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Pondering the rise of 'food parks'

Upward Farms facilities combine aquaponics and vertical farming
Upward Farms

Investment money continues to pour into food and agriculture — more than $7 billion so far in 2020, according to an estimate out this week. Much of this funding is going to alternative proteins, a sector fast becoming highly competitive. But I’m also seeing smaller deals that signal the emergence of more nascent trends.

One that caught my eye recently was the $15 million raised by Upward Farms, a New York startup that builds indoor facilities that combine fish farms with horticulture. The company has proved its technology at a pilot facility in Brooklyn. Now it’ll use the new money to build a commercial-scale facility in the same borough. 

The investment is noteworthy for a couple of reasons. For starters, this dual-system approach, known as aquaponics, has a lot going for it. The wastewater from the fish tanks contains high levels of nitrogen which, after filtering, can be used to fertilize the leafy greens that Upward grows. It’s a step toward incorporating some of the symbiotic relationships we see in ecological systems into indoor farming.

"What we’re trying to do is combine the power of controlled environment agriculture with the richness of well-managed ecosystems," Upward Farms CEO Jason Green told me. 

This synergy reduces costs, chemical inputs and water use, potentially improving the sustainability of the operation. (I say "potentially" because indoor farming operations use a lot of electricity and, to some extent, are only as green as the grid they plug into. In the case of New York City, the single-biggest source for that grid is currently natural gas.)

We’re going to see development of food parks, like industrial parks.

Another reason I’m interested in Upward is that the company is an example of a suite of technologies that fray the connection between food and land. Aquaponics and other indoor ag systems rely on access to water and energy, not soil or seas, so they can be based away from traditional farming areas. These systems supply only a small fraction of our food, but the potential for growth is huge. A single aquaculture company is building a facility in Florida, for example, with the aim of producing 220,000 salmon every year, or 44 percent of current U.S. consumption.

The new food production hubs likely will be sited close to existing infrastructure. Green pointed out that food distribution systems already concentrate in geographical clusters, such as the Blue Ridge area, a hub for Washington, D.C., Maryland and Virginia. "We’re going to see development of food parks, like industrial parks" near these hubs, he said.

These food parks will have other synergies with nearby industries. One method for producing alternative proteins, for example, is to synthesize the protein using microbes that feed on carbon dioxide. This process requires concentrated carbon dioxide, which can be sourced by diverting emissions from industrial processes — such as a biomass power plant, in the example of one such pilot project.

Should we welcome this industrialization of our food system? That’s a complex question to answer because it involves multiple considerations, from nutrition to food access to food sector jobs. 

Yet from a sustainability perspective there’s a lot to be excited about. This might sound counterintuitive — after all, the popular notion of a sustainable, healthy meal usually involves ingredients sourced from a local, small-scale organic farmer, not an industrial park situated next to a trucking depot.

But the truth is that very little of our food comes from these small-scale operations. Most of it is grown in monocultures on large farms that use considerable amounts of pesticides and herbicides, all of which raises greenhouse gas emissions and damages biodiversity. Shifting some of that production to industrial hubs could reduce the burden that modern agriculture places on our environment.

As I said, this trend is nascent. I want to keep an eye on how it develops, so do email me at [email protected] if you know of a relevant project that deserves attention. 

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