not impossible but difficult to document how to do effective farming because every farm has its own individual needs. And what may be true for one farm will likely not be true for another. Hence relying on first hand knowledge, albeit extremely fallible, is more reliable than reading a book and then destroying your crop for a year. (Obviously farmers read, study and improve)
The main reason would be location.
- How does water irrigate around your property? Where is the clay? Where does the water lock in when it sinks in different acres? What happens when there is a drought in this area? What happens when it floods? What should you do when there is extreme weather?
- What makes the soil in this locale good? What is it naturally good at growing? How should you replenish the soil? What native wildlife contributes to the soil? What insects plague the area and do they have decade long life cycle bursts? What to do when a swarm of locust come?
- When does your first frost generally occur? What plants can you grow through a frost? Maybe Kale will survive because although there is frost, you live in a valley where the humidity is higher so the Kale can live. You can't grow X crop because the wind is ever so slightly stronger every 5 years because of atmospheric shifts.
And just to make it more fun, sprinkle on the problem of economics(supply/demand) and logistics.
Also it would be hard not to meet a farmer who calls it a "way of life" because it absolutely is. They live far away from the spoils of civilisation, work incredible hours and live isolated lifestyles. They laugh at city folk because a city man "wouldn't last a week on the farm", which is probably true. Fun fact: Australian farmers have twice the national suicide rate than the average man.
"No farmers, no food", after all, and yet for some reason the suicide rates stay high. It's the same among American farmers. Dairy farms are shutting down at high rates in Wisconsin, where I'm from.
What can the spoiled children of civilization to do help farmers? What can I do? I didn't even know about this plight until I was out of engineering school.
A super short paper that points to lots of references - https://www.crrmh.com.au/content/uploads/Briefing-Paper_FINA...
Back then 90-95% of people worked in food production. Now it's 2-3%, and they produce vastly more food per person.
So it's not like farmers are not used to change.
Systems like this are more complex than the foolish give them credit for being!
He decided that sparrows, which ate some fruits and seeds, should be destroyed. He didn't realize that they also eat locust larva and other pests, which exploded in population without sparrows. Those pests ended up killing massive amounts of crops after the people were ordered to eliminate all sparrows and their eggs -- it ended in widespread starvation.
Unless agriculture is built on trade secrets or art, you can contribute.
This is one of my criticisms of Medical. It's not a science or the barrier to entry would be significantly lower, and as a result cost would be lower.
Degrees are good, but not necessary if you can do math and get experience.
The problem they were diving into was well understood, and has been researched to death for the last 100+ years. And they had the relationship backwards, not understanding their "input" to increase yields was actually a response to low yields. They were the opposite of helpful, but rather a waste of our time.
As with anything, it helps to know the current state of knowledge before you jump into contribute. An understanding of math doesn't get you there.
This is the problem.
For livestock - they have routine blood screenings for disease and nutrient deficiencies. Rotation through pasture is decided via nutrient content and growth rate of pasture plants. Breeding and genetic lines are strictly controlled via artificial insemination. Animal growth rates, health, and any number of other factors are tracked long-term to decide lineages to keep, modify, or eliminate. All feed supplements are planned to absolutely optimize feed/meat conversion ratios.
The problem with farming isn't that the data doesn't exist, or that the technology isn't being used. It's that the data lives in 18 different places, some in my head, and that the technology is ungodly expensive.
The only way I can see to make SV and ag work well would be to focus on what would otherwise be mid-sized businesses. Large scale operations already have the tech and data. The farmers who run operations of <2000 acres can't afford the large scale purchases, and do much of what I talked about via 'inherent' and 'inherited' knowledge (i.e. they know the north pasture needs to be emptied for two months early spring, but don't know how to improve the plant growth there without messing everything up).
One of the founders worked since his early teens driving large machines during harvest season. He said that agriculture is already now able to be fully automated, from GPS controlled tractors and such to milking and feeding robots. I had the same revelation, modern farming is way more tech heavy automated than I thought.
One thing missed by a lot of the comments: Indoor systems tend to be incredibly fragile affairs. If you've ever been in a well managed commercial greenhouse, you will notice a ton of sanitation procedures. There are greenhouse pests and diseases which are never an issue in the field, in large part because there is an entire ecological system of checks and balances working out in a field. Even in modern intensive ag fields. The truth is an agricultural field is an amazingly complex system which we don't fully understand (we are only starting to explore soil ecosystems and plant roots). Vertical farms are disconnected from this, though the costs might not be obvious. As a consultant, I watched a "trendy" aquaponics startup crash and burn because they underestimated this.
You want to know cropping ag's biggest problem? Too much data. Farmers are collecting all sorts of data - soil samples, weather station data, aerial infrared photos and yield monitor data to name a few. But there are few tools that give actionable information from all that data. Actionable in prescribing something that results in a positive ROI.
Now as an agronomist who soil sampled, walked the field multiple times every year and sometimes even rode the combine with the farmer I was able to do that - sometimes.
Someday it will happen but it's my opinion that AI is a long, long way from performing that job. But I do hope I live to see it.
They're looking for the data to point at problems that could be solved to make them more money.
It should come as no surprise that programmers who spend all day thinking about the theoretical problems they might run into may be bad at understanding current limitations and bottlenecks in the real world. This doesn't just apply to agriculture. Think of how many startups you know aimed at addressing problems that seem imaginary outside of the bay area.
At the same time, I think we underrate the benefit of naive amateurs throwing themselves into industry. If Stripe actually fully understood the amount of work they had to do to get to the other side of a complex, messy, and competitive market, I'm going to guess they never would have done it in the first place.
Basically, this is was a series of technological developments in the early 50s and 60s that completely revolutionized agriculture. High-yielding seed varieties, fossil-fuel fertilizers, chemical pesticides, etc. During the Green Revolution, the proportion of common feedstocks that are edible grew from 4-5% to 40-50%, and the number of humans that can be supported on earth by a typical 2000-2500 calorie diet grew from ~1-2B to 10+B. Most of the things we hate about modern agriculture - pesticides, GMOs, monocultures, Monsanto's dominance, the loss of small family farms, coupling between agriculture and fossil fuel extraction - came about because of the Green Revolution. But without it, 80% of the world population would be dead or never born.
Agriculture isn't really in need of Silicon Valley style disruption, because it happened in the 50s. We currently produce enough food on earth for everyone to have a 3000+ calorie daily diet, and we could increase the world population by 50% with current food output and still have enough to eat. The problems with agriculture today mostly concern distribution and tail risks - we produce plenty, but it's allocated inefficiently (wealthy people eat veal and foie gras, poor people struggle to get enough basic grains) and it could be wiped out by a blight or supply chain disruption. Silicon Valley doesn't really help with these problems, and if anything exacerbates them.
Indoor farming, or greenhouse farming, or high-tunnel farming, or a zillion others are all incremental adaptations of particular plants and particular markets. You cannot compare the global corn and wheat markets to the nyc lunch salad market. "Farming" has always meant thousands of different things, and for some of those things there will be markets for indoor grow ops. This is not an assertion, we all know there's a very robust one right now.
Debating indoor vs outdoor farming at this broad a level is like debating cars vs bicycles as if we have to pick one.
If anyone would like to see an extremely deep dive into the exact scientific measurements at which certain plant markets become viable at certain energy prices you will find this half hour very well spent:
> The Midwest in the United States has close to 90M acres of corn, 85M acres of soybean, and 30M acres of wheat.
Maybe I've got this entirely wrong, but my understanding is most vertical farming focuses on producing highly perishable fruits and vegetables which often still require a fair amount of manual labor and where being close to market is a benefit.
I haven't yet seen large scale vertical gardens being commercially successful yet, but if they do, I'm certain they won't be producing corn, wheat, or soybeans.
There are vision guided fruit picking machines. They're too slow, too fragile, and need too much supervision. But they mostly work. What they need now is good practical mechanical engineering. The 2016 version: The 2019 version. When they get about 2x faster, have half the parts count, and can be routinely pressure-washed, they'll be ready. The "AI" part is done.
One of the simpler automated systems is automatic weeding. Machines come in several forms, but the most successful seem to be wide implements towed behind a tractor. Deere has some of these. They recognize weeds with cameras and do something about them. Some stomp or pull, some zap with electricity or a flame, some squirt on an overdose of fertilizer. It's "organic", too; no pesticides. You can get this as a service in a few areas.
I think this discussion requires a bit more nuance. Of course classic row crops like corn, wheat, soy, oats, etc., are unlikely to ever make sense for indoor crops. But that's not what any of these businesses are tackling. Instead they are focused on high value fruits and vegetables, herbs, and fresh greens. You only have to look at the agricultural success of the Netherlands to see that these crops can be grown for profit at scale, indoors. During the winter months they augment the greenhouses with light, but they are also taking advantage of the sun as much as possible. In greenhouses you can grow with far less water, and you can produce fresh, local food that doesn't have to be cooled and shipped nearly as far. I'd like to see an honest comparison that looked at a tomato and a handful of fresh cilantro being sold in NYC or SF from a local greenhouse with augmented light versus comparable produce shipped in from Mexico or somewhere else warm.
I think there are also many good arguments for shifting our diets away from the commodity crops and towards more fruits and vegetables, so as the world gets wealthier and more people seek diverse, healthy foods, we might see new models that make increasing sense.
It makes total sense to me that this would not be the case for every crop (probably not corn, wheat, or soy for example). But I would also be surprised if vertical farming made sense for NO crops.
And here's a video from Techno Farm he mentioned
I care very very much about reducing the suffering of farm animals. I do not want to become vegan (for health reasons), but the guilt I feel because of my contribution to animal suffering is one of the worst parts of my life.
Please, please, smart young technologists out there: figure out some cool technology to make it possible to raise farm animals efficiently while also ensuring that they live comfortable, decent lives.
The two main downsides (IMO) are related: fragility and ecological ignorance.
The article touches on this: "soil is a natural resource that will become
endangered if we do not mitigate the severe erosion problems that stem
from single species field that are barren (re: nothing actively growing)
for 30-40% of the calendar year (in North America)."
(Imagine installing millions of acres of solar panels and just switching
them off for 1/3 of the year.)
Broadly speaking, if our agriculture destroys topsoil rather than creating
it we're gonna have a bad time.
An interesting challenge would be to automate food forests. For concreteness, check out what these folks are doing: https://www.youtube.com/user/plantabundance
This is one family working on their home plot in a suburb who have converted it into a really cool food forest with chickens and lots and lots of different crops.
Imagine replicating this across millions of acres, without involving
hundreds of thousands of people (which wouldn't be a bad thing, but it
couldn't compete with mechanized agriculture.) What kind of automation
could help with that?
It works even better than modern agricultural processes. The ideas are inherently distributed and decentralized, and when implemented along the ethical principles, bypasses many of the wealth inequality. It builds up resiliency through diversity (something the tech world is only starting to explore with Kubernetes and containers). It goes beyond mere "sustainability" and into regenerative processes. These are very practical ideas that have had 50 years of implementation proving out those design patterns.
It requires a different way of thinking about how we grow and get our food.
My techie friends all love it when they see these ideas, and yet, the development of permaculture design tracks the development of the personal computer, internet, and smartphone. But it is also big blind spot. Many of the design patterns are low-tech or no-tech (which, not depending upon a supply chain, is much more resilient).
Dwarf Fortress is a lot of fun, but I have found that applying and implementing permaculture design is a lot more challenging and rewarding.
If we take the premise that information is valuable (decrease inputs, improve yields) and that equipment is valuable (automation), then there's a very real return to be gained by using these valuable products. What's nuts to me is that we would ever ask the farmers to bear the risk of these products. I mean, sure they could I suppose (better returns overall!), but it concentrates all the risk in the worst places.
I feel like there's a much better opportunity here for a targeted financial product. "Implement our methods with our data, and we'll skim a percentage of your profits." Imagine if the risk of buying a new tractor was gone, because it was provided by the company. The risk of data integration was also gone, because it's guaranteed to work with the provided tractor. And the risk that the data is crap is also gone, because the financing and return risk is borne by a diverse number of institutional investors. Almost like weather / crop insurance, but much much bigger.
For the farmer, the sale is simple: Do our thing, and you don't have to worry about paying for stuff that may not be valuable. You might make slightly less total profit in the good years as the price of offloading that risk.
For the investors, it's also a great story: look at these great startups! Wouldn't you like a piece of that productivity and return?
...and maybe the startups are wrong, and the equipment doesn't work, and everyone learns a lot while they go bankrupt. Everyone except the farmer, who offloaded the risk.
Surely this is a thing that someone is working on?!? I'm sure it's available in bits and pieces, but a unified financing and operational solution seems like it would be a slam dunk.
Rather it's the disastrous logistics chain and resultant waste, leading to overproduction and augmentation of our food system, is the problem trying to be solved.
There are enormous problems there, such as a heavy reliance on human labour for picking and processing.
The problem with going after waste reduction is that the tab for that is picked up through subsidies. The inefficiency is in policy.
So the trick is, how do you reduce how far something needs to travel from the time it's ready to harvest until it's consumed.
I'm not sure how to describe that other than a disaster.
The CO2 production will reduce as we steadily change from diesel to electric. Ocean going vessels are just environmental problems that treaties seem to ignore.
One is to change consumer behavior to focus much more on in-season products that can be grown locally. This is a difficult social challenge.
The other is to change plant behavior so that they become products that are always in season and can be grown everywhere. This is a difficult technical challenge, but things like indoor vertical farming can potentially solve that. The problem described in this article is that it does not (yet?) work for effective farming, but making it possible to grow the appropriate berries or fruit locally throughout the year would fix the logistics chain by eliminating most of it.
Spent time researching, talking, and more researching about the core problems of Agriculture in India. It is one sector where everyone loves to toss and play around, the most politically involved and abused, with huge numbers but contributing less than 20% of the total Indian GDP. Everyone seem to have a vested interest -- both good and bad.
At times, I'm shit-scared that I'm trying to help solve something so massive and gigantic that if I can make an iota of difference, it would be huge.
Of course, my hammer is Technology and I'm trying to find just the precise nail-heads to hit, one at a time.
My sense was that hydroponics were so expensive that they really only made sense for one crop: marijuana. If your plant is selling for $1000, then spending $50 per plant to increase its yield and 'baby' it so that it sells for $1200 makes sense. But for most plants, it doesn't make economic sense. (Tomatoes, maybe. But they're going to have to sell for a higher price point, in more expensive markets).
Is that accurate? I'm an amateur so if this is uninformed, feel free to correct me.
I can only think of a handful: marijuana, fancy tomatoes at Whole Foods, maybe coffee or vanilla (?) beans... but even there, notice how there's either fierce competitive pressure, or it's possible to easily overwhelm the market (vanilla beans have to compete against synthetics). I mean there are surely some I'm forgetting, but it's a small number, and I thought that deterred VC investment.
For your staples - corn, soy - that's still much cheaper to grow outdoors, so hydroponics can't win that market.
Food production at the moment is very much out-of-sight, out-of-mind. I don't have a feel for what monoculture are developing in the food industry, I don't have a feel for what the supply chain risks are. If food ever stopped flowing in from wherever it comes from to my city, I'd be in trouble.
It isn't totally rational, but I dream of being able to invest in food grown a few blocks away from me. If it only cost double existing prices that'd be a solid win.
The US is the most agriculturally productive nation in the world by a fair margin. Food and fuel are two of the things that the US is unlikely to run out of even under conditions of global nuclear war.