Indoor farming: Good for cannabis, not so good for food

Marijuana is a natural candidate for experimentation — and not just the kind that leaves New York Times columnists in hallucinatory states for eight hours. Because it’s often grown indoors, and growing it legally is just becoming legal in a few states around the country, the plant is almost begging to be messed with. And, if those experiments go well, they could affect more than just Mary-Jane.
That’s according to Fluence, a startup that builds LED-based lighting systems for legal cannabis growers and partners with researchers to study their impact. Want to know if a particular strain of marijuana grows best under one spectrum instead of another? Or how much money could be saved by switching from incandescent lighting systems to LEDs? Fluence wants to be the company to ask.
The company, which was formerly called BML Horticulture, currently has to run all these experiments from a research lab in California — and rely on data from other growers and researchers — because its home city of Austin isn’t the most pot-friendly place in the nation. (The company could relocate, but right now it’s content with keeping an eye on everything with remote monitoring systems.)
“We view this as just another plant. We’re looking at all crops that are considered high-value crops or crops that can better humanity, whether that’s lettuce, other types of leafy greens, or cannabis,” said chief executive Nick Klase. The company focuses on marijuana production because that’s where the money is, he said but it wants its research to affect other aspects of agriculture, too.
Most of its cannabis-related research is meant to figure out how to grow more crop while using less electricity than other lighting systems. A report from 2014 said that growing marijuana accounted for $6 billion of the country’s electricity cost throughout the year. Installing more efficient LED lighting systems could have a tremendous effect on the amount of energy used by these operations.
But Fluence wants to figure other things out, too. Klase told me that the company is experimenting to see if different colors of light affect plant growth, for instance, or if they promote the production of specific desirable compounds. “Our goal is to better humanity with this technology, so obviously that’s going to extend way beyond cannabis,” he said. “The nice thing is that most of the things effective on cannabis is relatable to other crops.” Sounds like a dream, right?
There’s no denying the interest in growing plants other than marijuana inside. Countless reports have talked about indoor agriculture and how it’s become more popular in the last few years. This is because it’s seen as more efficient; because people are interested in buying locally-grown produce; and because indoor farming might offer a solution to problems wrought by climate change.
It just seems to make sense, right? If tech companies make efficient LED lights, and it’s going to get harder to farm in many parts of the world, why not play god and grow something that might not otherwise succeed in a particular area? As it turns out, there are many reasons. Economics might be the most important to growers. There’s also the effect these operations could have on the environment.
Louis Demont Albright, a professor emeritus of biological and environmental engineering at Cornell University, cites both factors as the main obstacles to indoor farming. “Just in today’s economic climate, if you buy enough light to raise wheat, you spend $18 for a loaf of bread just for the electricity for the wheat,” he said. Farmers won’t be able to handle those costs without assistance.
All that light would also require growers to use electricity to power their lighting systems and the air conditioning used to prevent the whole thing from going up in flames. (That is not, as I understand it, what cannabis enthusiasts refer to as “lighting up.”) This would, according to Albright, have a worse effect on the environment than growing in greenhouses to take advantage of natural light.
“The idea that’s being proposed is a production system that increases the carbon footprint by an order of magnitude,” Albright said in an interview, “and it makes no sense to me that you would solve a problem by making it worse.” According to his research it’s actually better for the environment to bring produce in from around the world than it is to grow it locally with large-scale indoor farming.
Albright isn’t the only one who thinks that indoor agriculture might be wasteful. Some cannabis growers have even realized that growing all their crops indoors isn’t sustainable from a financial perspective. Here’s what Utah State University professor Bruce Bugbee told MIT Technology Review in the same report that covered the electricity used in the process of growing marijuana plants indoors:

Eventually, as growing marijuana becomes more accepted, some farmers may turn away from grow houses altogether. ‘I’ve visited growers in Colorado who’ve grown cannabis for 30 years and have always grown it indoors,’ Bugbee says. ‘The most progressive growers have run the numbers, and instead of warehouses they’re starting to build greenhouses.’ The plants may still be sheltered, but they’re open to view—and to the natural light of the sun.

There’s no denying the effect climate change will have — and has already had — on agriculture. And it’s the human way to think that technology can save the day. But if these professors and the many other researchers who agree with them are believed, indoor agriculture won’t be the panacea that some expect it to be. It’s more likely to be a short-term solution that will exacerbate a long-term problem.
“I think agriculture will move. Wheat may move from Kansas or wherever up into Alberta if it gets a few degrees warmer,” Albright said. “But it’s still going to be grown on the land.”