How indoor ag is growing a resilient food revolution

Two Steps Forward

How indoor ag is growing a resilient food revolution

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We're at a pivotal moment in an important trend for sustainable food systems: the emergence of sustainably grown food in urban environments. As the growth and maturity of these operations continue, they could play a critical role in food security amid a changing climate as well as the continuing shift in global trade patterns.

They also could be key in eliminating food deserts, neighborhoods that lack a supermarket selling produce, serviced only by convenience stores that stock nutrient-poor packaged foods and beverages.

A great deal of the technology that enables indoor growing was developed and honed over the past two decades by cannabis farmers, who learned how to grow plants at scale in confined (and usually hidden) spaces. They use controlled-environment agriculture, including hydroponics — growing plants without soil — a technology as ancient as the fabled Hanging Gardens of Babylon, thought to be the first example of soilless gardening.

Today, such technologies are used on the International Space Station to study plant growth outside the Earth’s atmosphere and how best to supply food and oxygen for future colonization missions to Mars and beyond.

Even on Spaceship Earth, such technologies make a lot of sense. Growing leafy greens, specialty herbs, tomatoes and other produce indoors using hydroponics consumes up to 95 percent less water than growing them outdoors and uses fewer pesticides — sometimes none at all. Hydroponics has long been central to the Dutch and Japanese food systems, but the relatively cheap cost of land and water in the United States, combined with the costly energy intensity of lighting, made hydroponics too expensive for growing anything but high-value cash crops (such as cannabis).

That’s changing. Today, there is the new breed of indoor ag companies sprouting up all over, many using tricked-out shipping containers, LED lighting and a simple continuous-flow watering system. Environmental controls ensure that temperature, airflow, carbon dioxide and humidity levels remain optimized.

In the East Ward neighborhood of Ironbound in Newark, New Jersey, for example, AeroFarms built the world’s largest vertical farm using aeroponics, in which racks of crops are grown indoors using neither soil nor water. Most of the seed money for the operation came from Goldman Sachs’s Urban Investment Group.

AeroFarms' 69,000-square-foot facility, in a former steel factory, can grow 2 million pounds of leafy greens annually, all without using a speck of dirt or a ray of sunlight. The company says the same seed that would take 30 to 45 days to grow in the field can grow in 12 to 16 days indoors, enabling up to 30 crop turns a year.

Rising tide

Operations such as AeroFarms are a perfect example of the need for a distributed network that can provide security and resilience in the face of societal shocks — in particular, extreme weather events.

Case in point: Most of the food that finds its way into New York City — cabbage from New York, oranges from California, blueberries from Chile, bell peppers from the Netherlands, beef from Australia, fish from Nova Scotia — passes through a single facility: the Hunts Point Food Distribution Center in the South Bronx. Opened in 1967, and home to 8,500 workers at 115 companies, it is the largest food market in the United States, feeding more than 23 million people throughout the region.

The million-square-foot facility is not just critically important, but also vulnerable. It sits on a peninsula with the East River on two sides and the Bronx River on the third and is subject to storm surge during high tides.

In fact, if Hurricane Sandy had hit 12 hours earlier, during high tide, Hunts Point would have been flooded, the facility would have lost power and the food supply for all five boroughs would have been disrupted. As a result, AeroFarms offers an additional route to bring food into New York — food produced locally, indoors, year-round — enabling the region's food supply chain to be more adaptive to challenging circumstances.

It’s important to note that few of these operations rely on federal dollars or subsidies to grow their businesses. (As Haggerty notes, the 2018 U.S. Farm Bill allotted $10 million annually to develop an Office of Urban Agriculture and Innovative Production at the U.S. Agriculture Department, a pittance but a start. Among other things, it requires the ag secretary to conduct a census of urban, indoor and other emerging agricultural production sites). Indeed, when it comes to creating the new menu for how America grows and consumes food, Uncle Sam is largely absent from the table.

Instead, these companies were built by innovators and entrepreneurs chasing market opportunities, helped along by nonprofit and for-profit incubators, food aggregation and distribution centers catering to smaller operators, and local tax breaks for landowners who lend or lease their property to urban farmers.

And, of course, a healthy appetite for locally produced food that will only continue to grow.

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