It’s an ugly but unavoidable truth that the systems producing much of the Earth’s food supply can no longer sustain themselves. Not only does industrial agriculture place an enormous strain on the environment, but ironically, it also destroys the very resources necessary for farming, such as soil and water.
With the planet expected to host an additional four billion mouths by 2100, we’ll have to get crafty someday very soon about how we continue to grow our food. According to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), this will mean developing a system that can accommodate a 70 percent increase in food production within the next decade.
But as the pressures of climate change and water scarcity bear down on the horizon, how can the industry appease a swollen, city-bound population without wreaking further havoc on the planet’s resources?
All over the world — in small labs, on warehouse rooftops, in abandoned back lots — a revolution brews as engineers and plant scientists work side-by-side to create sustainable indoor agriculture initiatives.
These farms of the future grow crops without any soil, in a sensor-networked habitat where every input that affects the plants can be remotely controlled and meticulously refined for 365 days of pristine growth.
By using hydroponic and aeroponic techniques, these farming strategies offer highly scalable solutions to the paradoxically inefficient methods of agriculture that serve the planet today.
A Broken System
At the heart of the $400 billion agriculture industry lies the practice of monoculture, or intensively growing a single crop over a long period of time. Most major “commodity” crops — corn, wheat, and soybeans, for example — are grown in this way.
When the same plant is repeatedly cultivated on a solitary swath of land, it saps topsoils of certain nutrients, ultimately causing those fields to go fallow. According to the USDA, topsoils are disappearing nationwide at a rate 13 percent more rapidly than they can be replaced, with a loss of around 1.73 billion tons every year. This depletion is particularly disconcerting when considering that it takes over 500 years for a single inch of topsoil to replenish itself.
Faced with increasingly infertile lands, farmers must douse their crops with chemical fertilizers and pesticides to stimulate growth where it can no longer naturally occur. Poor land management strategies allow for runoff from these fertilized soils to leach into groundwaters and to bleed toxic amounts of nitrogen and phosphorus into lakes and rivers.
But the industry’s impact on water extends far beyond pollution. The most comprehensive study on global water consumption, conducted in 2012 by the Department of Water Engineering and Management at the Netherlands’ University of Twente, found that agriculture accounts for 92 percent of total freshwater consumption in the world.
Of that usage, only three countries — China, India, and the United States — were responsible for over 38 percent. While the U.S. is far smaller in terms of population, it surpassed every other country in terms of per capita consumption.
The analysis also concluded that a single dollar’s worth of grain requires an astounding 5,300 liters of water to grow and process. In arid countries where water scarcity asserts itself with the greatest urgency, commodities that require a high level of irrigation must be imported from abroad since they cannot be produced domestically. Researchers call this flow of water-intensive crops from one country to another “virtual water.” On the whole, this exchange of imports and exports inflicts more pollution and demands greater resource consumption than internally produced goods.
To make matters worse, the entire system depends on crude oil, from the manufacture and operation of industrial farming machinery, to the production of fertilizers and pesticides, to the transport and worldwide distribution of produce.
When you eat a banana from Costa Rica, or drink coffee roasted from Kenyan beans, the caloric energy that you consume comes at the cost of ten times as much in fossil fuel energy. This system, which is not only unsustainable but also highly illogical, continues to dominate the nation’s agriculture industry largely because most Americans are unaware of the complicit role they play within it.
“Agriculture should be fundamentally redirected towards modes of production that are more environmentally sustainable and socially just,” said United Nations special rapporteur Olivier de Schutter in a presentation regarding forthcoming agriculture initiatives.
“We cannot depend on the gas fields of Russia or the oil fields of the Middle East,” he continued, “and we cannot continue to destroy the environment and accelerate climate change. We must adopt the most efficient farming techniques available.”
With the aid of technology, engineers and farmers are working day and night to create localized, indoor-agriculture solutions that could steer the modernization of the global food system and free us from this crippling cycle of dependency on imported goods.
The Farms of the Future
“The food system as we know it is incredibly outdated,” says Jon Friedman, co-founder and President of Freight Farms, a pioneering Boston-based indoor agriculture startup. “Fortunately, as a society, we are becoming more aware of the environmental effects of the way food is being produced.”
Friedman stands at the forefront of a burgeoning indoor agriculture movement that could revolutionize the way we farm in the future.
At Freight Farms, Friedman and co-founder Brad McNamara designed a vertically stacked hydroponic farm inside of an insulated shipping container. They call it the Leafy Green Machine.
If you’ve ever heard of the term hydroponics — a fancy word for growing plants without soil — it has likely been within the context of cultivating a certain skunky homegrown greenery. But this method was actually developed by NASA in an effort to discover whether or not plants could grow in space, without access to earth.
In hydroponics, plants sit in an inert medium such as clay or sand while their root systems bathe in a solution of mineral nutrients. When raised in soil, plants expend energy sending roots in search of these nutrients, but in the hydroponic process, energy can be channeled into vegetative growth instead.
Each Leafy Green Machine comes equipped with environmental sensors that measure humidity, pH levels, temperature, and CO2. Farmers can monitor and control the climate through a mobile app, ensuring that their crops receive exactly what they need in exactly the right amounts.
By virtue of growing in a shipping container, Leafy Green Machines are impervious to drought, rain, and debilitating freezes. They maximize water efficiency and eliminate the need for harmful pesticides and fertilizers. Best of all, they are highly mobile, meaning that they can generate fresh produce year-round regardless of their location.
Freight Farms is one of many companies that aim to democratize agriculture by turning underutilized urban space into local farms. Friedman estimates that one 320-square-foot container can yield as much as a two-acre plot of land.
“The Leafy Green Machine plays a key role in urban food resiliency, food security, and reducing the environmental impacts of food production,” he says.
As consumers become more educated, their tastes evolve, creating a broader market for locally produced food. With their interests driving the industry toward tech-savvy farming, more and more operators are moving into the indoor agriculture space.
Edenworks, a Brooklyn-based aquaponics startup, hopes to develop the underlying infrastructure for this shift in production.
“Industrial agriculture doesn’t have to be a dirty word,” says Jason Green, CEO and co-founder. “It’s what feeds all of us, whether we like it or not. But if we are going to feed nine billion people by 2050, we need responsible, high-density industrial solutions to food cultivation.”
The Edenworks “Farmlab” greenhouse is a balmy haven built on the rooftop of a metalworking warehouse in Bushwick. On a winter day, the air inside feels warm and dense with humidity. Rows of vertical beds cradle arugula, red-veined sorrel, and basil. Water filtration systems whirr gently along the walls.
Unlike the hydroponic system implemented by Freight Farms, Edenworks fosters a symbiotic relationship between plants and fish, a farming technique known as aquaponics.
Behind the terraces of micro greens and herbs, 250-gallon tanks house cultures of red and blue tilapia, as well as an experimental population of prawn. Rather than bathe the plants’ roots in inorganic fertilizers, Edenworks separates solid fish waste from the nutrient-rich water and breaks it down with bacteria and oxygen before pumping it back into the system. The plants then further filtrate the water and return it to the fish. On the whole, the process reduces water usage by 90 percent.
As with many up-and-coming indoor agriculture initiatives, technology plays a key role in the management of the Edenworks Farmlab. Growth statistics are closely monitored with sensors that feed information to a mobile app, and as operators log information, the app learns and calibrates to better serve future users.
Of the many issues that plague the agriculture industry, Green cites a lack of truly nutritious food as his greatest concern. According to the FAO, the world actually produces enough food to provide every person with 2,700 calories every day, yet over 800 million people in the developing world suffer from chronic malnutrition.
“We’re not actually growing enough fruits and vegetables for everyone,” Green says. “We’re growing tons of corn and soy, so we have plenty of calories, but what we don’t have is specialty crops. These technologies allow us to grow nutritious food again — not just empty calories.”
For now, the Farmlab focuses on short-cycle, high-revenue crops like herbs and leafy greens, but the system could be adapted to suit any type of specialty crop. Next year, Edenworks will expand their operation to a retrofitted warehouse in Long Island City, which will dramatically increase production. While the company currently caters mainly to restaurants, it aims to develop a mobile architecture than could be implemented anywhere in the world.
“We need a better solution, a more sustainable solution, a more nutritious solution to growing food,” says Green.
The image of the idyllic American farm, with its miles of sun-drenched crops and rolling green pastures, is little more than an illusion. The next time you enter a supermarket and eye the pyramids of exquisitely preserved apples and peppers, or rows of dewy cabbage heads, consider the odyssey they traveled before arriving to ripen on your shelves. Consider that immense quantities of the earth’s precious and finite resources yielded these perishable items. Consider that one day, you might be able to grow these crops on the rooftop of your building, or in the empty lot down the street. Consider that your actions can reduce the strain of the system on the rest of the world.