Indoor Farming May Be Organic’s Only Hope

farming growing organic[tweetmeme source=”intercongreen”]After decades of trying to build an industry based around a diversion from the chemical-laden farming practices of agro-giants, organic farming still makes up an infinitesimal portion of America’s produce. Despite the apparent strength of naturally oriented stores and markets, when it comes to planting acreage and shopping baskets, organics do not hold a meaningful presence at the table—largely due to lower yields and their affect on profitability. Due to its inherent control over growing conditions, indoor farming could be the medium that allows organic produce to harvest more of the national market share.

I recently read a fascinating post by Steve Savage, over on Sustainablog, who did some analysis of farming data collected by the USDA. His reported conclusions give us a glimpse of organic food’s place in American agriculture—and you need a magnifying glass to see it. According to Savage, harvested organic produce currently comprises a mere 0.52% of all cropland in the country in 2008. To an architect in New York City, where organic products seem to be available on every corner, the number caught me by surprise.

What You Get for Growing Against the Grain

Unsurprisingly, organic farming has the deck stacked against it. Without the rising industry standards of genetically modified crops and the slurry of pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers, it is difficult (read: impossible) for organics to match the yields of other growers in the variety of climates in America. Despite the premium that growers receive for organic produce, on average they only pull 60-80% of traditional farmers harvests from the ground, giving little incentive for farmers to switch at the end of the day—clearly, very few have.

The numbers do not paint a very hopeful picture for the future of organic farming. Savage goes as far to say that, “The fact that so little cropland is organic after more than 30 years of commercial and research progress suggests that organic will never be more than a niche.” While possible, I am not so sure that organics should be counted out just yet.

Losing at the Playing the Wrong Game

agro chemicals

Organic’s “failure” in the world of agro-business is a bit relative and may actually be yet another indication of how broken the system is rather than how crazy some people are for wanting fresh, unadulterated produce. I may be great at telling the difference between Coke and Pepsi, but I doubt I could discern between the taste of an organic tomato and its standard counterpart. For me, the merits of organic are more about sustainability and the positive repercussions are numerous. Despite its berth, the American farming process is not the hallmark of examples that we should look to for the prowess of health and efficiency. Sure, large farms are good at pumping out food, but at what collective costs?

Water is certainly one. In the United States, we use 31% of our fresh water for irrigation purposes with most of that being comprised of farming. When you jump to the entire world, that number turns into 80%. When it comes to all of those chemicals that “protect” the crops in the field, they have a second life far less admirable than their first defensive tour of duty. Most of them find their way into stormwater runoff, which eventually mixes with our estuaries and aquatic ecosystems. According to Dr. Dickson Despommier, Professor at Columbia and expert on the concept of Vertical Farming, “agricultural runoff is responsible for more ecosystem disruption than any other single kind of pollution.” Even with the chemical miracles, crops are still vulnerable to the same climactic events as their organic brethren. The USDA estimates that only 50% of all crops planted in the U.S. reach the plate of a consumer.

We are not short on reasons why the face of American agriculture has to change (as well as plenty on why it won’t anytime soon).

It’s a Different World Inside

Many of the obstacles that face organic farming revolve around the inherent variability in natural, open farmland. Rain, insects and weeds are all ecological effects beyond the control of the farmer that can wreck havoc on unprotected crops. Large, non-organic farms solve these problems by a series of chemicals largely based in petroleum, but another solution is to migrate growing to the controlled environments of indoor farming; either greenhouses or, better yet, Vertical Farms. Indoor growing not only shields produce from all of the things we try to protect it from with chemicals, but in many cases it can do so with higher yields than open range, traditional ground farming with a fraction of the environmental footprint.

The ability to regulate temperature, humidity and water open up numerous possibilities that all point to higher, more consistent yields for many types of crops. When separated from the unknowns of nature, the very things that chemical products are meant to battle against are removed from the lifecycle of the plants. As a result, growing organically only makes more sense in an indoor environment. Where growing crops outdoors without fertilizers and pesticides results in a cost increase, growing inside without them is a cost savings (Biologist and author Janine Benyus cites that on average  it requires roughly $2.70 worth of oil based inputs to produce $4.00 worth of  American crops).

In his new book on Vertical Farming, Despommier also points to crop types like strawberries that can grow more plants per acre indoors than in the ground under the sun. These crops can also be grown year round, only further increasing the net annual yield. On top of that, with hydroponic or aeroponic growing, farming can save 70-90% of the water used in open field irrigation. For America, that could be anywhere from 88 to 114 billion gallons of water….a day.

Forest of TomatoesGrowing Like a Weed

Though also currently a small portion of overall crop production, indoor farming has plenty of room to grow. As we have yet to see any constructed models of a Vertical Farm, greenhouses comprise the entirety of this expanding marketplace. Greenhouse farming has grown in popularity over the past two decades in Mexico, Canada and the U.S. with all of them fighting for the coveted American consumer. As the price of materials as well as technologies for water purification and heating/cooling come down, the operating costs of greenhouses have dropped, making them more feasible to a larger population of growers. An article in the Jakarta Globe points to rooftop greenhouses becoming increasingly popular for restaurants that want to utilize valuable, sun-washed square footage while lowering the operating costs of their business.

Though not all types of veggies share the same successes in greenhouse farming, particular examples like tomatoes continue to shine. It is estimated that nearly 40% of all fresh tomatoes now sold in American stores come from greenhouses. Though not all of these facilities strive to be organic, the switch would arguably be much easier for them then farmers working in traditional cultivation methods.

Despite the strength in Savage’s analysis, there are still statistics pointing to a growing demand for organic products despite their cost premium. In December, the Organic Trade Association reported that U.S. sales of organic food and beverages have grown from $1 billion in 1990 to $24.8 billion in 2009 (though this number includes more than Savage’s focus on organic fruits and vegetables), including back-to-back increases in 2008 and 2009 throughout the height of the recession. If organic farming is going to create a greater presence in American agriculture, indoor farming could be the vehicle it needs to meet burgeoning demand with fewer pennies and more picking.

Image Credit: virulentwordofmouse , , foodfreedom

23 Responses to “Indoor Farming May Be Organic’s Only Hope”

  1. Terrasphere Systems (, has developed a Vertical Farm that is now in operation and producing product that is organic, chemical and pesticide free. Take a look at the Terrasphere website which is very informative and has a couple of very good videos to explain their process(Watch the “Two Seeds” video). The parent company, Converted Organics (, recently announced that they will be building a Terrasphere plant in Rhode Island. What I like about this concept is that they are the farmss can be placed all over the world no matter the location or land or weather conditions to grow food 365 days a year.
    I am not affiliated with either of these companies, just thought you might want to know.
    Respectfully, Jake G.

    • Jake, thanks for the heads up. I hadn’t heard of this company but it sounds like they are researching an interesting model. I’d be curious as to the balance between a building designed to utilize natural light vs. setups like theirs that seem to be in a regular building where all of the growing light comes from fluorescent fixtures. Despite the fact they are fluorescents, that’s still a lot of energy used for growing. It’s certainly a different model than other Vertical Farm proponents that conjure up pictures of glassy skyscrapers towering above low-rise urban development.

      Thanks for stopping by, hope to see you back!

  2. T. Caine,
    Thanks for reading my Organic analysis. I totally agree with you that “protected culture” of various types is a key part of our effort to make agriculture more sustainable, particularly for specialty crops that are not so much about feeding us as about health and enjoyment of food.

    When it comes to a full-blown climate controlled greenhouse (vs a rain shelter or shade house), Organic actually has a problem. They are required (the last time I checked) to have some real soil as opposed to artificial planting media or hydroponics. It is really hard to do that without introducing soil-based pests that could otherwise have been completely avoided. As for the 99.5% of agriculture that isn’t Organic, you might be surprised to know how far it has come and how safe the pest control methods are today. Of particular note are the fungicides which in “conventional” are both far more effective and far less toxic than the old copper-based materials that the Organic grower uses.

    • Hey Steve, thanks for stopping by. Very interesting point about organic restrictions. Would you go as far to say that some of organic’s woes are the result of “rules” that are overly narrow and not necessarily the only way to ensure the production of healthy, fresh produce? I think it’s safe to say that top quality food can be grown hydroponically.

      I suppose that the prospect of the normal growers coming around a bit is a good one. I am certainly not a farmer, but I continue to read so much about the dependence that we have essentially grown into our crops and the resulting resilience in both insects and weeds (that in turn only promote more application of chemicals). Would you consider this alarmist or is it just a bad situation that has plateaued rather than continuing it’s break-neck trend upwards?

      • T. Caine,
        I would say that the terminology you use like “chemical laden” does not give an accurate picture of modern farming. This is actually an area where there is plenty of data available and the data shows that we use far less pesticide today in terms of pounds and the toxicity of what is used has dropped even faster. I used the California use data in this post last year to make that point.

        I do think that the Organic rules are overly restrictive if the goal is doing things the safest and most practical way, but Organic is defined in philosophical terms, not scientific terms. So, for specialty crops the very best way to deliver fertilizer is to “spoon feed” it through the drip irrigation. That is very hard to do with “natural” organic fertilizers and there have been a couple of major scandals where someone was selling an Organic liquid fertilizer which was actually spiked with “synthetic nitrogen”. Since a plant only takes up nitrate or ammonium ions regardless of the source, this is just silly. An Organic grower can’t use the modern fungicides that are substantially less toxic than table salt and work really well, but they can use various copper salts (copper sulfate, copper hydroxide pentahydrate) because those are natural even though they are >10 times as toxic as the synthetic options and persistent in the environment.

    • There is a solution for the issue of “real soil” and growing certified organic crops indoors. It involves the combination of several proven/demonstrated new technologies that provide significant advantages versus traditional, conventional growing methods.

      One of the advantages is that the growing medium, consisting of soil plus any amendments/additives, is fully encapsulated but can still “breath” and maximize the available oxygen. Advanced drip irrigation and liquid soil supplement maximize the use and conservation of water and energy needed for the crop production.

      The soil-based pest concern is one that has not been a factor to date on several projects using the encapsulation technology. One of the projects is a 14 acre organic strawberry production that has exceeded expectations since start-up over 2 years ago.

  3. I am pro-organic and it is sad to say that farmers today are more into the “easy money” sort of farming and not being concern with the benefits of their products. I totally agree with you Mr. Caine. Hope all these will be corrected someday.

    • Brad,
      Do you know any farmers? I just spent two days at the Ontario Fruit and Vegetable Growers Convention and talked with many of them. Your idea that they are in this for the “easy money” is both uninformed and insulting to hard working people who face serious challenges and do so very responsibly. I suggest that you actually get to know some farmers before you indulge in demonization.

      • Couldnt agree more…farmers are not lazy…most of them have been cornered into this way of farming when food became a commodity aka farm gate…they have been made slaves to the large ag corporations such as Cargill…and the debts they are into for machinery and equipment forces them to keep this up…its much more complicated than saying they are lazy…and farmers arent rich, forget the easy money part…

  4. Sorry, but this article needs further research. Plenty of organic farmers are using innovative technologies to grow prolific amounts of food in ratios which actually outpace yields of conventional farmers–consistently.

    Further, I can very much tell the difference between an organic tomato grown in healthy soil and a conventional tomato. One is delightfully tasty and the other is usually chewy and tasteless by comparison.

    And for anyone to say pesticide use is down is using skewed statistics. The use of experimental synthetic pesticides has risen with ubiquitious GMOs. Consider one of the latest offerings for the markets, “Agent Orange Corn,” derived from the same cocktail used in Vietnam. We could go on for pages regarding synthetic pesticide use.

    • I would not be surprised if there are organic farmers finding ways to address the inherent restrictions of organic farming, but so far it seems as though they are certainly not comprising the majority.

      It’s great that you can tell the difference between an organic tomato and one conventionally grown. As I said, I certainly cannot, but I think the point of the article is that all of the data out there points to one of two things: either most Americans also cannot tell the difference or the difference isn’t important enough to most of them in order to justify a purchase. If organics are making up such a small portion of the food supply, but represent a more holistic direction for our agricultural industry then it might be time to explore more options to make the culture more accessible to more people and more successful to its farmers.

      • Yes, it is time to stand up against lobbyists of Big Ag who work overtime with obscenely big budgets, duplicitous marketers and aggressive lawyers to systematically put organic and smaller farmers out of business. I question every day why people don’t notice all kinds of things. But you forget how good a tomato can be when you haven’t tasted a heavenly one for years. It’s like the frog effect, where if you slowly turn up the temperature in a pot of water on a stove the frog will slowly boil to death without noticing. Same with our food. People are asleep and overstressed running to jobs they hate or distracted with wondering why they are so sick. They don’t have “time” to notice the food they eat is crap or loaded with synthetic chemicals designed to seem like real food. But try eating a tomato from an organic farm or garden with the richest soil and if you can’t tell the difference, well something’s wrong. All I know is the one thing all human beings have in common is the love of truly good food. The irony is it’s easy to produce a lot of it in small areas. Just look up permaculture. Just look up commercial organic farming. We should all be enjoying good food and health. Period.

      • Most recent numbers on organic food market that I have found so far….
        Sales of organic products have increased from US$5 billion nationwide a decade ago to US$24 billion today, according to the Organic Trade Association. California accounts for nearly 60 percent (approx $14 billion) of the U.S. harvest of organic produce.

        And I fully agree with ginaann regarding taste difference. Most everyone that I have talked to about organic food and taste have said the same thing, you can taste the difference. Recently, eggs have been one of the most noticeable taste and quality differences for me, and I love eggs!

  5. I don’t believe that it’s organic’s only hope, per se, but it’s certainly the best alternative. I’d love to see more about aquaponics.

  6. Many of the problems mentioned can be resolved with a different approach to farming. Check out the unique system that Colle Davis has perfected with Portable Farms Ltd. at They use no chemcal, fertilizers,or poisons and produce clean vegetable and fish at an astounding rate. It is very simple and low tech, uses a minimal amount of energy and can be built almost anywhere in the world. It is not hydroponics which uses a huge amount of water. In fact this uses very little water because it is a closed loop system. It seems most greenhouse solutions involve very complicated systems with high energy and resource requirements and many ways to fail. Not this one. Check it out. Young company but a proven process just now entering the food market.

  7. Reblogged this on Travels with Mary and commented:
    Yep!!! Exactly how I feel!

  8. What an amazing write-up. Unfortunately, I have felt the same way for many years now. :-( Sad to say, it’s time to bring the garden indoors. We need to save our seed! Thanks again!


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