The Feed

UnHerd's blog
Sale at the vegetable market | Vente au marché aux légumes 20/10/2017

This Silicon Valley start-up wants to (cheaply) feed the world (actual, non-digital) food

We’ve got so used to tech start-ups trying being entirely digital that it’s slightly shocking to find one doing something real-world useful. Even more surprising to see one win significant venture funding – which so often goes just to all-digital efforts that can “scale” at a ridiculous pace.

Enter the next iteration of vertical farming.

Bringing farming indoors is hardly new, and going high-rise has been tried many times. So often, in fact, that a recent review of the field listed nine reasons why vertical farms fail. 

Yet Plenty just secured $200m in a venture funding round, which according to Vox is the largest ag-tech investment ever made (from Japanese giant Softbank). Bloomberg titles its assessment “Whole Foods Quality at Walmart Prices.” The hype is on.

What’s particularly interesting about Plenty is its claimed integration of the digital and the analogue (AI is at work monitoring the growth of the plants), and the fact that they have built their business on the lessons learned from previous failures.

Here’s the gist, courtesy of Bloomberg:

“Most vertical farms grow plants on horizontal shelves stacked like a tall dresser. Plenty uses tall poles from which the plants jut out horizontally. The poles are lined up about 4 inches from one another, allowing crops to grow so densely they look like a solid wall.

Plenty uses nutrients instead of soil and lets water filter down, where it can be collected and recycled, rather than spending energy to shower it up.

“All told, Plenty says, its technology can yield as much as 350 times more produce in a given area as conventional farms, with 1 percent of the water. (The next-highest claim, from AeroFarms, is as much as 130 times the land efficiency of traditional models.)”

That core claim is astonishing.  Since cultivable land and water are crisis components in future food scenarios, the potential is enormous. If it works.

Plenty’s plan is to have an enormous farm-unit near every major city on earth – some 500 in all. Proximity is a big deal. In the United States, most leafy greens are grown in California and Arizona, and on average they travel 2,000 to reach a retailer, a costly journey in all senses. The first will be built near Seattle.

The backstory is also interesting – the project began in one of the founders’ Ph.D. And you might recognise the name of at least one high-profile investor: Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, currently selling Whole Foods produce at Whole Foods prices.