Only High Cost Premiums Can Make Urban Farming Pencil Out

Throwing cold water on the latest "techno-optimism" for indoor, urban agriculture.
June 1, 2017, 6am PDT | James Brasuell | @CasualBrasuell
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Joe Cortright writes of his skepticism about urban farming—despite the popularity of "techno-optimistic stories about how a new era of hyper-local food grown in your neighborhood or very nearby." The latest example of which, and the inspiration for Cortright's response, is an article by Adele Peters for Fast Company: "Has This Silicon Valley Startup Finally Nailed the Indoor Farming Model?"

"While the story is replete with VC-pitch based talking points about the efficiency of some aspects of the indoor farming model–purportedly 1 percent as much water use as field crops, 30 miles to the consumer, not 3,000, plus [Plenty] uses LED lights are 64 times more cost-effective than those available a few years ago–one fact is conspicuously missing from the narrative," writes Cortright. That is: "How much will consumers be asked to pay for indoor-grown kale and basil?"

Cortright's concern is with the "dubious" economics of urban agriculture. According to his calculations, urban farming has to 100 times more efficient than conventional farming to cover the cost of land. Instead of a game changer of sustainability, Cortright predicts indoor farming will remain a niche technology for specialized, premium products.

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Published on Monday, May 22, 2017 in City Observatory
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