The Economist suggests high-tech indoor farms are the future; the microbes are skeptical

Well I for one am not convinced about the high tech indoor farms being the future of “market gardening”: High-tech farming: The light fantastic | The Economist.  Sure, being able to control conditions has many uses.  And those pesky seasons and the outdoor world in general is pretty annoying right?  This article in the Economist ends with “A new national climate assessment, published on May 6th, sets out the threats that American agriculture is facing, such as growing numbers of insects and other pests and a rising incidence of bad weather. Indoor farming is, happily, immune to both.”

Well, first, I would be willing to bet anything that indoor farms have insects in them.  But never mind that.  It seems to me that in the long run this is a risky move.  Sure, one could make a more and more sterile and clean world for all of our crops just like we have been making  for people.  And the crops may grow faster, bigger and more easily.  But the crops will also not get access to potentially positive things that come from exposure to the world.  I wonder, for example, what exactly is going on in terms of the microbes in these indoor farms.  Are they going to end up like our hospitals – “cleaner” but with a higher percentage of nasty things than the outdoor world?  Or perhaps they will end up with microbial monocultures – missing the within species diversity that may be at some times beneficial.  I am sure the microbial ecology in such indoor farms will be altered compared to outdoor farms.  Not sure if this will be deterimental in any way, but if I had to guess, I would guess it will not be good to ignore the microbes.

This certainly seems like it would be an interesting system to study in terms of microbial ecology of the built environment though …

UPDATE June 2 – Some responses from Twitter of relevance


2 thoughts on “The Economist suggests high-tech indoor farms are the future; the microbes are skeptical

  1. Indoor farms are nothing new. Greenhouses are indoor gardens and farms and have been around for a long time. The sun is one thing going for greenhouses over the warehouse farming being proposed by big business. And, of course, pests like insects and fungi are different between indoor and outdoor farms. Unless pesticides are regulated stringently, indoor farming uses lots of pesticides. The story of the flower industry in California is a case in point.

    1. Thanks Don. It was late at night when I wrote this. Was not thinking about greenhouses or other such indoor farming. I was just angry they did not mention microbes …

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Jonathan Eisen

I am an evolutionary biologist and a Professor at U. C. Davis. My lab is in the UC Davis Genome Center and I hold appointments in the Department of Medical Microbiology and Immunology in the School of Medicine and the Department of Evolution and Ecology in the College of Biological Sciences. My research focuses on the origin of novelty (how new processes and functions originate). To study this I focus on sequencing and analyzing genomes of organisms, especially microbes and using phylogenomic analysis (see my lab site here which has more information on lab activities).  In addition to research, I am heavily involved in the Open Access publishing and Open Science movements.