Robotic warehouse farms will save the world
Four years ago, Ritch Wood was looking for a better way to grow plants. As the CEO of global skincare company Nu Skin, he ran into ingredient shortages every winter when fields went dormant―and when he moved grow operations to the equator he ran into water and land shortages, along with a host of quality control issues.
Nu Skin needed reliable, quality ingredients for their skincare products. But farming was too unpredictable an industry. “If there was a way to grow indoors,” he thought, “and be able to do that 24 hours a day, 365 days a year―if we could guarantee that it was grown without any herbicides or pesticides and in a sustainable way that uses less water and land―that would be really helpful.”
At the time, controlled-environment agriculture (CEA) was in its infancy and grow-light technology had yet to take a turn for the more affordable. When he learned of an agricultural system that promised to use a fraction of the land and water used by traditional agriculture methods and had the potential to make it more affordable, Wood made an investment.
Nu Skin paid $3 million for 70 percent of the company and rights to its IP―and Grōv Technologies was born.
Controlled-environment agriculture is on the rise
The theory behind CEA is that by controlling the environment in which it grows, we can control everything about a plant and what it grows into by micro-tweaking one of a thousand different characteristics―including temperature, humidity, light duration, light wavelength, dissolved oxygen in the water, and carbon dioxide saturation in the air. By tweaking the growing cycle, we can control the caloric content as well as the nutrient content and density of the plant.
“What we’ve learned through controlled-environment agriculture,” Benjamin Swan, co-founder and CEO at Sustenir in Singapore, once told National Geographic, “[is] we can actually emphasize certain characteristics of the plants. So, without using GMO, we can make our kale softer, we can actually make it sweet.”
The theoretical use cases for this technology are endless―from being able to grow in places where water is scarce (like in much of Africa), or where water is overly abundant (like Hawaii), or in places where labor is scarce (like in parts of Asia), or even in places that have long winters (like Northern Europe). Theoretically, we could have grow towers in every town and feed the whole of it no matter its natural environment.
We could even grow those foods to those cities’ exact nutritional needs―more vitamin D-rich foods in wintery places, for example. Dr. Lee Mun Wei, a senior manager at the Food Innovation and Resource Centre (FIRC) in Singapore aims to predict and prevent illness in a given population by tracking their biometric data using Apple watch-like wearables, then 3D printing nutrient-specific foods that could mitigate imbalances.
Though these technologies exist, they are still in their infancy. Singapore leads much of the research and development out of necessity. With limited land and water resources, the county is forced to import 90 percent of their food and 40 percent of their water from outside the country. As a result, they have no option but to grow vertically and desalinate water from the ocean.
Elsewhere, the industry has been slow to catch on, largely due to exorbitant startup costs, low returns, and lack of urgent need. According to a 2017 State of Farming report by L.E.K., only 27 percent of indoor, vertical farms are profitable compared with 50 percent of container farms and 75 percent of greenhouses. But one thing has spurred the industry on in recent years: cannabis.
Legalized in 39 states, demand for cannabis has created a $13.6 billion industry and enough capital to fund CEA-enabled grow operations. “When you have a crop that fetches up to $2,400 or $2,500 a pound, you need to be able to dial everything in and make it consistent and repeatable,” says Dashiel Kulander, co-founder and CEO at Boojum Group. “If the temperature swings five to 10 degrees on a cannabis plant, that will change the plant’s various cannabinoids. The goal is to create a medicine that is consistent batch after batch.”
It’s only recently that there has been some financial incentive to use CEA technologies for food use―largely driven by Big Ag players hoping to hedge out the competition. Berry farming giant Driscoll’s, for one, led a $500 million round to fund Plenty, a 2.2-acre vertical farm in California they hope will help them fulfill a contract with Albertsons. The Ingka Group, for another, led a $100 million round to fund AeroFarms, a 2.4-acre vertical farm in New Jersey that will help them fulfill a contract with Singapore Airlines.
Grōv Tech is building CEA prototypes in Utah
By investing in Grōv Tech, Nu Skin hopes to do something similar, getting ahead of the supply chain that fuels their skincare products before the competition can beat them to it, or before climate change makes traditional methods more difficult, all while shoring up technology that could provide a farming model that is more sustainable―if only it were more economical.
“The purpose was always, can we build a better product for Nu Skin?” Wood says. “We think there’s a huge story around the ingredient sustainability, and there were a lot of ingredients we felt we could grow, but the challenge was: could we do it in an economical way?”
Grōv Tech started out with a prototype: a tower that pairs hydroponic growing technology with grow lights. But like all CEA startups, a lot of the growing process was manual and the technology was prohibitively expensive. To make something that was scalable and profitable the whole thing needed to be automated and it needed to be cheap.
With this goal in mind, Wood decided they would start by growing animal feed for Bateman’s Dairy farm. Having grown up on a dairy farm himself, Wood figured this would allow the company to scale the product while refining and automating the technology to the point that it could be replicated. And all of this would have a fortuitous effect on Nu Skin’s bottom line.
“One of our bestselling products is a weight-loss protein powder which uses whey protein,” Wood says. “So again, a very nice connection there is if the animal is eating a more sustainable product and producing better milk with better protein and it’s being done in a sustainable way―certainly that can be a benefit to Nu Skin down the road.”
One year into feeding the 20,000 animals at Bateman, the company has learned a lot. For instance: cows need a lot of magnesium, but they don’t like eating it. Now, Grōv Tech puts magnesium in the water so it’s directly absorbed into the plant and then becomes bioavailable to the cow upon eating it. And because the growing process only takes seven days, data scientists can analyze the results in real-time and adjust the components to optimize production for the next batch of feed.
According to Grōv Tech president Steven Lindsley, it’s not far off that we’ll be looking at milk production (butter, fats, and proteins) and optimizing a herd’s diet for taste, quality, and nutritional value―not to mention the wellbeing of the animal. We’ll be able to look at how many trips from the veterinarian an animal gets when they’re fed certain nutrients in their diet, and whether they can have more calves and produce the same amount of dairy on less, better quality feed. (So far, the answer to this last question is yes. When animals are fed better quality food they need less of it―just like humans.)
And if we hook all of the cows up to robotic milking equipment and connect everything to artificial intelligence, machine learning, and the Internet of Things―Lindsley’s far-flung goal―then we might be able to collect enough data to not only feed cows to their optimum health and performance ability, but humans too. And that could have ramifications not only for feeding the world, but nourishing it― just like Dr. Wei hopes to do in Singapore.
“Last year was about starting to feed animals and get data and prove out the hypothesis we have while continuing to perfect the technology and get confidence there,” Wood says. “And now we’re really to a point where we’ve got data that proves that it works and that financially it’ll be a good thing for a farmer. So now we can really take that proposition to farmers and start to scale.”
CEA technology could feed the world
Right now, Grōv Tech is focused on refining its technology right here in our own backyard. But once they do that, the plan is to expand internationally.
“Saudi Arabia has actually passed a law where you cannot use water to grow fodder or feed for animals, so all of that now has to be imported. China imports one-third of their alfalfa feed for their dairy animals because they don’t have the capability of growing it,” Wood says. “So there are countries that will probably benefit more than the US would. But we’ve got to refine the technology and get that built to where it’s ready to scale before we start spreading ourselves all around the globe.”
CEA technology is just getting started. Like the Tesla Cybertruck, we have a working concept that promises a more-than-Jetson’s-level future many of us can see the benefits of and actively want―it’s just not quite available to the masses yet. But with more than a billion dollars invested in the technology in just the past few years alone―we’re getting there. And the “there” we are heading toward is rosy indeed.
“To put it in perspective, one tower that is about 875 square feet on the ground will replace 35 to 50 acres of land,” says Lindsley. “And that will feed the animals on roughly five percent of the amount of water. The UN says that that the world will add about 2.5 billion people in the next 30 years. And we have to find a way to feed them on arguably less arable land and water. The good news is the technology is coming along to help solve that equation.”
If COVID-19 taught us anything, it’s that our food supply chain is fragile. But that’s only because our supply chain was built to grow food in California, refrigerate it so it stays fresh, then transport it 1,500 miles so we can eat a salad in the winter in Chicago. In the future, that might not be a thing. “We’re having a dry year now,” Lindsley tells me in February. “But a year ago we were in a blizzard, and even in the middle of a blizzard in February in Utah, we’re pumping out fresh, beautiful, safe green grass for animals. It’s a paradigm shift.”
“Four years ago it was a good idea,” Wood tells me of his company’s investment in CEA technology, “But four years from now it’s going to be required.”