A white farmhouse smack  on rolling fields and a tractor tilling soil– no, vertical farming doesn’t have any of those. If you step your foot in a vertical farm, you’ll instead see greens growing in trays beneath LED light. In these facilities, crops grow in vertically stacked layers, hence the name, “vertical” farming. These farms are enclosed warehouses that are usually artificially lit and use software for maintenance.
Far from being natural, vertical farming is touted by its supporters as a solution to climate change and food insecurity. According to the World Wildlife Fund, global food production uses 70% of all freshwater and accounts for 80% of greenhouse gas emissions. Moreover, significant portions of arable land have been lost to unsustainable farming practices. These problems amplify the problem of feeding the world’s 10 billion population that will be reached at some point in this century. Vertical farming uses less water, less land, and fewer chemicals than conventional farming. With higher productivity and a smaller environmental footprint, it might be the key to keeping up with rising demand– the UN projects that food production will have to increase by 60% by 2050.
Amidst skepticism, the vertical farming industry has attracted venture capital. Meet Bowery Farming, a New York based vertical farming startup in the mission for more sustainable and efficient farming, founded by Irving Fain in 2015. Bowery warehouses are a modern twist  on conventional farms; located outside of big cities, they raise leafy greens with Bowery OS, a proprietary  system powered by software, robotics, and cameras. Bowery OS allows the company to precisely control how they grow their vegetables. Fain told CNBC in May 2018 that “1 square foot within one of these indoor farms is 100 times more productive than 1 square foot of arable land.” In 2021, Bowery Farming raised $300 million from its series C funding round that valued the company at $2.3 billion. Bowery’s produce is sold in more than 850 stores across the United States. Other vertical farmers, such as Plenty, AeroFarms, and Freight Farms, have also received venture capital investment.
That said, the jury is still out on whether vertical farming can solve food security and environmental issues. Alesandros Glaros, a food security researcher at University of Guelph, told Bloomberg in December 2021, “The research is too early, I think, to make a reliable claim to saying that vertical farming is a food security solution … We lack a lot of good environmental data on what the exact … environmental footprint is.” In fact, critics have pointed out that vertical farms use a lot of electricity on heating, lighting, and overall system maintenance. And despite the high productivity, the types of crops that can be raised are currently limited to low-calorie produce such as leafy greens and berries– contrary to grains and root vegetables.
Manhattan star chefs have invested in Bowery, where they can procure customized ingredients. Under a controlled environment, customers can decide how soft they want their kales to be. An optimistic estimate projects the vertical farming industry to grow from $3.1 billion in 2021 to $9.7 billion by 2026; a sustainability solution or not, investors are betting on vertical farming.