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The Future of Farming? No Sun, No Soil, But Lots of Data

Humans have farmed for thousands of years, but do we have any idea what we’re doing?

Maybe not, said David Rosenberg, co-founder and CEO of AeroFarms, the U.S.-based vertical farming start-up, speaking at the Fortune Global Sustainability Forum in Yunnan, China on Thursday morning. “I’ve learned how ignorant we are about how to make plants grow. Agriculture has been underinvested in for centuries.”

Rosenberg has come to that conclusion based on experience—and farming in a particularly unconventional way. His company, which now grows 750 different crops, cultivates them using no sun, soil, or pesticides in a plant and sensor-dense warehouses (the crops are stacked in layers). Those controlled conditions allow AeroFarms to experiment with a range of factors—micronutrients, temperature, airflow, applied light—that farmers have little to no control over in their fields.

Rosenberg said that farmers usually apply fertilizer once, water the crop and hope it grows. AeroFarms, meanwhile, applies fertilizers many times, adjusting along the way to optimize plant growth. “We adjust the fertilizers, we’ll track magnesium, iron, zinc and all the minerals and elements,” Rosenberg explained. By the end of the year, he added, AeroFarms will be making fertilizer adjustments every 15 minutes.

AeroFarms tinkers with many other conditions too. “A plant doesn’t necessarily need 10 hours of darkness,” said Rosenberg. “Maybe it needs 10 minutes.”

“When you can really play with those environmental factors and all these tools in a big data way in a farm the size of [a] building, it really becomes illuminating of how plants react in different ways.”

That could be game changing for food as we know it, Rosenberg explained. “There are ways you can influence taste, nutritional density, shelf life, color, all these factors. Typically farmers are just hoping for yield, but there’s a lot more to celebrate—not just diversity, but quality.”

AeroFarms’ experimentation, which draws up data from thousands of sensors, has also produced a lot of data. Too much data, said Rosenberg. “There are good aspects of data in that it makes us better farmers, but we’ve realized tracking data for data sake is just too expensive. We’ve started changing the dialogue from ‘big data’ to ‘smart data’ to understand what’s really meaningful.”

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—Dow CEO Jim Fitterling has a counter-argument to the plastic backlash
—Former Sinopec chairman says Chinese executives think climate change can wait
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