Inside the Future of Food
Can Technology Save American Farming from Itself?
Despite the ongoing drought that plagues the American West, farms in California and Arizona continue to produce more than 99 percent of the lettuce consumed in the United States. After it is grown, lettuce is harvested and shipped to a central processing facility, where it is cut, washed and treated with a chlorine-containing preservative. It is then sealed in plastic bags, the words “ready to eat” adorned on the wrapper. From there, the lettuce begins its journey across the country, often thousands of miles away, in massive refrigerated trucks or rail cars called “reefers,” leaving huge carbon foot prints in its wake. Chances are, by the time it is consumed, the lettuce is on the tail end of its two- to three-week shelf life.
Unsavory realities like this, which give shape to the greater perception of large-scale industrial farming — a.k.a. Big Agriculture — have begun to sway the purchasing decisions of consumers around the globe. For the past decade, and for a myriad of reasons, buzzwords like “local” and “sustainability” have dominated the global conversation surrounding not just what we eat, but how we’ve come to eat it.
In 2007, the New Oxford American Dictionary named locavore its word of the year, citing “the popularization of a trend in using locally grown ingredients, taking advantage of seasonally available foodstuffs that can be bought and prepared without the need for extra preservatives.”
Around the world, in places like the Middle East, reasons to invest in creative solutions to the local food deficit are often matters of political stability, rather than mitigations of environmental impact. In the Persian Gulf, for example, where an average of 70 percent of the food is imported, the fear is that countries like Saudi Arabia and Kuwait will no longer be able to afford to import food if gas prices continue to fall.
Closer to home, the motivations to eat locally are more personal, dependent on many Americans’ desire for produce that is fresh and has a low environmental impact as well. In New York City, the local food market is growing at a rate of about 24 percent annually (compared to organic, whose growth is less than half that).
The problem, says Jason Green, founder of the Brooklyn-based urban farming startup Edenworks, is that there’s simply not enough local supply to meet demand. “It’s not like there are twenty-four percent more farms every year,” he says. “How do you sustain that demand?”
A recent report by the New York City Council states that there is roughly $600 million of lost revenue annually due to a surplus demand of local fruits and vegetables. For most of us, it’s a sad figure, and one that will only continue to rise. Millions of New Yorkers (and many more across the country) are ready and willing to spend their dollars on locally produced food. For someone like Green, whose story fits into the ad-hoc entrepreneurial spirit of the Brooklyn neighborhood where Edenworks is based, $600 million is a both an opportunity and a call to action.
In 2013, Green, then working as a research scientist at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, quit his day job to co-found Edenworks. “I was working on this very sexy, final-frontier, virtual-reality neuroscience,” Green says of academia. “But the problems were ones I couldn’t really feel. Same with the solutions I was tasked with designing.” Inspired by the successes of other urban agriculture startups like Gotham Greens and Freight Farms, the early concept for Edenworks was relatively abstract. To put it simply, Green wanted to come up with technology-driven solutions to New York City’s local food deficit.
“When we started, we didn’t know if it was a consumer product, if we were going to do a small-scale farming system or if it was a thing you install on site at a grocery store,” Green says. “But there was this opportunity to create really interesting solution for local food cultivation, and I knew we were really at the beginning of what would eventually be a massive shift in how and where we grow our food.”
The trio set up a greenhouse on a Brooklyn rooftop that sits above an iron workshop and began growing vegetables. “Neuroscience-to-farming may seem like a big leap,” Green says. “But you can look at the brain like a biological black box with environmental inputs — that’s visual and various sensory information — and movement as the output. You can then apply the same sort of systems thinking to farming. You measure the environmental conditions and measure the outputs, and you can figure out how to optimize the performance.”
Three years later, and Edenworks has scrapped the greenhouse in favor of an indoor aquaponic farm using vertical farming practices, whereby plants, most of which are microgreens, are stacked on planks and kept under LED lights, the hues of which are optimized according to plants’ photosynthetic peaks. “The cost per LED photon has come down by eighty-five percent in the past five years,” Green says, citing the rising cannabis industry as the driving force behind this change. “Early on, cannabis was really the only crop that was high-margin enough that you could afford to buy LEDs. There were enough growers that the cost came down so now you can grow lettuce effectively.”
Behind the rows of vegetables at Edenworks sits a 250–gallon tank of tilapia, the waste from which is collected and converted into organic fertilizer used to feed the vegetables. Compared to hydroponic farms that introduce chemical synthetics in place of soil, the theory with aquaponics is creating a self-regulating system through microbiology.
The practical benefits of indoor growing techniques are many, when compared to conventional broad-acre farming. For starters, indoor farming eliminates the possibility for eutrophication, a form of biological contamination, by minimizing run-off waste. It also allows farmers to grow produce in urban areas, such as New York City, that would otherwise be inconceivable. Still, much of indoor farming is far from perfect.
“What’s happened with indoor farming is that there’s been a lot of moral compromise in terms of ecology,” Green says. “You don’t get the same delicious product out of a hydroponic system as you get out of really rich soil.” Even though Edenworks does not prescribe to using conventional soil — instead, Green and his team have created mixture that consists of milled coconut husks, vermiculite, perlite and kelp meal — the idea is to recreate soil’s rich ecosystem by tapping the interaction between the fish and the vegetables.
“Soil isn’t magical,” Green says. “Good soil is very different than bad soil, and most of what we eat is grown in bad soil. Most flavor comes from microbiology and organic compounds. Here, we’re recreating the ecology of natural soil by breaking down all the components and putting them back together in an elegant and precise way.”
Though rare in practice, nothing about the aquaponics employed at Edenworks is revolutionary. What truly differentiates the company is the way that Green and his team have integrated automation into the seeding, cultivation, harvesting and packaging of vegetables grown indoors. “Something like eighty percent of labor costs in farming pertains to just moving shit around,” says Green, who recently filed a utility patent around existing, individual pieces of automation equipment — including, for example, a machine that seeds, a machine that harvests, a machine that packages.
“What we do is effectively advanced manufacturing, but for fresh produce,” he adds. “If you pretend you don’t know anything about farming and look at a facility like ours, here’s what you see: We take materials in, they go through our process, and we ship packaged salad out. What we’ve figured out is how to turn these individual pieces of automation equipment into a single integrated assembly line. We are a tech company that runs farms.”
Right now, Edenworks currently operates with 800 square feet of growing space, producing just a small amount microgreens that are sold wholesale on an ad-hoc basis to one New York City restaurant, Adalya, and food delivery companies including Maple and Sakara. Next year, however, the company will move into a new 12,000-square-foot space in Brooklyn that Green hopes will allow Edenworks to harvest 150,000 pounds of produce and 50,000 pounds of fish per year. It also plans to enter 10 Whole Foods locations in New York City. (At the time of publishing this article, packages of microgreens grown by Edenworks are available for purchase at the Whole Foods location in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.) “I see Edenworks as being a thought leader in moving perishable produce to these local indoor systems with a big emphasis on the mix of aquaponics and automation,” Green says.
The future relevance of companies like Edenworks is still unclear. Can automated indoor farms catch on and become a revolutionary break from industrial agriculture, or will the locavore trend simply be remembered as a small blip in the history of American farming?
“In my mind, conventional farming is bringing the process to the product. You have a field. Plants grow in the field. You have your tractor and you harvest,” Green says. “Here, it’s a fundamental rethinking of the tools. We’re bringing the product to the process. It may feel not feel intimate, but then again, neither is a tractor.”
On a more philosophical level, Green also cites the prevalence of subsistence farming in America before the rise of large-scale industrial agriculture in the 20th century, a time when much of the population worked in the fields or practiced some amount of subsistence farming. “Americans were eating locally then,” Green says. “I think we’re getting back to that now.”