The Challenges of Indoor Farming

lettuce in a vertical farming container

Dirt-to-Dinner welcomes contributing writers Susan LeamanDiane Wetherington and Samantha (Sam) Duda, who have extensive experience and knowledge in the food industry. Susan works with companies and associations to develop solutions that address produce-related food safety issues, and Diane is CEO of iDecisionSciences, LLC, a provider of specialty crop consulting services, and iFoodDecisionSciences, Inc., a software solutions provider for the food industry. After completing a degree in sustainability and business administration, Sam joined iDecisionSciences, LLC, this year as a research and analytics associate.

In a previous article, “Meet the ‘Ponics,” we discussed how innovative farming techniques include growing on rooftops and inside greenhouses, shipping containers, and warehouses. But to understand the big picture, we also need to examine the various challenges associated with this type of farming.

Vertical Farming. image credit: Aerofarms

The Startup Cost

The first challenge for any company wanting to start an indoor farm is the startup costs. For companies looking to take part in indoor farming, there are hefty expenditures and operating costs including real estate, marketing, loan payments, lighting, and growing equipment and electricity.

For companies that are growing indoors on a large scale, startup costs are in the millions. Some of the biggest players already established in indoor growing received millions of dollars from investors before beginning their endeavors.

Before breaking ground on their first indoor facility, Gotham Greens, which operates four urban rooftop greenhouse farms in New York City and Chicago, raised over $30 million from numerous private investors. To convert a former steel mill in Newark, New Jersey, to a 70,000 square foot vertical indoor farm, AeroFarms raised over $70 million ‒ mostly from private investors. As indoor farming practices and technologies become more established in the future, the industry hopes for lower startup costs and more interested investors.

The Complexity of Lighting

One of the reasons the indoor farming industry has expanded in the last several years is due to the falling price of light emitting diode (LED) lights. LED lighting provides the same amount of lighting as fluorescent light but requires half the amount of energy. In July 2015, the lighting company, Phillips, opened a research facility, GrowWise Center in the Netherlands, to study the interaction between crops and the light spectrum. Plants react uniquely to different spectrums of light and color at different points in their growing cycle.

GE Mirai Lettuce Farm. Source:

Despite LED being energy efficient compared to other lighting sources, LED lights still may not be the most efficient way to mimic natural sunlight. Erico Mattos, an urban agriculture advocate, reports that plants can waste up to 80% of the energy provided to them due to each crop having a different threshold for optimizing photosynthesis. For example, a sweet potato plant needs only 64% of the light energy produced by a LED light for optimal photosynthesis. If light output is not adjustable, sweet potatoes grown in an indoor growing environment waste 36% of the provided light energy – light paid for and not used. In conventional outdoor or greenhouse farming with the benefit of free sunlight, this waste of light energy by the plants does not impact a farmer’s costs.

For indoor growers, unused light represents a real economic and environmental challenge. To address this challenge, Mattos has created a technology called PhytoSynthetix that allows plants to communicate how much light they need by triggering the lights to dim. The technology uses sensors to detect chlorophyll fluorescence measurements that ‘communicate’ to the LED lights to adjust accordingly.  This sensor-triggered technology reduces energy consumption but has yet to be applied on a large scale. As technological advances become cheaper, the research and data collected from programs like GrowWise and PhytoSynthetix can help indoor farmers lower their energy cost and grow crops more efficiently.

Limited Crop Range

Examples of greens suitable for indoor farming

Unlike conventional farming, indoor growing has a limited crop range. Robert Colangelo, CEO of Green Sense Farms said, “You could pretty much grow anything in an indoor vertical farm. But there are only a few things you can grow commercially and economically viable today.” Green Sense Farms grows leafy greens in their vertical warehouse farm in Portage, Indiana using horizontal growing racks. Colangelo believes that farming in the future will be different for different commodities. Indoor vertical farming may be the future for leafy greens, but tomatoes, peppers, and cucumbers are best grown in greenhouses, and commodity crops like soybeans, corn, and wheat are best grown on field farms. Thus, indoor farming plays a specific role in the future of farming, but will not account for all growing operations.

Furthermore, each indoor farm, greenhouse, or warehouse, is engineered for a specific crop including the lighting, climate, nutrition, irrigation, software, and sensors for that particular growing environment. The cost of a massive reengineering or remodel of a building and its infrastructure to accommodate a new crop is currently not economically sound for a grower who wants to expand or change an existing operation into different crops (i.e., switch from leafy greens to strawberries).

Food Safety

Many have the false perception that due to the controlled environment of indoor farming, the need for food safety is eliminated. David Rosenberg, CEO of AeroFarms, worries that people unfamiliar with indoor growing may under-appreciate the risks associated with growing crops indoors. Nate Storey, the CEO of Bright AgroTech says, “If you’re growing indoors and growing plants, biology is messy and invites disease; you will have pathogens, you will have disease organisms, you will have insects and pest; these things are inevitable.” Fungal disease and mildew are common in indoor growing environments, especially in horizontal plane vertical warehouse farming.

The key to reducing plant disease and pests is AIRFLOW

In an indoor growing environment, humidity is naturally produced from plants transpiring and irrigation water evaporating in combination with heat produced by the LED lights. Humidity creates a favorable environment for human and plant pathogen growth. Airflow systems pump CO2 in for plant respiration and remove excess humidity. Effective airflow is difficult in horizontal plane vertical farming due to the limited space between the crop’s canopy and lighting fixtures. This lack of space for adequate airflow results in a higher risk of foodborne pathogens as well as higher energy cost to aggressively pump more CO2 and air through the growing chambers. Add to this the fact that most indoor environments are kept exceptionally clean – almost sterile – creating an environment with few competitive microorganisms if pathogens are introduced. Pathogens in this type of environment with little competition for available nutrients are able to grow more rapidly and unchecked.

Diagram of Horizontal Plane Vertical Farming vs. Vertical Plane Vertical Farming
(source: Bright Agrotech)

Airflow in Horizontal Plane Vertical Farming vs. Vertical Plane Vertical Farming
(source: Bright Agrotech)

Horizontal indoor growing limits visual access for workers, making it difficult for them to check crops for infections or contamination. For workers to visually inspect what is happening between and inside each rack, they must use expensive scissor lifts and reach into the growing bed to look for diseases or pests. This process is time-consuming and reaching over plants also presents a food safety hazard. Nate Storey uses vertical planes instead of horizontal planes for his indoor farm, allowing for better airflow, lower heat production, and easier access for workers. This shift from horizontal to vertical planes with better airflow also improves food safety while lowering energy consumption and labor costs.


Some indoor farmers believe that their greatest challenge is finding labor who have the necessary skills and educational background to monitor the crops at all hours. Indoor farming companies look for candidates with a deep understanding of plant biology and data manipulation. Even though indoor growing is not a new concept, recent operations are on a much larger scale than previous operations, and it is sometimes difficult to find enough people with relevant knowledge and experience. David Rosenberg of AeroFarms says, “While hiring is a challenge, ensuring the right people are running indoor ag businesses is also of utmost importance as the industry scales.” The labor force of an indoor farm operation must oversee the massive amount of crops without cutting corners on food safety.

What’s the Catch?

red and blue fishing trawlers at port

Our oceans, rivers, and lakes are the last “farmable” frontiers. While we may not consider ourselves “hunters and gathers” anymore, we are still hunting the waters for 55% of the fish we consume and farming the remaining 45%.

Whether it is sushi or sautéed snapper, roughly 6.2 billion people— 84% of the global population— incorporate fish into their weekly diet.  In just 14 years, it is anticipated that there will be an additional one billion people on this planet— who will certainly continue to eat fish as well! But can the oceans provide enough sustainable fish for everyone?

The massive amount of fish (167 million metric tonnes) that are caught (55%) and farmed (45%) each year provides each person in the world with approximately 44 pounds of available fish per year.  To put this into perspective, the average American consumes about 16 pounds of fish and shellfish per year, compared to those in Iceland, who consume 90 pounds per year and those in Japan, who consume 53 pounds per person per year.

Fishing in fresh and salt waters has remained consistent at roughly 92 million metric tonnes of catch per year since 2009. Out of the 81 million metric tonnes of just wild ocean fish (versus wild freshwater fish), China is responsible for catching the largest quantity weighting in at 18% of the world total, followed by Indonesia (7%) and the United States (6%).

If we keep up this pace, how can we feed an additional 1 billion people by 2030?  If the fish consumption pattern holds, the world would need 32.2 million metric tonnes of more fish— without depleting our oceans.

Our oceans, rivers, and lakes are overfished….

For 40,000 years—beginning with our hunting and gathering ancestors— fishing has been both a sport and a primary food source for the human race. In fact, over-fishing the oceans first began in the era of Moby Dick when the schooners searched the global oceans for whale oil. And while it is nearly impossible to count the exact amount of fish in our oceans, it is clear that they have been overfished.

Adapted from an infographic produced by the Pew Charitable Trusts and The Sea Around Us.

Factors which contribute to overfishing in our oceans are aggressive fishing, lack of regulations, by-catch, and illegal fishing. Illegal fishing accounts for 15% of total captured fish. This pirating can take many forms such as fishing in protected areas, not reporting the full catch, or claiming a different country of origin. Boats registered to Africa, for example, are exempt from any regulatory approval.

Our waters at a glance

The FAO reports that 30 percent of our oceans are overexploited.

The World Wildlife Fund agrees that “more than 85 percent of the world’s fisheries have been pushed to or beyond their biological limits and are in need of strict management plans to restore them”.

SNAPP (Science for Nature and People Partnerships) says that over the last 40 years, marine life has been slashed in half and 90% of the swordfish and tuna have disappeared since the 1950s.

Source: The State of World Fisheries,

Overfishing in the world’s rivers and lakes has quadrupled since 1950 to 8.7 million metric tonnes, particularly in China where there are 12 million fishermen.

The technology behind large commercial fishing boats

According to the FAO, there are approximately 4.6 million fishing boats cruising the oceans to catch for dinner or sell commercially. Asia controls 75% of these boats while Africa controls 15%. But these boats are incredibly diverse. It is amazing to think that of the world’s fishing boats, only 64% operate with an engine! Obviously, the ones that have engines are far more efficient. The larger factory ships, for example, have huge freezers and new fishing technology that helps to locate and catch previously undetected fish. As a result, they are capable of hauling a tremendous amount of fish and bycatch. The bycatch ultimately gets wasted.

Nowadays, fishing vessels must be equipped with electronic devices, or “blue boxes”, which form part of the satellite-based vessel monitoring system (VMS). The blue box regularly sends data about the location of the vessel to the fisheries monitoring center (FMC). Vessels are also equipped with GPS transmitters which track the ship’s speed and position.

By-catch and the ocean habitat

Whether a vessel is trolling nets along the seabed floor to catch bottom feeders (like shellfish) or casting huge nets in the water, there is an unintended by-catch. Fish such as cod, haddock, shrimps, lobsters, and scallops get tangled in the nets dragged along the ocean floor.  The nets that are thrown in the water to catch the larger fish often result in other species, such as baby whales, dolphin, and sharks to get caught and killed in the process.

For every pound of fish purposefully caught, there are 5-10 pounds of wild fish killed during the process. Furthermore, the by-catch is not eaten— it is either ground up for fish feed or simply thrown overboard. Finally, these bottom draggers break up coral and disturb the ocean’s habitat. This can be visible, for instance, when there is an overabundance of seaweed on your favorite beach.

So how can we rebuild our fish stocks?

The international community which includes the U.N., FAO, OECD, World Bank, and the EU are all working on separate programs to help rebuild wild fish stocks. Satellites are being utilized to track the fishing vessels and monitor the ships to the port of origin. But it is difficult to control.  For more information, the WWF gives more detail on protecting our oceans in the film ‘From Bait to Plate’ as well as their traceability principles.

Sustainably Farmed Fish

China was farming fish as early as 3500 BCE and the ancient Egyptians and Romans grew fish for an easy varied diet.  Today, aquaculture is the fastest growing protein industry, with a growth rate of roughly 5% annually. In 2015, global aquaculture was valued at $156.27 billion and is expected to reach $209.42 billion in 2021. A 34% increase in just six years! To put this in perspective – in 2014 the U.S. meat and poultry industry sales totaled $186 billion. 

China produces over one-half (62%) of global aquaculture production. Indonesia, India, Vietnam, and Bangladesh are the top five producers after China. The United States aquaculture industry is still small, contributing only about 5%.

But both saltwater and freshwater fish farms have a bad reputation. It is a fragmented industry with some excellent players and some not-so-excellent participants. The issue is the lack of accountability and global regulatory standards. According to SNAPP, 65% of aquaculture is responsible for polluting the oceans, feeding inappropriate food to the fish, adding unnecessary chemicals, and inappropriate worker welfare.

We must start using the sea as farmers instead of hunters. That is what civilization is all about – farming replacing hunting

-Jacques Cousteau

But not all fish farms are the same.  We have discussed some of these issues and differences in our previous posts: A Shrimp’s Tail and Farmed or Wild Salmon.  In the United States, regulations are being examined to allow for more fish farming along the California and Eastern coasts. Consumer demand is forcing more transparency in the industry, and in response, there are a growing number of small and large indoor fish farms in states like North Dakota, South Carolina, Mississippi, and New Hampshire. These fish farms are employing safe and regulated business practices. Blue Ridge Aquaculture, for example, is the largest producer of tilapia and is located in Virginia.

Around the world, there are indoor and outdoor farms that are also focused on transparency and quality.  Cooke Aquaculture, which has farms located in Canada, the U.S., Scotland, Spain, and Chile, is fully integrated with salmon, sea bass, and sea bream. Cermaq is one of the largest salmon farmers in Norway, Chile, and Canada.  Nireus Aquaculture, partnering with the WWF, is the largest Mediterranean Aquaculture company in the world.  Madagascar shrimp producer Unima is the first shrimp producer in Africa to receive the ASC certification.  Finally, the Chinese government is recognizing that they must ensure their farms do not pollute the environment.  In response to this, they are working with the Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC) to grow sustainable and certified fish. But until we see valid third-party certifications from imported fish – you don’t know exactly what is on your dinner plate.

Fish can be vegetarians!

Feeding fish with other fish is not sustainable. The total amount of fish caught and farmed is 167 million metric tons. Of this amount, 146 million metric tons are needed to feed humans and roughly 21 millionmetric tons are used to feed farmed fish or in human supplements. But, this practice is actually pretty unnecessary.

There are two nonexclusive, more sustainable, solutions to this problem. A fish food company, EWOS, is currently partaking in both.

Fish Farm of the Future Goes Vegetarian

1. When fish are processed, depending on the type of fish, about 40-70% is wasted. This is particularly bad if they are being fileted on the fishing boat, as the discarded portion of fish is often tossed overboard. These trimmings can be fully utilized for fish feed.

2. It is possible to turn fish into vegetarians. All fish require is a diet that is still high in omega-3s and DHA in order to ensure sufficient nutritional value. For instance, replacing fish oil with alternatives such as algal oil, canola, flax, soy, pistachios, or even insects would help keep our oceans full of fish. Additionally, including vitamins, phospholipids, essential fatty acids, trace minerals, and even probiotics will help produce healthy fish for us to eat.  Partners in Europe have introduced an innovative cloud tool called AquaSmart which will help fish farmers manage their profitability, feed, and production to ensure a strong profit and sustainable practices protect the environment. 

How do you find sustainable fish?

Sustainably farmed fish is the future of aquaculture. We want full transparency into where the fish on our plate comes from. This means we want to know that the fish was fed a healthy diet, that it was raised in an environmentally responsible farm, and that the employees in the fish industry were not exploited in the process. Here are some organizations that are trying to reshape the industry:

Google  supports two organizations that bring fresh, transparent seafood to the restaurant within 24 hours through Dock to Dish and Thimble Island Oyster Farm.

Grocery stores, like Target and Whole foods, are only buying fish that is sustainable and traceable.


Marine Stewardship Council

Aquaculture Stewardship Council


Whole Foods Responsibly Farmed