Hi Dickson and Vincent,
Love the conversation going on on the podcast.
First time I came across the concept was in 2011 when I learned about Bright Farms. I was living in Hong Kong which is positioned near the Pearl river delta and essentially part of a mega-city comprised of multiple metropolises where tens of millions of people live in close vicinity. I became highly skeptical of the origin and quality of my food, and ever since the concept of large scale, sustainable, urban food-production has been at the forefront of my mind.
I’ve since traded the bustle of Hong Kong for the breezier city of Kunming in SouthWest China where I have the incredible opportunity to run a tissue culture lab producing young orchids. We are a very high-tech operation producing in 100% artificial climate and lighting and specially designed growing media to produce 50 million young orchids per year on 2 hectares of tissue culture lab.
We’re located in the vegetable basket of Southern China In what they call the city of eternal spring. We’re surrounded by companies producing a whole spectrum of berries, lettuces, squashes and whatever produce the Chinese consumer may find on the shelves of their grocer. But I’m also confronted by the trucks hauling these products out of here and my company is equally guilty of a large logistic foot-print. The climate is what draws all these growers here.
I suppose Yunnan performs a similar role in China as California does in the US or Spain in Europe. The favourable climate creates a favourable economic environment to grow. This, of course, completely ignores the potential of indoor agriculture – whether out of social-environmental fashion, or pure need due to climate change and depleting resources.
Coming from Holland I know the plethora of exotic fruits and vegetables we can consume year-round is a result of advanced technology and knowledge of growing. As a densely populated nation we even manage to export a large proportion of what we produce. The value proposition of urban farming in our country is harder to make because efficiency is already high and supply chains are already short.
Put in perspective, in downtown Amsterdam you are a mere 15 km away from the nearest greenhouse which can be considered urban farming if you’re in Manhattan. The Netherlands is about the size of New Jersey and largely self-sufficient in food-production. In larger nations and particularly the more populous ones, the value proposition that urban farming provides is made more easily because the food-miles are larger. The question is not so much a technological one as it is an economic matter – we’re already doing it in Holland albeit in a suburban environment mostly under glass.
This is where my frustration kicks in that after 25 episodes the focus still seems to be largely on the technological possibilities. Despite getting interesting insights from people like Caleb Harper and Gene Giacomelli, the subject seems to keep stall a bit at lights, hydroponics, social- environmental responsibility and the potential it has in a larger scale urban setting. I think we all firmly believe in this at this point and are equally excited about it.
What would be interesting to hear from the brave people who pioneered into actually doing this, is how they compete in the 4.8 trillion dollar global food market (source: https://youtu.be/iUU1BffGon0?t=200 ).
For example; is Urban Produce able to compete on price-point with other produce in California? Does the 90% savings in water reduce operational cost enough to offset the cost of artificial lighting? What are the main value propositions that attract customers? Is there more than just a ‘Wow!’-factor to it?
The point is, if Urban farming is to scale, it needs to churn out competitive value propositions to the market. Some niche-consumers in Orange County might be willing to skull out an extra few bucks for the experiential factor, but are we going to reach another 1 billion people that way? It will need to equate the price-point that the conventional supply chain offers, and not only lettuce (which is hardly consumed by 1.3 billion Chinese) but also tomatoes, bell peppers and squashes.
Any bank funding an outdoor farmer in California would dramatically change their strategy when confronted with hard, financial facts. They would probably actively promote indoor farming with more favourable interest rates when they see it as a more secure investment with higher returns.
Surely, if we keep burning up our resources, eventually cost of water and nutrients will drive indoor agriculture to be the economical choice, but are we already at a point where we can avoid the situation to get more dire? As an avid proponent of urban farming I certainly hope so and the moment I crack the code I’ll be diving in the business head first, but these are essential questions that I hope the conversation can start shifting towards.
I hope that despite the length of this email you will find it worthy to address and if not included in your show, at least considered as an essential broadening of the topic.
I will keep following your conversations with sincere interest and excitement, and if the horticultural perspective on indoor growing, and how it perhaps can contribute to the advancement of indoor agriculture, would be an interesting topic for you to elaborate on, I’d be happy to get in touch.
PS. Proteins (particularly meat) have by far the largest production footprint and are not addressed in an urban farming context; except for Soy, but it’s agreed that this is nowhere near economical to do this indoors. With changing diets in Asia, this is a big issue. What can Urban farming do in this end in your opinion?