Imagine being in a future city. The air is clean, the streets are full of life, with trees, birds, happy people and ubiquitous robots doing their chores. People move around in driverless electric buses enjoying their free time because artificial intelligences and robots do much of the work. How is your food produced? Most of it within the city itself: hydroponics are everywhere in vertical gardens and greenhouses.
Ok, I admit it sounds utopian but I like being optimistic. Even if you do not agree with the positive tone, you should concede that hydroponics and urban farming becoming big seems very probable. In fact, I am quite sure that we will see hydroponic cultures extensively deployed in every urban area over the next 20 years. Of course, traditional farming will not disappear, but certainly some non-trivial percentage of the cities’ food needs will be produced locally. How can I be so sure? Because hydroponics solves very well several problems of traditional farming at the same time: water over-use, complex logistics, contamination and centralization. Moreover, cities becoming more self-sufficient is strategically sound. The incentives are there, the technology is mature enough, the economics make sense: it is going to happen. If you look closely you can already see the trend forming.
That is the “What”. What about the “How”?
How is going to develop the urban farming marketplace? My bet is on an atomized one, with many small sized companies which grow enough of something to cater for a neighborhood and some medium companies of maybe regional level. There will be less intermediaries because it is very easy for a local farmer to sell directly door to door or at the local market. I don’t see big companies into this space because farming is a business that does not scale well and the margins in agriculture are not great. An atomized market means competence and variety, so it should be good.
In a professional greenhouse you do not grow different things (unless you are experimenting) because it is not cost efficient. This probably means that there will be cooperatives or local distributors.
The importance of the non-business side, that is people growing for themselves, is more difficult to predict. It is possible (but not sure) that it grows popular and becomes a huge, worldwide trend. At the least, there will be a strong community of urban growers, because it really is a very satisfying activity, somehow ingrained in our collective unconscious. I do not know about the size of this community, but robots will make many people unoccupied so, it will probably be big.
So robots will do all the work?
In big operations most of it, but do not expect full automation to arrive tomorrow. In small scale indoor farming, adoption will be even slower. This job contains many different micro-tasks which are difficult to robotize in a cost-effective manner. Besides, taking care is something we humans still do quite better than robots, and a good deal of farming consists on taking care. In the near future there will be robots, and artificial intelligences, but they will help us. We will see them as tools or maybe even as part of our team.
I see that I already wrote a lot more than I intended: this subject gets me excited. If you liked it, tell me and I will try to go deeper into some of the subjects hinted in this post. As always, thanks for reading!