Vertical Farming’s Missing Link

Written by Jürgen Eckhardt, Head of Leaps by Bayer

It’s a frequent misconception that the produce you buy at the grocery store is “fresh” when it isn’t dimpled, limp, or bruised. But on average, that fruit in your hand or lettuce in your cart was harvested two weeks before you get the chance to buy it. In all likelihood, it also traveled over a thousand kilometers to get to your local store, and many of the plants it once shared the field with will have perished along the way. 25–30% of the food produced around the world spoils before anyone eats it.[1]

These facts have always been important, but they’ve become critical dangers as the growing global population has started to feel the heat from an enveloping climate crisis. Increasing human numbers matched with a shifting pattern of how the world consumes have led to ballooning rates of land and freshwater use.[2] As we transform the land for agriculture, harmful greenhouse gases are pumped out. And as we grow food on these lands, 70% of the world’s fresh water resources are sucked up.[3] None of this is acceptable. Today’s 7.7 billion people will increase to 9.7 billion by 2050, with most of us living in cities[4]. We need to find smarter ways of feeding humanity that tread lightly on the land, draw sparingly from the water, and nourish all bellies in plentiful supply.

This challenging task requires a sophisticated toolkit capable of remodeling the food system as we know it. There’s no single solution, but vertical farms are a promising instrument to create a more sustainable food supply chain. By cultivating delicious and nutritious fruits and vegetables vertically indoors, we can produce food closer to where urban eaters live. This cuts down on the carbon that’s emitted for the distances it must travel, the water it requires, and the time spent between picking and eating. It also drastically reduces the cropland it would otherwise need. The result being that plates in the city get filled with the least land-intensive, freshest, and most local produce possible.

Vertical farming is not a new idea, but an important force for efficiency and impact has recently taken root in its ecosystem. Unfold is a new company focused on improving seed varieties for vertical farming that we at Leaps by Bayer and Temasek teamed up to grow.

Over the last 20 years, there’s been no shortage of companies working to bring the dream of vertical farms to life. From the right LED lighting, humidity, air, positioning of the plants, sensors, growth medium, automation of the process and more, crucial inroads have been made. But there have also been many failures. Companies have gone bankrupt when tackling many of these elements but missing one critical piece of the puzzle — the seed. What sets Unfold apart, is that it has set out to supply world-class optimization of seed and corresponding growing advice for vertical farmers. Unfold’s team includes top experts in agronomics as well as data and analytics, which it will use to hone in on the best genetic material from which vertically farmed lettuce, spinach, tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers can grow, with more crops to come. Unfold aims to create a new standard of nutritious, attractive, and flavorful vegetables and eventually fruits raised in what the industry is starting to prove are “the great indoors”.

We are very excited about the potential of Unfold and how it can help drive the vertical farming industry to new heights. Given the need for near-constant lighting and climate control, vertical farming depends on major expansion of renewable energy and decarbonization of the energy industry in order to achieve its sustainability potential. It’s not unlike the challenges presented by electric cars — when powered by coal fuel they aren’t much cleaner than gas-powered vehicles. It is encouraging to see more global and industry leaders committed to tackling this massive underlying challenge.

We are in the business of addressing huge challenges facing humanity, and we’ve identified 10 to focus our investments on, which we call ‘leaps’. Leap 3 is to reduce the environmental impact of agriculture. Leaps’ portfolio companies such as JoynBio and AgBiome are making today’s agriculture more sustainable as they engineer the soil microbiome so plants can thrive with less nitrogen fertilizer, pesticides, and other chemicals. Vertical farming and other areas we look at such as alternative proteins form part of an emerging — and more secure — way of feeding people. It’s one that can enable agriculture to exceed current sustainability goals while bringing diverse, nutritious diets to the vast swathes of humanity who lack this. Health for all, Hunger for none is a bold vision and we aren’t there yet, but isn’t this worth striving for?

Leaps by Bayer invests in paradigm-shifting advances in the life sciences — breakthroughs that could change the world for the better. https://leaps.bayer.com/