The following is a guest post written by Jonathan Hua of Scrum Ventures.
The disruptive impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on the world’s agricultural systems have been broad and varied. And they follow several years of challenging production and market conditions such as disruptive weather events and poor planting conditions. Although the pandemic exposed weaknesses in current food production processes, the food industry had a banner year in 2020.
In the first few weeks of 2021, we’ve also seen several major VCs, entrepreneurs, philanthropists and even major corporations take an interest in new ways to produce food. They’ve been launching climate and sustainability funds focused on areas such as regenerative agriculture, sustainable food, renewable energy, healthcare and innovations in new materials, infrastructure, and water. At the same time, the past few years have brought significant progress in space travel, space tourism and exploration missions to the moon and Mars.
These advancements and focus areas have many putting two and two together and asking: is it possible to produce food in space? If, as expected, one day humanity exhausts its natural resources on Earth and has to consider surviving elsewhere, we’ll have to answer many questions including how to grow food on space stations, in spaceships, and even on a completely different planet.
It isn’t too far-fetched to imagine space as the final farming frontier. There’s already a space garden, the Vegetable Production System, Veggie, on the International Space Station (ISS). Although Veggie is only about the size of a carry-on bag, it helps NASA study plant growth in microgravity and provides astronauts with nutrients. The problem? At roughly 16 pounds, Business Insider estimates Veggie costs $145,600 to $690,900 to transport onto the ISS—that’s an expensive salad.
Veggie is just one example. The price of eating in space is prohibitively costly. This Columbia Tribune article estimates that it could cost as much as $18,000 just to send one 16-oz bottle of water weighing about one pound into space. Assuming some economies of scale and the unit economics of sending many months’ worth of food in a single trip, it’s probably safe to assume that it would cost anywhere between $5,000 to $10,000 per astronaut per meal.
Costs aren’t the only issue. There are also space-related constraints such as microgravity and lack of refrigeration and water. Food choices are limited as well. Most items have to be calorie-dense and have extraordinary shelf lives.
The potential of vertical farming
Despite the challenges, finding a more sustainable food production system locally in space would be an endeavor with both immediate and long-term benefits. Vertical farming offers a viable solution to this food production problem. Controlled-environment agriculture promotes growth of veggies, herbs, and some fruits in limited spaces. In addition, vertical farms are optimized for year-round production and are less susceptible to extreme environmental conditions.
Next, because vertical farms are closed systems, water supplies can be filtered and recycled to maximize efficiency. Sensors and software within the vertical farms can also regulate water usage. And, AI can optimize water usage to prevent over or underwatering. Finally, because vertical farms are highly automated, there is the potential for high productivity.
This all sounds too good to be true, so what’s the catch? As with many things space-related, vertical farms are cost-intensive and limited in scope. Unless progress is made on both fronts, it will be challenging to even start to consider building them at any kind of scale in space. The long-term decline in cost of technology, as well as improved yields, will drive the success of a vertical farming operation in any location. If we can successfully pull this off, vertical farms will provide additional benefits that are unrelated to food consumption. For instance, plants produce oxygen that we will need to breathe in extraterrestrial climates.
Drilling down: vertical farming by the numbers
If we’re going to start farming in space, we’ll need to understand the numbers in depth. Here’s what we’re seeing from some of our latest research.
- Facility costs: Building a vertical farm could cost upwards of $40M for each facility. According to this AgFunder article, AeroFarms’ facilities cover 70,000 square feet of space and will be able to grow 2 million pounds of greens annually. Vertical farms built in shipping containers cost quite a bit less. Usually, containers cost somewhere in the ballpark of $75,000 to $100,000, but are much smaller and will produce less food, so multiple containers would be required to scale up this kind of vertical farming system that could quickly increase costs. Location of real estate will also affect these costs.
- Labor costs: Larger-scale vertical farms employ anywhere between 25-50 employees for each facility. Assuming most of these employees are being paid somewhere between $40,000 to $50,000 per year, that’s $1M to $1.25M in additional costs for labor to maintain these farms. The number of employees would need to be scaled down quite a bit in space, but the salaries would probably be higher as well.
- Resource costs: The cost of water can be justified by recycling the water that isn’t used for the crops or lost via evaporation, but energy costs are currently one of the highest expenditures for vertical farms. Lots of LED lights are required to grow food in a vertical farm. Some estimates put it at around 3,500 kWh of energy a year to produce just 1 square meter of lettuce.
- Last-mile costs: Depending on size of loads, locations, and other factors, transportation and delivery costs can be quite significant. In space, vehicles would be in limited supply, and would need to be modified to handle different gravity effects and refrigeration, not to mention likely very high electricity or fuel costs to run. This cost could be quite difficult to justify.
- Limited variety: Vertical farms are optimized for growing microgreens, herbs and a few types of fruits.
How to Make Vertical Farming More Feasible and Cost-Effective
Here are some of the strategies we need to consider to make vertical farming in space feasible.
- Make real estate space available: We’ll need to make real estate space more readily available or subsidize prices for larger-scale vertical farm development.
- Develop more tax incentives for vertical farming companies: Tax incentives will encourage companies to build, and decrease risks for investors who want to support the space. Right now, it’s primarily huge funds like SoftBank’s Vision Fund that have the capital and risk appetite to support the vertical farming space. Much more investment is required to bring vertical farming to a more commercial scale and to encourage other entrepreneurs to develop the complementary technologies needed to make it more cost-effective long-term.
- Innovate LED technologies: Lighting accounts for the most significant energy use in a vertical farming system. It also has significant impacts on crop yield and time to maturity. Like the computer chip industry, innovations in LED technology will need to focus on stronger outputs in smaller and more energy-efficient form factors. Lights that can customize intensity for each plant and improvements in energy efficiency will be necessary.
- Adopt renewable energy sources: Vertical farms should use more renewable energy sources like wind to help decrease energy unit cost, if the option is available on another planet. If there’s a way to harvest the sun’s energy more effectively on Mars, that would help as well. If sun exposure is weak on Mars, figuring out how to concentrate the sun’s rays and transmit them to use as energy on a vertical farm could be a worthy undertaking.
- Decrease the cost of hydroponics or aeroponics: There is no soil on the moon or on Mars, meaning that vertical farms in space will require the use of hydroponics or aeroponics, both of which can grow crops without soil by substituting soil with a mineral nutrient solution. Decreasing the cost of this growth medium, enhancing it to optimize yields and nutrition, or otherwise making it easier to produce at scale will help make vertical farming more feasible. Relying more on an aeroponic strategy that focuses on using nutrient-saturated water and mists rather than a more concentrated solution is likely the best strategy.
- Improve AI/IoT for greenhouses and vertical farms: Continuous monitoring and control of both environmental variables and crop growth are essential to the success of vertical farms. There are already many technologies for this, but more data and better algorithms will lead to better sensors and devices and more efficiencies that can cut down costs. Improvements in automation due to better AI/IoT can also decrease labor costs.
- Choose crops wisely to begin with: At least initially, we’ll need to focus on crops with shorter production cycles and higher yields to cut down on resource requirements and use. Crops with year-round consumer demand should also be prioritized over more seasonal items to improve cost efficiencies.
- Locate smartly: Make sure the vertical farms in space are built as close as possible to the densest population colonies to minimize transportation and logistics costs.
- Build to withstand harsh environments: In space, there are other considerations that could make or break any attempts to implement vertical farms. For one, the facilities have to be able to withstand the harsh environmental conditions of the local terrain and climate. Next, it is unclear how differences in gravity, adverse environment and radiation exposure will affect crop yields, nutrition or even taste. Also, there’s the issue of food safety. New environments bring new microbes, bacteria and other organisms that could make food unsafe or toxic for human consumption. These are just a few of the many additional variables that will need to be considered.
As we move toward developing vertical farms in space, the opportunities for budding founders and entrepreneurs to build successful space-focused food businesses are galactic. My hope is that we proceed with care and make sure our presence there does not defile the most pristine areas of the universe. We’ve already polluted it with space debris that we need to clean up. When it comes to space farming, humanity will need to work together to protect the environment that we will likely one day travel to and inhabit.
About Jonathan Hua
Jonathan is an investor with Scrum Ventures where he also helps run Scrum’s Food Tech Studio – Bites! a global program for startups of all stages who share a common vision of solving key challenges plaguing our food supply chain today, such as safety, waste reduction, and health.