Indoor agriculture has reached a tipping, point where new public policies are needed to keep it flourishing. As it is becoming an increasingly important part of the global supply chain, the industry could benefit from more coherent public policies at the local, national and supranational levels. Although shaping public policies on several levels is a complex task, there are many things that farmers, suppliers and other allies of the indoor agriculture industry can do to help.
What are the Historical Barriers to Policy?
Age – Indoor agriculture is a relatively young industry, if an ancient practice. With the majority of vertical farms and plant factories only a few years old, many local jurisdictions have yet to see trends to understand how much time they should dedicate to the subject.
Diversity – With such a wide variety of applications and options that can make up indoor agriculture, public policy makers have a difficult time identifying the kinds of farms their policies should address.
Legal Cannabis – Legal cannabis is governed by its own set of complex rules. With the dominance of this industry shaping policy in areas where it is legal, this has led some policy makers to associate indoor farming solely with cannabis, rather than considering the range of crops that is applicable to indoor farming.
Unknown Industry – We have heard repeatedly from policy makers that they do not have enough educational materials and industry surveys in which to base their policies. Because of the lack of policies, potential farmers are deterred from entering the market and start up time and costs are significantly more than they could be with proper policy. Over time, this makes farmers less profitable and less likely to invest.
Why are Policymakers Interested in Indoor Ag?
Food Security – In our discussions with government organizations, the most common driver for an interest in indoor agriculture was food security. Indoor agriculture can contribute to food security in a few regards. A local food supply housed in a controlled environment acts as a safeguard against supply disruptions. For instance, in a market that imports most of its food, like Singapore at 90%, indoor agriculture can serve as a buffer against sudden supply disruptions.
Public Health – In many developed countries, public policies have encouraged healthier diets. This has led to public health programs such as school gardens and cooking classes to encourage plant-based diets. Recent studies show that such initiatives lead to an average effect for adults of an additional half a serving per day of fruit and vegetables.
Economic Development & Diversification – As food supply chains have lengthened, more countries have become reliant on imported food. This leads to losing local farming jobs. Indoor agriculture can help local communities reclaim some of that economic loss while enhancing the local food supply.
Workforce Development – As indoor agriculture is inherently local, communities see local job creation in farming, packaging, delivery and nursery operations. In our experience, around 80% of those entering the industry do not have farming backgrounds. They are instead drawn in to apply their manufacturing, coding engineering or financial skills into a new industry.
Sustainability Practices – Driven by the degradation of farmland and water resources, the interest of sustainability in agriculture is compounded by rising pollution and urbanization. The most extreme example is China, where nearly 20% of farmland is polluted, and in excess of 80% of its underground water drawn from relatively shallow wells used by farms and others is unsafe for drinking owing to pollution per China’s Water Resources Ministry. Indoor agriculture uses less water and chemicals than outdoor alternatives and can be shielded from outdoor conditions.
Urban Regeneration – As the percentage of the population based in city centers continues to increase, indoor farms have the opportunity to be incorporated into the city infrastructure. As the FAO estimates that 70% of the global population will live in cities by 2050, a local urban farming community will become increasingly more important for a city’s food supply.
Where can we Incorporate Indoor Agriculture Into Policy?
Local – For most indoor farmers, the point they will have the most interaction with policy makers is at the local level. Farmers have reported that although local officials have tried to help, they often struggled with finding ways around regulations that are not suited for the circumstances of most indoor farmers.
National – At the national level, indoor agriculture could benefit from legal recognition, public education and economic subsidies. Policy makers can provide the most basic aid by recognizing it in policy documents that guide everything funding allocations to policy provisions. Such recognition is essential to public education and economic subsidies.
Supranational – When dealing with organizations like the United Nations, indoor agriculture is most likely to be incorporated into wider policies for various aspects of sustainability. For instance, a recent FAO report on fisheries and aquaculture briefly mentions utilizing aquaponics as one of a list of “practical adaptation measures” to overfishing.
What Can You Do?
Data & Information – Accurate information is the most common request in the indoor agriculture sector. Policy relies heavily on accurate information, and it is sparse in this industry. Policy makers want to see information on the number of farms, productivity levels, equipment and techniques used and capital and operating costs.
Industry Standards – There is currently no third-party verification service for crucial measures such as yield from grow systems. There is also a lack of standards of comparison for LED lighting that is frustrating for both farmers and manufacturers.
Public Education – Institutions that collect and store information to disseminate to public policy officials in the indoor agriculture industry are rare. To be credible to policy makers, these institutions would need to be housed or organized by a research institution or other impartial academic body.
Funding Solution – Policy makers are open to supporting indoor agriculture through grants and other traditional funding means, but they would like to see truly innovative funding solutions. One example is Australia’s water trading system which establishes a price for water by allowing rights holders to sell to others on a temporary or permanent basis.
Want to know more?
Don’t miss the 6th Annual Indoor Ag Con May 2nd and 3rd at the Las Vegas Convention Center. Make sure to catch the lunchtime discussion “How Can Indoor Farmers Get Involved in Policymaking?” led by Michael Guttman, Sustainability Officer, Kennett Township. You can find the complete speaking agenda here. Want to attend? You can register here. Want to join our amazing variety of exhibitors? You can register to exhibit here.
Join Us at the 6th Annual Indoor Ag-Con on May 2-3, 2018
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 “Fresh Fruit and Vegetables in Europe”, CBI Market Intelligence, August 2016
 “China alerted by serious soil pollution, vows better protection”, Xinua News, 17 April, 2014.
 “China report sounds alarm on groundwater pollution”, Associated Press, 12 April 2016.
 FAO 2016, The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture 2016, Contributing to food security and nutrition for all Rome. 200pp.