The world population will increase from about 7 to about 10 billion people by 2050, on a planet where the vast majority of arable land is already in agricultural use.
Simultaneously, growing middle class populations in south and east Asia and elsewhere increasingly demand healthy, nutrient-dense produce year round. Fresh water supplies in many areas are under extreme pressure, exacerbated by growing urban populations, agricultural use patterns, the geography-specific effects of climate change, unenlightened water use policies, and extractive practices such as fracking.
As a significant user of fossil fuels for both electricity and transportation, the agricultural sector will also need to completely revamp its emissions profile as part of the deep decarbonization of the global economy in coming decades.
Contained environment agriculture (CEA), while only a tiny niche in agriculture today, has the potential to bring many compelling benefits: very low water use through closed-loop systems, year-round growing of fresh fruits and vegetables in any climate, extremely efficient use of fertilizer and the absence of harmful runoff, very high yields across many metrics, the ability to make use of currently unproductive urban space, and reduced resource use in transporting produce to point of distribution and consumption. Taken together, these shifts could massively increase the output of the agricultural system, while reducing its resource inputs and environmental impacts.
But, like many other sectors of the economy, these benefits will only materialize if and when software eats the food...system. On the production side, CEA requires computer mediation and control in order to operate reliably, efficiently, and with high productivity - they cannot be operated purely “by hand”. And beyond this basic operation and monitoring capability, CEA offers the potential to optimize plant growth recipes to achieve yields well beyond what would be possible in traditional settings.
Viridios is an operating system for CEA systems, one which is deeply enmeshed with the HVAC, fertigation, lighting, and other systems that must work in concert to achieve the desired outcomes. At a technical level, it is open and tech-agnostic, allowing for the integration of capabilities by any vendor. At the same time, the business will actively partner and collaborate with vendors whose capabilities are highly differentiated, and which are crucial to the broader adoption and success of high-performance CEA.
The green revolution of the 1950s and 1960s drove a massive increase in agricultural yield, and is credited with saving hundreds of millions from starvation as the world’s population grew rapidly over the 20th century. But that increase in productivity came with an even greater increase in energy and fertilizer intensity - and the ensuing impacts on human health and the environment.
The next green revolution must continue these increases in yield, and simultaneously improve the efficient use of resources: fertilizer, energy, and water. CEA is uniquely capable of delivering this combination of high productivity and massively reduced environmental impact. But in addition to the many innovations that will be required in the mechanical and biological systems, much better software will be central to capturing these benefits.
The agricultural equipment market today is quite fragmented, especially with respect to the technologies required for CEA facilities; new construction requires a very broad range of expertise, and few are qualified to perform the integration.
The CEA systems that have received the most attention in recent years - vertical grows for leafy greens - are using technology mixes and facility designs that do not have good economics; many of these efforts have already failed, and others are likely to follow.