The green shoots of recovery

| April 17, 2020

The last decade, between the global financial crisis and the current COVID-19 pandemic, has seen rapid development and great interest in the area of protected cropping also known as urban or indoor agriculture.

Indoor agriculture ranges from the low-tech poly-tunnels widespread in developing countries and rural areas to medium-tech, partially-controlled greenhouses and all the way up to the smart glasshouses and vertical farms which could help secure urban food security in the 21st Century.

Although the vision of a metropolis feeding itself is highly attractive and hits many sustainability buttons whilst tackling several contemporary challenges, its uptake has lagged behind the excitement and optimism of its proponents.

The development of urban farming around the world has often occurred after chronic or acute crisis, such as light and space limitations in the Netherlands, the collapse of the motor industry in Detroit, the crash of the real estate market on the US East Coast, and the Cuban blockade to name a few.

Other impetus has come in the form of available markets.  Spain, for example, has enjoyed a great proliferation of indoor farming as a result of its ready access to the Northern European supermarkets.

COVID-19 could encourage urban food production

Will the coronavirus crisis provide the motivation needed to reinvigorate urban agriculture in and around Australia‘s metropolitan centres?

Renewed interest in indoor farming stems from the challenges of feeding a rising, increasingly urban population in the face of climate change. More than 50% of the world’s population lives in cities, and this proportion is set to reach two-thirds by 2050, increasing the distance between where food is produced and consumed.

Hence, there is clearly benefit in bringing some farming back into metropolitan centres to reduce the cost of transport and deliver fresher, higher quality produce. Indoor farming can also produce crops all year round in controlled environments, guaranteeing a consistent supply of high quality food products to supermarkets, restaurants and suburban grocers.

Indoor agriculture is already a burgeoning industry in this country, and can help tackle several major contemporary challenges, including the big issue of climate change and its associated impacts of high temperatures and water shortages.

Other challenges include our rising population, urban sprawl and the urgent requirement to reduce our high carbon footprint.  A smaller footprint is required to reduce our reliance of fossil fuel, meet our international obligations and help slow down climate change. Indoor agriculture can also boost our high-value agricultural exports and provide skilled employment.

These factors are the backdrop to why urban agriculture is a great idea in a post-mining boom Australia. These factors will remain valid after we overcome the pandemic, indeed in the aftermath of COVID-19, there will be even more reasons why we should embrace indoor agriculture with greater enthusiasm and investment.

Below I outline these new factors after a brief overview of indoor agriculture.

The protected cropping industry


Commercially-oriented indoor farming can be divided into three technological levels.

Low-tech polytunnels

The low tech level encompasses various types of polytunnels which can range from makeshift metal structures with plastic coverings to permanent purpose-built structures.  Generally, they are not controlled beyond the ability to lift the plastic covering when it gets too hot or dim outside.

These plastic covers protect the crop from hail, rain and cold weather and can extend the growing season. They are cheap and so offer a good return for investment for vegetable crops such as lettuce, beans, tomatoes, cucumber, cabbage and zucchini.

Farming in these polytunnels is done directly in the soil, whilst more advanced operations can use large pots for tomatoes, blueberries, eggplants or peppers.  However while they make sense for small or low-resource farmers, they suffer from a number of shortcomings.

Their lack of environmental control affects the consistency of the size and quality of the product and so reduces the chances of selling these products to demanding customers such as supermarkets and restaurants.  Given the crop is generally planted in the soil, these farmers also face numerous pest and soil-borne problems such as persistent nematode infestation.

Medium-tech greenhouses

Medium tech indoor farming is a broad category which encompasses controlled-environment greenhouses and glasshouses. Their control may be partial or intensive. The temperature of some greenhouses can be controlled by manually opening the roof, for example, while more advanced ones have cooling and heating units which increase the energy costs.

The use of solar panels and various forms of smart films are being trialed to reduce energy bills and carbon footprints. While many greenhouses are still made of PVC or glass cladding, smart films, hitherto used in the construction industry, now being incorporated into greenhouse design to increase energy efficiency.

Generally, the high-end greenhouses use soilless growing media such as Rockwool blocks and inject a carefully-calibrated liquid fertiliser to maximise crop yields.  CO2 fertilisation, common in the Netherlands, is also used to boost yield and quality.

High tech indoor farming

As we move up towards large scale commercial greenhouses, smart technology and light supplementation in the form of LED panels can be used to improve crop yields and quality.

These high precision glasshouses can incorporate the latest technological advances in crop physiology, fertilisation and recycling as well as lighting.  Producers are also increasingly automating critical or labour intensive areas such as crop monitoring, pollination and harvesting.

The development of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning (MI) are opening new dimensions for indoor agriculture. AI is essentially a set of computer encoded rules and statistical models trained to discern patterns in big data in order to perform tasks generally associated with human intelligence.  While

AI is used in image recognition by Facebook and language translation by Google, but similarly powerful algorithms are now being used to monitor crop health and recognise signs of disease to allow quicker decisions regarding management and harvesting.  Even harvesting itself can now be accomplished by robot arms, rather than human labour,

The IT revolution will continue to empower indoor farming, allowing people to monitor and manage the crop from a computer and even make farming and market decisions using their smartphones.

Vertical farming


The high tech end of indoor farming tends to involve larger vertical farming projects.  Vertical farms have long been predicted, and the sector is now tipped to reach US$6 billion in value, although this remains a small fraction of the multi-trillion global agricultural market.

There are various iterations of vertical farming but they all use vertically-stacked growing shelves in a fully enclosed and controlled environment.  The means the complete replacement of all natural elements including light. This artificial form of farming allows for a high degree of automation, control and consistency.

As replacing natural sunlight is very expensive, this industry remains limited to high value crops or those with a high “harvest index” whereby most of the supplied photons are converted to edible carbon such as lettuce, greens and herbs. Vertical farming is also making small inroads into the more complex fruiting crops such as berries.

Although highly energy intensive, vertical farming offers unmatched productivity per square metre and high levels of water and nutrient efficiency. The technological dimension of vertical farming and smart glasshouses is likely to attract young farmers who are eager to work with emerging computer and big data technologies such as AI and the Internet of Things (IoT).

All forms of indoor farming currently remain energy and labour intensive and there is still scope for great advancement in both automation and energy efficiency technologies.  Furthermore, there is the risk they compete for the energy and water supplies of urban centres, although the most advanced forms of indoor agriculture supply their own energy on site and are independent of the general utility grid.

There are also other ways of looking at indoor farming based on its purpose, including more productive use of our traditional Australian front and back yards.  Community farming is already common in some European countries where people rent an allotment or garden a short drive from their city dwelling where they can work the land and grow their fresh fruit and vegetables.  Rooftop gardens can range from simple designs on the top of city buildings to the corporate rooftop enterprises now being built on the top of New York or Paris municipality buildings.

Reinvigorating Australian communities

Indoor agriculture already plays a significant role in the world food production. About 15-20% of global food trade comes from urban and community grown food and several cities feed themselves to an even greater extent.

Metropolitan Sydney currently produces a fifth of its own food, but this proportion is predicted to fall to 6-14% over the coming decade due to its rising population and urban sprawl consuming the remaining arable land. Most of the food that comes into the city is transported by roads, which adds to the high carbon footprint of the food we eat.

These pressures will only increase the virtue of producing the food locally. It is early days to understand the full impacts and ramifications of the COVID-19 crisis on the Australian economy and society, but some consequences are already apparent. These include high unemployment and many small and large industries going out of business.

Some surviving businesses may come out stronger, but others will be weakened, and may find themselves struggling for markets and even purpose after COVID-19 has changed our lives. Many individuals, families and communities, especially in the major cities where the virus has hit the hardest, will be looking for new employment opportunities, whilst reeling from a combination of social, health and mental issues.

Driving recovery through urban farms

There are several areas where urban agriculture can play a significant role in the national recovery, in addition to the factors outlined above.

1. – At the start of the pandemic, we saw consumers rush to their local supermarkets to buy food and groceries, and some breakdown in the road transport system which supplies them. Post-pandemic communities which grow a greater proportion of their food will be more resilient and will enjoy higher levels of food security in future emergencies.


2. – Social distancing measures to control the pandemic have caused rapid, large scale unemployment and brought many industries to the verge of collapse. Post-pandemic, urban farming can provide alternative employment and a renewed sense of purpose to people’s lives.

Agriculture is generally seen as an ageing industry in Australia, and is shunned by most young people, increasing its insecure reliance on foreign and seasonal workers.  Urban agriculture, as outlined above, is a high tech industry which combines and uses expertise from computer science and engineering as well as biology and horticulture.  These skills will provide a focus for the training or re-training of our young and laid-off working force in an exciting and challenging industry without having to leave their home city.

3. Given its potential to use high technology and add value to agricultural supply chains, a focus on solving the remaining challenges of indoor agriculture to reduce labour and energy costs and solve issues of building and controlled environment design is key.

Increased automation and technological uptake in the urban agriculture industry will create opportunities for R&D investment from the public and private sector, and give focus for vocational and tertiary training to build the skills required to run it.

4. Rooftop, backyard and other forms of urban farming can also help individuals, families and communities which have been left idle to cope with issues of mental health and obesity as well as bring people together after extended isolation.

5. Urban agriculture can also improve food security and the nutrition of remote communities, an area where a concerted national effort is needed to improve health and wellbeing.

6. Achieving all these goals will require additional training at school, TAFE and university. This will provide both employment for the content providers and upskilling for the general community. In addition to the skilled training offered to future professionals, courses designed for the general public interested in home and community gardening for food would also be popular.

Urban agriculture for all

Given increased awareness of the role hygiene plays in reducing the community transmission of diseases like coronavirus, it is important to design future inner city gardening spaces to meet increased health requirements as well as improve urban food security, reduce the carbon footprint of food and increase green spaces in our cities.

Solving these challenges on top of the water, energy and other issues facing our cities and suburbs will not be easy, but they could galvanize society’s efforts to improve the food security, health and well-being of our urban communities with local and human-centred approaches.