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This vertical farm could be the answer to a future without water

In a massive warehouse in New Jersey, Bowery Farming is trying to change the future of agriculture (all while using 90% less water).

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You wouldn't expect to find a farm in an industrial park in the middle of New Jersey. 

Specifically, you wouldn't expect to find a farm down the road from Newark Airport, where it's 100 degrees in the shade and the scenery consists of trucks and parking lots. But I haven't come here to find a bucolic green field, I've come here to learn about the future of farming

This story is part of Hacking the Apocalypse, CNET's documentary series on the tech saving us from the end of the world.

Robert Rodriguez/CNET

Inside a nondescript warehouse, behind locked doors and accessible through a decontamination room, is the headquarters of Bowery Farming. This is 21st century farming, and it looks nothing like the wide open field your grandparents worked in. 

But while it might seem clinical, this facility is promising a solution to the biggest threats facing our agriculture industry. In an era of overpopulation, changing climate and ever-tightening water restrictions, this farm delivers certainty. Shelf-ready food grown year-round, regardless of weather, without pesticides, and all while using 95% less water. 

Hacking the Apocalypse is CNET's new documentary series digging into the science and technology that could save us from the end of the world. You can check out our episodes on PandemicNuclear WinterGlobal DroughtTsunamisCryonics and Escaping the Planet and see the full series on YouTube.

The big dry

Bowery isn't just trying to turn farming into the latest Silicon Valley venture. It's out to solve a massive problem. 

Irrigation for agriculture accounts for 70% of water use worldwide, according to the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development). While the world needs to eat, that's an alarming figure when you consider it within the broader picture of global water use. Our water usage has been steadily growing since the 1980s, by 1% every year. According to the United Nations, as many as 700 million people around the world could be displaced by intense water scarcity within a decade. 

When you couple that with a changing climate and the risks brought about by extreme drought, we face a terrifying future. 

"We're seeing more severe droughts than we have seen in the past," says Heather Cooley, director of research at the Pacific Institute, a California-based water research and policy group. "California just had a very severe drought that lasted for five years. ... In South Africa, they were talking about Day Zero -- a day when they were going to run out of water, and people would have to go and queue up in line in order to get basic amounts for their needs."

The problem is being felt in Australia, Brazil -- all across the world. And Cooley says it's getting worse. 

"The droughts will last longer; they will expand over larger areas; they will be drier," she says. "Without taking action, we're going to face more challenges around water, and it will mean a loss of human life." 

A solution in the middle of the city

Looking at the future of farming within the context of global climate change feels daunting. But Bowery Farming is hoping to change the way we think about growing food for urban populations, without the intensive water use seen in traditional agriculture. 

The company grows vegetables from seeds in meticulously controlled, almost lab-like conditions. Seedlings are grown hydroponically under LED lights that have been tuned to mimic the sun. Plants are housed in racks that are moved around the warehouse on robotic conveyor belts, allowing workers to access any crop with ease. And the entire facility runs on purified water which is then recycled and reused through the system to minimize waste. 

Rows of butterhead lettuce grown at Bowery's indoor farm.

Claire Reilly/CNET

Inside the "farm" (though it feels strange to call it that, considering I'm wearing a disposable hazmat suit, a hairnet and protective booties), I gaze on rows of perfectly spaced and identically sized non-GMO seedlings, growing under beaming white lights. I'm shown trays of flawless, green lettuce heads that look like they're ready to go to a photo shoot. Sure, they were always going to bring out the best-looking food when they had company, but Bowery's warehouse still has that Martha Stewart-meets-Gattaca vibe -- wholesome food, engineered to perfection. 

"We grow in a totally controlled and contained environment, and that means that we can grow 365 days of the year, completely independent of weather and seasonality," says Bowery CEO Irving Fain. 

Fain certainly has the kind of persona you'd expect from the head of a Silicon Valley startup. His conversation moves seamlessly between artificial pesticides and artificial intelligence. His company, backed by the likes of Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi and Google's parent company, Alphabet, is promising to disrupt the farming industry, and that means "a departure from 10,000 years of agriculture," according to Fain. No more reliance on sun, rain or seasons. 

"Every day for a crop at Bowery is a perfect day for that crop. We have the capacity to make sure that that crop gets the light that it needs, it gets the water that it needs, it gets the nutrients that it needs." 

Bringing technology to agriculture means every part of the crop's growth -- from the water use, the nutrients and even the light -- can be monitored, controlled and programmed into what Bowery calls a "recipe." Those variables affect the final yield of the crop, the size of each plant and even the flavor. 

Bowery takes the readings from its system, vision from cameras that monitor the plants, and data on final yields, and feeds it into the brains of the farm, the Bowery Operating System. The company is fairly tight-lipped about what goes into this system (from the nutrients it gives its plants to the "machine learning" it says it uses to track growth), but the ultimate goal is to fine-tune agriculture to maximize yield and flavor. 

"We are constantly exploring and iterating and looking at different recipes on different crops," says Fain. "Maybe you want to make that arugula more peppery. Maybe you want to make that wasabi arugula more spicy, maybe you want to make that butterhead a little bit smoother or a little more bitter. You can do that by adjusting all these variables, and you can do it en masse using machine learning."

Tasting the difference

I somehow expected food grown in this kind of sterile environment to taste bland. But I was wrong. 

I put Bowery's greens through a taste test inside the company's warehouse and can confirm the basil was fragrant, and the wasabi arugula was spicy. I could put that down to the machine learning and finely tuned plant recipes, or the fact that the pristine white room had starved my senses of any stimulus for the past hour and we'd blown way past lunchtime. Either way, I'd be happy to put these greens in my salad. 

Bowery Farming racks of leafy greens

From seedling to final product -- Bowery Farming grows its produce in meticulously controlled conditions, all managed through a central operating system that fine-tunes water, nutrients and light levels. 

Bowery Farming

According to Bowery, by 2050 the world will need 70% more food to feed the global population. By growing in farms that operate year-round, with less water and no pesticides, the company says it can be 100 times more productive than a traditional farm on the same footprint of land, helping to cater to these growing populations of hungry consumers. 

We're a long way from feeding billions of people with the produce grown by this company. Right now Bowery produces 4.5-ounce packs of leafy greens like baby kale and bok choy for $3.99 a pop, distributing to a selection of grocery stores in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. This isn't exactly the solution for feeding billions of people across the world -- especially those who'll feel the effects of water shortages and poverty most acutely and who need more than spicy arugula for sustenance. 

But as the world faces increasing problems over water security and a changing climate, as traditional farming lands face drought and cities sprawl into the regions we once reserved for agricultural use, it's easy to see how futuristic farms like Bowery's will meet our changing needs. No pitchforks required.