Forty-five minutes outside Chicago, there is a warehouse. From the outside, this warehouse is like any other. Inside, however, instead of crates and boxes, it contains stacks and stacks of fresh herbs, greens, and lettuce, growing under the carefully tuned glow of 7,000 Philips LED–powered grow strips. This warehouse, otherwise known as Green Sense Farm, is one of the first customers of a potentially transformative new business for the Dutch lighting giant: city farming.
For nearly a decade, LEDs have led a lighting renaissance, and for good reason: LEDs use less than half the power of—and run cooler than—fluorescent lights. Furthermore, because they’re built on circuit boards, they can be programmed for everything from televisions to path lights. Only recently have the lights become inexpensive and efficient enough for its horticultural lighting division to start selling them by the thousands.
The opportunity isn’t just commercial: Many experts believe that conventional, horizontal greenhouses are insufficient to meet the food needs of growing cities. Stacking plant beds upward instead of outward will allow farms to be wedged into nooks within cramped urban and suburban landscapes. Replacing fluorescent grow lights with LEDs enables farmers to maximize space by stacking racks as little as two feet apart. With fourteen 25-foot-tall growing racks lined up in its 30,000-square-foot warehouse (that’s 1 million cubic feet of growing space), Green Sense puts out about 4,000 cases of produce a week.
Scaling up food production will become increasingly vital.
Philips isn’t the only major lighting player in the field—GE Japan partnered with a Japanese indoor farming group to open a huge farm last March but is working aggressively to become the market leader. The company’s city farming group aims to create modular, scalable systems—including lighting, irrigation, and fertilization—to simplify construction of vertical farms. The group has nearly tripled in manpower this year, and Philips plans to expand and invest further through 2016.
Scaling up food production will become increasingly vital in the next few decades, during which the United Nations estimates that 2.5 billion more people will arrive in urban areas. Greens are the low-hanging fruit, so to speak, for vertical farming, because they mature quickly and are hardier than other veggies. But man cannot live on kale alone. “If you look at feeding the world as an ambition, then higher nutritional value is something you’re looking for—say, roots, cereals, and potatoes,” says Gus van der Feltz, who joined Philips as the global director for city farming last April. Plant physiologists at Philips’s research facility in Eindhoven, Netherlands, are already working on the next generation of vertical farming technology, hoping to make the menu a little more satisfying.
A version of this article appeared in the April 2015 issue of Fast Company magazine.