THE POLLINATION PICKLE OF INDOOR FARMING

A few months ago, I wrote a post about how the farms in the future could go indoors. I had looked at some of the pros and cons of indoor farming and had barely scratched the surface. So I dived a little deeper and found this really interesting challenge as the nascent indoor farming industry moves forward.

Pollinators like bees, birds, and bats account for 35% of the world’s current food production, so every third bite of food you eat, thank the pollinators. In the US, these pollinators alone contribute to over $18 billion in the production of over 100 crops every year. Pollination of some form is vital for 75% of the major food crops of the world including apples, almonds, coffee, and many more. In short, pollination is essential to growing food and ultimately for the survival of human beings.

But what does pollination have to do with indoor farms?

A majority of the indoor farming companies, be it greenhouses or vertical farms, are focused on growing leafy greens like lettuce, kale, arugula, etc. using either hydroponics, aquaponics, or their hybrid versions. To build these farms you need a lot of cash upfront. The short growth cycles and relative ease of growing these leafy greens are what makes them lucrative to cover the high capital costs.

Stephen Pankhurst in his video explains how there would be three phases of indoor farming, the leafy greens marking the first phase of this industry.

  • Phase I – Leafy Greens
  • Phase II – Roots and Fruits
  • Phase III – Staple Crops

So far, the indoor farming companies have researched and worked towards improving their leafy green growing recipes. They have built software for controlling and optimizing the light, water, wind, and now adding AI to the mix gives them a head start. Having mastery of Phase I has given them the courage to venture further into Phase II, growing fruits.

The big guns of vertical farming like Plenty are already stepping up their game. With their $140 million series D funding, they have partnered with Driscolls, the company that controls 1/3rd of the U.S berry market, to expand into growing strawberries.

But in order to grow fruits, the flowers need to be pollinated. When you try to grow fruits in an indoor farm, that is a closed environment with no access to bees and birds, the biggest challenge would be the pollination process.

The pollination pickle

The main purpose of automating any process is to reduce laborious tasks and make machines do our bidding. Indoor farming companies love to automate their processes, from machines that help the seeding process, to automatic conveyors that move the racks for growing the greens, and ultimately robots that harvest the leafy green produce.

Automation in a high-tech vertical farm.

In the natural world however, the a labor-intensive task of pollination is left to the wind, birds, and the bees at no cost to us. But with the indoor farms that are spread over millions of square feet either horizontally or vertically, natural pollination becomes a problem. So as we move indoors, some efforts are being made to build tech for reducing the efforts needed for the pollination process.

Tomatoes, for example, are self-pollinating, meaning, the pollen needs to fall inside the flower itself to pollinate and develop into a fruit. But the pollen needs to be “shaken” to fall down, usually, the bees help the tomato plant. But in a greenhouse or an indoor farm, hand pollination with electrical wands replaces the humming of the bees to pollinate the tomatoes. Humans have to move from flower to flower on a scissor lift, making sure the pollination is done on all the flowers. From passionfruit in Brazil, tomatoes in the USA, and eggplants in Netherlands that are grown indoors are hand-pollinated, a tedious and labor-intensive task indeed.

A new approach is being taken by companies like Polybee that are developing drones small enough to fly from flower to flower and pollinate them. The Israeli company Edete has automated almond pollination by using LIDAR to locate the almond flowers and blow pollen into them using air. Although almonds are an outdoor crop, the breakthrough technology could someday be possibly used for indoor farms.

Oishii, a New Jersey based indoor farm, on the other hand, is playing a different ball game altogether, they are growing world class Omakase strawberries that sell for $5 for a single strawberry. Unlike any other indoor farm, they have mastered the technology of using bees to pollinate their fruit and just closed a $50 million Series A funding to expand their farms. They are also at par with using robots for automating their other process. I believe this to be a step in the right direction.

In conclusion, the indoor farming industry that is focused on growing leafy greens is venturing into growing fruits. They have brought down power consumption with energy-saving LEDs, reduced manpower by automating all the processes, built high precision software to help monitor and improve the growth and yield of their produce. Surely, these technological advancements will help them move forward into the next phase, but to scale up the second phase to the humongous levels of Phase I, the industry will have to solve this pollination pickle.

To automate or not to automate the pollination process, that is the question.

P.S: There is an episode on the dystopian Netflix series “Black Mirror”, about how in the future, autonomous drone bees built to replace the extinct natural bees, takes a turn for the worse and ends up killing people.

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