Could Indoor Farming Help Address the Drought Crisis?

The water crisis in the western United States and particularly in California has been gaining more attention in recent weeks. It’s clear by now that climate change is creating a new normal of much less water than Californians and their neighbors have been used to. CA governor Jerry Brown has announced new mandatory water use restrictions asking for a statewide 25% water reduction in municipal and urban use. This is the first of its kind to be issued at a state level in California.

But the dirty secret of California’s water problem is that agriculture constitutes 80% of California’s water use. Yes, taking shorter showers and washing cars less often will help a little. Restricting the watering of useless lawns will help a little more. But that’s all a drop in the proverbial bucket compared to the water being used by the agriculture industry.

The problem is compounded by the fact that agriculture only constitutes 2% of California’s economy–though the secondary impact in terms of demand for farm equipment generated by agriculture is harder to estimate. And a huge amount of the food produced in California winds up being exported to Asia, so it’s not actually necessary for domestic consumption.

The new water restrictions don’t touch agriculture, and it’s impossible to raise the price of water without doing so for residential use as well.

This isn’t just a problem in California. Climate change-induced drought is a challenge across the western and southern United States and in many other countries around the world. What will we do about food production?

Well, it’s still in early stages, but urban farming advances are showing a lot of promise:

A Dutch firm on the cutting edge of indoor agriculture estimates that producing food for the entire world could take place in a space far smaller than the area occupied by Holland, using just 10% of the water needed by traditional farms. The proposal is not without precedent – Japan already has one prototype urban farm that is 100 times more productive than farmers’ fields

Urban farming in controlled environments lets growers take full advantage of variables like custom lighting, using far-red LED lamps in this case that reduce moisture requirements for plants. Naturally, interior spaces are also free from the uncontrolled variables of weather and pests as well, increasingly reliability.

Automatic systems can optimize yields based on crop types, making indoor farms more effective than greenhouses and far more productive than fields. The ever-increasing efficiency and lowering costs of LEDs mean this method will only become more viable over time.

This seems a little far-fetched and science fiction to many people today, but the pressures of water shortage, drought and energy conservation will likely make this sort of thing more commonplace over the next few decades. The barriers to adoption of this technology are more likely to be political than practical.

David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.