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OPINIONFresh Food

Why Grocers Need to Embrace Indoor Vertical Farming

Photograph courtesy of Plantagon, Sweco.

lempert

Grocery retailers understand that food production is complex and that following proper food safety handling techniques is imperative, albeit very difficult. The stakes are even higher in an era when “farm to table” is a growing trend that many shoppers are embracing. Along this pathway, there are many instances where all foods can be contaminated.

In the case of the most recent incident of E. coli-contaminated romaine lettuce, many touchpoints could have been the culprit: Post-harvest, the lettuce was put in boxes, shipped to another facility (or multiple ones), stored under refrigeration, washed, chopped, and then packaged in bags that may include plain romaine or various salad mixes (which could contain other lettuces or vegetables grown from other farms) including the romaine. Alas, on July 1, the Centers for Disease Control identified the outbreak strain of E. coli 0157:H7 in canal water taken from the Yuma, Ariz., growing region.

All of the foods on our supermarket shelves are literally rooted agriculture. Our land, water, soil and environment are all under siege, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture predicts that climate change is going to further escalate the challenges. Former Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt has left his mark on agriculture: raising doubt on climate science; supporting President Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris climate accord; the rollback of important regulations, including emissions standards and federal bans on the dumping of highly toxic coal ash next to waterways; and the reduction of criminal enforcement actions against polluters.

The location of where we grow our foods, on dirt farms, is where many of the food safety recalls occur. At the same time, we are seeing more consumers opting for more of a plant-based diet. There is also a new breed of younger farmers entering the fields. The USDA’s latest Census of Agriculture reports that the number of farmers ages 35 and younger is increasing, only the second time that has happened since 1900. Nearly 70% of the new breed of young farmers have college degrees—far higher than the 40% of the general population that has graduated from college. Younger, smarter farmers will bring us into a new era of agriculture and food safety.

Most of the lettuces sold in the U.S. are shipped from California. The bagged lettuce you buy in a bodega or supermarket in Manhattan had to travel 3,000 miles, hopefully in a truck that was immaculate and under the proper temperature.

Vertical indoor farming is more efficient bringing more farms closer to where people live, reducing expense and environmental impact. In Los Angeles, Local Roots is the first vertical farm to have mass retail distribution in 40 Walmart stores in California. Aerofarms’ Dream Greens brand of baby greens enjoys both retail and foodservice distribution in the New York metro area and is looking to expand beyond its Newark, N.J., farm with another indoor farm in southern New Jersey. 

Under construction in Linkoping, Sweden, is a 16-story multiuse building with farms to offices at a 3-to-1 ratio and a controlled environment, which would greatly reduce the risk of contamination. It includes a wholesale operation and a retail store; it’s slated to open in 2020, This farm also is much more energy efficient: It saves 1,100 tons of CO2 emissions and 13 million gallons of water while producing four to six times the yield as 1 outdoor acre. A similar building could be built in downtown Manhattan and deliver to that bodega or supermarket just a few miles away. Of course, these types of vertical farm buildings are expensive and take years to build.

Indoor farming is more efficient, with greater and faster yields that do not require pesticides or herbicides, which is yet one more reason why I feel strongly that food retailers need to embrace indoor vertical farming without further delay.

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