Fresh Food

Changes to Food Production Are Coming Fast and Furiously

Four major movements will affect what we eat and how food is grown
Photograph by Clint Blowers

Agriculture laid a foundation of prosperity for the nation, but the time has come to reimagine and rebuild. While farming has always been at the mercy of Mother Nature, climate change, wild weather, water shortages, overproduction and more have dramatically upped the stakes, creating a tenuous global food supply.

Where does that leave the future of food production? Four major movements will change what we eat and how food is grown—and the change is coming fast and furiously, because it must.

First, farming will increasingly move indoors. Second, the gene-editing tools of CRISPR will change the produce we grow and the livestock we raise. Meanwhile, the outdoor farming that prevails will be rooted in biodiversity and regenerative agriculture. And finally, technology will touch all of it—helping to expedite and bring to fruition the future of food. 

Vertical Farming: Sky’s the Limit

The conditions outside—droughts, floods, disease, storms and unseasonal temperatures—are driving farming inside. But what’s more, experts say, agriculture is contributing to the very aspects of climate change that are proving increasingly challenging to traditional farming methods.

“Food production is responsible for about 15% to 20% of total greenhouse gas emissions globally, which is about as much or more than all transportation forms combined,” Amanda Little, author of the book “The Fate of Food: What We’ll Eat in a Bigger, Hotter, Smarter World,” told Fresh Air host Terry Gross in a June 2019 NPR broadcast. “It’s a story that’s been building for millennia, since … the dawn of civilization, [and] it’s really coming to a head right now.”

“We’re facing such severe challenges and pressures ahead,” Little said, that the need for change is urgent—as in five to 15 years. She points to high-tech disruption such as the aeroponic, vertical indoor growing that’s happening at AeroFarms, which Little describes as a “sort of ‘Blade Runner’-esque cathedral of indoor plant production.”

Newark, N.J.-based AeroFarms grows leafy greens vertically on trellised stacks of metal trays. Instead of soil, plants are grown into fabric, allowing their roots to hang down and absorb a continual nutrient mist. The aeroponic indoor production grows plants with about 90% less water than conventional in-the-soil crop production.

“Indoor farming is the future,” says Phil Lempert, WGB contributing editor, known as the “Supermarket Guru.” It eliminates the need for pest control, it uses less water and land, and it has higher growth rates because of 24-hour “sun,” he adds. Some reports say vertical farming increases yields by as much as 225%.

Cultivating produce indoors also increases food safety, decreases food waste, reduces food miles, allows retailers and suppliers to offer a locally grown product year-round and alleviates labor issues, says Lempert, who adds that newly implemented immigration laws have reduced the harvest workforce by 60%.

“Just look at the money venture capitalists are investing in this type of farming and its rate of growth,” Lempert says. AeroFarms raised $100 million in late-stage funding in July 2019; Germany’s Infarm raised $100 million a month earlier; and Plenty’s $200 Series B funding is still the largest in vertical farming history, reports AgFunder Network Partners.  

Jeffrey Landau, director of business development for Agritecture Consulting, estimates the value of the global vertical farming market will reach about $6.4 billion by 2023, compared with a market value of $403 million in 2013, he told the BBC. The U.S. is responsible for nearly half of that growth. New York-based Agritecture Consulting shares its expertise in controlled environment agriculture with clients such as Square Roots, which feeds climate data from Genoa into its operating system to cultivate authentic Genovese basil in New York. Founded by artificial intelligence expert Tobias Peggs and Kimbal Musk (Elon Musk’s brother), Square Roots recently signed a deal with Gordon Food Service, Grand Rapids, Mich., to locate its herb-growing containers in 200 warehouses.

The Great Indoors

“During the past five years, there has been a substantial amount of investment in indoor farming and new indoor and high-tech greenhouse farm construction across the country,” says Viraj Puri, co-founder and CEO of New York-based Gotham Greens, which received equity funding of $29 million in June 2018. “I believe that certain venture and technology investors are drawn to the opportunity to accelerate the use of big data analytics, artificial intelligence, machine learning, automation and other precision agriculture technologies to the controlled-environment agriculture sector.

Gotham Greens Hydroponic System

Photograph courtesy of Gotham Greens Chicago Greenhouse and Natalia Lee

“The increased funding can help propel the industry in various ways, including increased research and development, consumer awareness and scale.”

Gotham—which grows produce using hydroponic systems in 100% renewable electricity-powered greenhouses that use 95% less water and 97% less land than conventional farming—recently opened its second greenhouse in Chicago and sixth greenhouse nationwide.

Adjacent to the company’s 75,000-square-foot greenhouse built on the roof of Method Products’ Chicago manufacturing complex in 2014, the new 100,000-square-foot state-of-the-art greenhouse will double its Chicago production to nearly 11 million heads of lettuce a year and allow the brand to serve Indiana, Wisconsin and Michigan for the first time.

“As consumers continue to demand more transparency in how and where their food is produced, I believe that the demand for safe, clean vegetables grown in greenhouses will continue to increase,” says Puri. “There is an incredible value proposition in growing highly perishable fresh food in close proximity to large population centers while using fewer natural resources and at competitive pricing.” 

At press time, Gotham Greens was slated to open two 100,000-square-foot greenhouses (one in Providence, R.I., and another in Baltimore), bringing its total operations to 500,000 square feet of high-tech greenhouse farms across five states. A recently announced project in Denver, which is expected to be operational in early 2020, will extend Gotham’s distribution to retailers throughout the Northeast, New England, Mid-Atlantic, Midwest and Mountain West regions.

Named “One of World’s 50 Most Innovative Companies” and one of the “Top 10 Most Innovative Companies in Food” by Fast Company, BrightFarms of Irvington, N.Y., builds and operates greenhouse farms near major metropolitan areas to provide supermarkets such as Walmart, Albertsons, Kroger and Ahold Delhaize with a consistent and year-round supply of locally grown produce.

Kroger Modular Farm

Photograph courtesy of Kroger

“Indoor, locally grown produce is increasingly popular with retailers and consumers as they seek pesticide-free foods that have not traveled thousands of miles,” says Paul Lightfoot, founder and president of BrightFarms. “Market share will continue to grow for indoor salads as weather volatility increases, as consumers continue to demand more local produce and as retailers continue to seek produce with lower risks of food safety recalls.”

BrightFarms’ operations use 80% less water, 90% less land and 95% less shipping fuel than long-distance, centralized and field-grown suppliers. In June 2018, the company announced $55 million in equity funding to support its greenhouse-grown, pesticide-free and non-GMO produce.

Grocers are also getting directly into the indoor-growing game. Gotham Greens built the country’s first commercial-scale, rooftop hydroponic greenhouse on top of a Brooklyn Whole Foods Market in 2014. And most recently, The Kroger Co. inked a partnership with Infarm to bring high-tech modular farms inside its U.S. stores.

CRISPR Gene Editing

What if we could design higher heat-tolerant crops that produce more food using less water and fewer chemicals or cultivate a tomato plant that was short and compact, while also densely full of fruit, and therefore perfect for urban vertical farming?

It’s the promise of CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats) gene editing, which produces disease-resistant cacao and bananas, caffeine-free coffee beans, flavor-boosted strawberries, mushrooms and apples that don’t brown.

“I think in the next five years the most profound thing we’ll see in terms of CRISPR’s effects on people’s everyday lives will be in the agricultural sector,” geneticist Jennifer Doudna told Business Insider in April 2019. Doudna is the University of California at Berkeley geneticist who led the team of scientists who discovered CRISPR in 2012.

In her 2015 Ted Talk, which today boasts nearly 2.8 million views, Doudna explains that the CRISPR-Cas9 discovery was made by looking at how bacteria fight viral infections. They realized they could harness this function as a genetic editing tool with incredible precision. It boasts a plethora of potential uses, from treating diseases to streamlining the crops farmers grow and the groceries retailers sell.

As plant geneticist Zachary Lippman recently told Eating Well, every gene in plants and animals comes with a piece of DNA called a promoter, which controls the energy of that gene. CRISPR allows scientists to manipulate the promoters—without introducing any foreign genes in the plant or animal—and tweak the living organism’s own DNA to have desired characteristics.

“The gene-editing tools of CRISPR will change the produce we grow and the livestock we raise,” says Lempert. “Through CRISPR, we can go to the genome of the cow and turn on certain traits.”

Rooting for Regenerative Agriculture

These are extremely challenging times for farmers, says Lempert, who partners with U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance to produce a weekly “Farm, Food, Facts” podcast. “Some studies say we have about 30 harvests left,” he says, pointing to the Alliance’s short film “30 Harvests.”

Regenerative agriculture is a farming system that increases biodiversity, enriches soils, improves watersheds and enhances the ecosystem. It also aims to capture carbon in soil and above ground, thereby reversing atmospheric accumulation. A growing number of farming experts believe regenerative agriculture is our greatest hope for more harvests.

“We need better communication about regenerative agriculture with retailers and consumers,” says Lempert. “When consumers find out where we may end up, it scares the hell out of them.”

Research at White Oak Pastures in Bluffton, Ga., has proven promising for both regenerative agriculture and meat lovers who are concerned about the environment. In 1995, White Oak Pastures, a key supplier for General Mills’ brand Epic Provisions, converted from a conventional operation to a grass-fed, pastured program.

Minneapolis-based General Mills funded a life cycle assessment (LCA) of White Oak Pastures and found the farm’s beef practices resulted in reduced atmospheric carbon. In fact, the farm’s regenerative agriculture practices allowed it to sequester more carbon than it produced, thereby offsetting at least 100% of the farm’s grass-fed beef carbon emissions. The results of the LCA are extremely compelling, but carbon sequestration can be a complex topic for people to get their heads around, making it challenging at times to get the story out there,” says White Oak Pastures owner Will Harris.

While the story that cattle are destructive to the environment has been widely publicized, Harris says this new research counters that thinking. “The results from our LCA show that cattle can play an important role in the climate story,” he says.

 Just as consumers have become more mindful of animal welfare practices, Harris believes a greater focus on the benefits of regenerative farming will eventually yield consumer buy-in. “We feel that consumers who truly understand the benefits of regenerative farming will support farms that are practicing it with their purchase dollars,” he says. “It’s our job to share our story so they can make informed choices.”

A Taste for High-Tech

Technology will revolutionize the entire food supply chain, from how things are grown to how they get to market, as well as the in-store experience for consumers, said Produce Marketing Association (PMA) CEO Cathy Burns in her State of the Industry presentation at the PMA Fresh Summit last October.

Investment in ag-tech reached a record-breaking $16.9 billion last year, said Burns, who added that regenerative agriculture has received so much attention of late, over the next 30 years it is estimated that $700 billion worth of investment in the movement will ultimately return $10 trillion.

“Farming technology is at a point where you can monitor a patch of land down to the square inch to determine if the land needs nutrients, water, etc.,” says Lempert. This creates efficiencies overall and helps to save water—an extremely limited and increasingly expensive resource. “We have tractors that run themselves and robotics that can pick strawberries, all of which also means less labor is needed,” he says.

With ag-tech, plants may one day grow themselves. Consider Pivot Bio, a Berkeley, Calif.-based synthetic biology company that offers an in-field solution to biological nitrogen fixation. “The industry has been working to develop self-fertilizing cereal crops like corn, wheat and rice for nearly 50 years. For the first time, Pivot Bio is making this possible,” writes co-founder and CEO Karsten Temme on the company’s website.

It’s technology that got the attention of tech billionaire Bill Gates. In October 2018, Pivot Bio announced the completion of a Series B round of financing totaling $70 million led by Gates’ innovation investment fund, Breakthrough Ventures.

Advancements in ag-tech are making food more delicious, like the Cosmic Crisp apple—a cross between the disease-resistant Enterprise and the wildly popular Honeycrisp. The first apple ever bred in Washington state, Cosmic Crisps are the work of scientists at Washington State University’s Tree Fruit Research & Extension Center in Wenatchee. The scientists spent 20 years breeding the desired apple tree seeds.

Technology is digitizing the supply chain for seafood. In October, Fall River, Mass.-based Raw Seafoods Inc. announced a new collaboration connecting global sourcing partners, retailers and restaurateurs who will begin using am IBM Food Trust platform to enhance seafood traceability for scallops sourced from the Atlantic Sea Scallop Fishery.

A fleet of scallopers upload catch data onto the platform, enabling distributors and retailers to identify exactly when and where a given lot of scallops was harvested. The platform also tracks when the boat landed portside, and when each scallop lot was hand-graded, selected, packed and shipped to its final destination. The process even includes video that authorized retailers can use for point-of-sale purposes.

And, of course, technology is revolutionizing the way food is produced altogether, such as lab-grown meat, for example. Lab meat is grown from biopsied cells that are removed from a living animal and are then cultured, Little told NPR. “They are replicated in sort of what they call a bioreactor, which is basically a very sophisticated crockpot,” she said. The live cells are self-replicating, which is a natural process.

While laboratory meat is in the experimental phase, thanks to the aggressive funding of numerous startups, Little sees products coming to market as soon as this year.




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