While indoor agriculture startups such as Plenty, Bowery and GrowUp Farms have continued to rein in big checks from impact investors this year, I kept wondering about what good they can actually accomplish.
While their vertical operations use less water than traditional farms, they are expensive, energy-intensive and still limited to producing premium leafy greens and berries. Overall, they don’t do much to decarbonize the bulk part of our food production or improve the health and well-being of marginalized communities (aside from the folks they may employ in their plants). So what’s really the impact of these impact investments?
I recently got on the phone with Rebekah Moses to explore that question. After leading sustainability and impact strategy at Impossible Foods for almost six years, Moses jumped ship in January and now heads up those issues at Iron Ox. The startup is based in San Carlos, California, and works to improve the environmental outcomes of greenhouse production by using robotics and plant science.
I’ve gotten to know Moses as a pragmatic climate player with a clear sense of what’s needed to turn around food systems. So I was surprised about her move. She admitted that she also used to be an indoor ag skeptic and wasn’t planning to join that space, but Iron Ox’s co-founder and CEO Brandon Alexander changed her mind.
Untangling indoor ag technologies
First, Moses says it's important to be specific about the technologies in question. The controlled environment agriculture (CEA) industry is large and diverse, ranging from traditional greenhouses to hydroponics, aquaculture and vertical indoor farms. Many of these systems have long been essential for agricultural production worldwide, especially regarding fruits and vegetables.
In this article, we’re mainly looking at the difference between greenhouses and vertical farms. The terminology is confusing because you can have a vertical farm inside a greenhouse. But most commonly, greenhouses refer to farms with transparent panels that let in sunlight and heat (like what you’d find in your grandma’s garden). The term vertical farms, in contrast, most frequently refers to those operating in windowless buildings.
Iron Ox's robot Ada inspects basil plants in the greenhouses. Image courtesy of Iron Ox.
Production in vertical farms relies on energy-intensive artificial light and heat, and they tend to be more expensive to build. As such, their climate contribution is less straightforward. Still, they’ve proven to be an attractive investment for many. Vertical farms promise more efficient use of water, fertilizers and pesticides. They have consistent, year-round, local production that could simplify supply chains and offer fresher, more nutritious products.
Moses stresses that Iron Ox isn’t a vertical farming company. Instead, it aims to build on successful greenhouse concepts by automating production processes and continuously improving them via machine learning integrations.
Inside an Iron Ox greenhouse, Roomba-esque robots move around mobile production trays to different work cells. Some are treatment stations that manage water, pests and nutrients. Others take care of seeding and planting. All the while, the smart system gathers and analyzes data, honing its production model.
The idea behind the modular technology is that Iron Ox can calculate and apply inputs such as water and fertilizer more precisely for individual production trays. It can also automate key processes. According to Moses, these two improvements make the farms more scalable, economical and sustainable.
Centering climate resilience and adaptation
Skepticism around vertical farming’s impact also revolves around its small plant Rolodex. Despite decades of innovation, production in vertical systems is still limited to leafy greens and berries. Tomatoes are on the horizon, but options will remain limited for the foreseeable future. Iron Ox seems to have a more promising outlook.
"The modular system combined with AI and machine learning capabilities means that we can grow many types of foods, and that’s what really changed my mind," Moses said, referring to the potential of someday growing high-quality vegetables, grains and legumes. "This crop diversity will allow us to address complex food systems challenges and protect production from climate change stressors."
I don’t have insights on this vision's feasibility from a technology perspective, but it makes sense to start incorporating climate resilience and adaptation considerations into food tech innovation. Extreme weather events, including droughts, floods, storms, heat and cold waves, in addition to increasing water scarcity, are already risking food production today. This challenge will only become more severe in the coming years and decades. In many places, having more controlled production environments to rely on will be favorable.
The question isn’t whether CEA superior or inferior to traditional agriculture but in which circumstances it’s the right fit.
Moses sees some of the most immediate benefits of Iron Ox’s system when it comes to water savings. She points to California’s nearby Central Valley and Salinas Valley as examples of challenges ahead. According to a new groundwater management plan in those areas, half a million acres of prime farmland may have to be taken out of production to restore aquifers and other water bodies. "To meet the demands of a future growing population while the weather changes, you have to think about farming in new ways. We need closed-loop systems," she said.
In such water-scarce regions, that might be easier to achieve indoors. Iron Ox is targeting 90 percent water efficiency, which means that it must be either absorbed by the plant, recovered, recycled or stem from captured rainwater. All that is work in progress. In the long term, Moses hopes the company will get to a stage where only water embodied in plants and evaporative water will leave the system.
A clear path to net-zero
While climate resilience and adaptation are central to Iron Ox’s theory of change, the startup doesn’t negate the pressing need for decarbonization. Moses thinks the path to net-zero production is much more straightforward in indoor environments than in field-based agriculture.
Participating in the United Nations’ Race to Zero Campaign, Iron Ox is planning to halve Scope 1 and 2 emissions by 2025 and achieve net zero by 2030. Eliminating its Scope 1 and 2 emissions that mainly encompass energy use from robots, processors, heating, cooling and ventilation will mean putting in place renewable energy procurement.
As for most other companies, reducing Scope 3 emissions will be harder. The startup is targeting a few reduction goals: 25 percent by 2025, 50 percent by 2030 and 100 percent by 2040. Facility construction, food transportation and employee flight miles dominate here. "To tackle Scope 3, we’re looking at investing in sustainable aviation fuels and deep supply chain partnerships to leverage building materials with lower embodied carbon, particularly for cement," Moses outlined.
Decarbonizing those materials will be tough. But cutting emissions out of field-based agriculture (which would mean overhauling fertilizers, switching to electric tractors, etc.) is no easy feat either.
This exploration has made me return to a frequent thread from the last months. As with most climate solutions, CEA isn’t the silver bullet but a piece of the puzzle. The question isn’t whether it’s superior or inferior to traditional agriculture but in which circumstances it’s the right fit. And that’s especially true as we move from just counting carbon to taking into account more complex needs around climate resilience and adaptation.