From dressing-free salad to tasty peaches on demand, is this the future of food?

Wired, March 2018

Of the many crops that Matt Barnard has developed, he has a particular fondness for his kale. “If you think about what most people imagine when then they think of kale, think again,” he says. “It’s nothing like the tough, bitter leaf we’re used to. It’s sweet and velvety. People say we should find another name for it.”

Barnard is CEO of Plenty, the agtech startup he founded in 2013 after a career in tech and finance. The San Francisco-based firm grows crops not in fields or polytunnels but indoors on six-metre-high vertical poles. Their roots are fed by a slow trickle of nutrient-rich water. There’s no soil and no pesticides (there are no pests). And there’s no sun – light is provided by LEDs.

The idea is that indoor farms like this can be built close to population centres, cutting the length of the supply-chain and leaving farmers to concentrate on growing crops for flavour rather than durability. City-centre hydroponic farms aren’t a new idea – but Plenty is making progress on that toughest of nuts: tasty peaches.

“Right now,” says Barnard, “produce often has to travel 3,000 miles from the farm to consumer, which is why so many farms grow iceberg lettuce, which tastes of nothing. Our salads are spicy and citrusy and sweet at the same time. People are amazed they can eat it without salad dressing.”

Plenty currently grows kale and that dressing-optional salad at a single farm in San Francisco and has plans, Barnard says, to expand the range “quarter by quarter”. It is trialling about 400 crop varieties, including strawberries, carrots, tomatoes and watermelon, at a test farm in Wyoming.

“We can pretty much grow everything,” he says. “The problem is cost. Anyone can buy some shelves, some lights, irrigation. The challenge is to get your produce down from $40 per pound to $1. At the moment, for example, we have an expensive peach”.

His strategy for reducing costs (and improving taste) is to add data and machine learning to the traditional hydroponic mix. Throughout the farm, arrays of infrared sensors monitor how the crops are growing and feed that information back into algorithms that adjust light, heat and water flow accordingly.

“The best-tasting crops are finicky,” he says. “They need one thing on day one and something else on day seven.” The result is a closed system that controls itself, though the crops are, so far, picked by humans. “We couldn’t have done this, say, ten years ago. But now we are having what I like to call a ‘Google moment’. Just like Google benefited from the simultaneous combination of improved technology, better algorithms and masses of data, we are seeing the same.”

Plenty says its technology can achieve yields up to 350 times greater than open fields, using just one per cent of the water. (There has been no external verification of this and the company won’t disclose details of its technology or processes.) And, by growing plants vertically, its farms will take up far less land than traditional agriculture.

But perhaps the biggest efficiency comes from the that fact that indoor farms can be located on the doorstep of the markets they serve. “Today, with field-grown produce, 30 to 45 per cent of the final value at shelf is attributable to trucks and warehouses,” he says. By cutting this journey to almost zero, Barnard says he can reduce retail prices and increase product shelf-life as produce goes straight from farm to shop.

“I grew up on a farm with a family that had a constrained weekly grocery budget,” he says. “You can’t afford to throw your money away and that means buying fewer or no fresh fruits and vegetables from the store [because they perish too quickly]. We believe we will enable more people to introduce fresh fruits and vegetables into their diets.”

Plenty is not alone in the indoor-farming sector. There a dozens of similar companies, including London-based Growing Underground and Aerofarms in the US, that use LEDs instead of sunlight and produce fresh greens indoors. And there have been casualties. Atlanta’s PodPonics, LocalGarden in Vancouver and Chicago-based FarmedHere, all of which began with a similar vision to Plenty’s, have closed down, unable to make the businesses viable.

But what marks Plenty out is its ambition and its backing. It has so far raised $236 million in venture capital funding, including, last July, $200m in a round led by SoftBank’s Vision Fund, and which included funds investing on behalf of Eric Schmidt (formerly of Alphabet) and Amazon’s Jeff Bezos.

And it is using the cash to expand. This year, it will open its first full-scale farm on a 9,000 square-metre site just south of Seattle and it has plans to move into China where Barnard sees a big market for produce that is fresh and safe.

“In China, the pesticide load is two times that of the rest of the world,” he says, “so many consumers don’t have the opportunity to eat fresh produce. They have to boil their veggies to feel safe eating them.”

Softbank’s interest in Plenty – the company is known for picking what it sees as startups that may develop a monopoly – has resulted in some hyperbole, with talk of “revolutionising” agriculture. According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation, food production across the world will need to increase by 70 per cent by 2050 to feed a global population of 9.1bn. And Masayoshi Son, SoftBank’s chairman and CEO, has said he believes Plenty will “remake the current food system”.

But others are not so sure.

“It’s a useful sideline but it’s not going to solve world hunger,” says Tim Lang, professor of food policy at City University in London. “I can show you books from the 1950s where people were saying that the future of food is hydroponics but it hasn’t happened. It’s simply very expensive to run.”

Barnard is, publicly at least, more modest about Plenty’s ambition. But he rejects the suggestion that he’s simply in the “hipster salad” business, producing premium products for wealthy customers.

“Our goal is to fit perishable produce into as many people’s budgets as possible,” he says. “Year after year, more and more fresh fruit and vegetable production will be localized. More people will be able to eat fresh fruits and vegetables than ever before. And those people will be amazed at how great those fruits and vegetables taste.”