How Indoor Farming Will Change the Way We Eat

by Plenty11/16/2017

Are there hidden costs in our grocery store aisles?

When you’re carefully selecting that rosy apple or velvety avocado from the well-stocked bins in your local grocery store, it may not occur to you to wonder where it came from or at what cost. It might surprise you that those seemingly fresh, crisp fruits and veggies aren’t nearly as fresh – nor as nutritious – as they appear.

The truth is, our bulky conventional food system has disadvantages when it comes to nutrition, quality, and waste.

Nutrition in decline

 

Did you know, for instance, that the fruits and vegetables grown decades ago were much richer in vitamins and minerals than the varieties most of us eat today? This makes no sense, of course — surely with our vast scientific know-how, we should be growing more nutritious spinach and squash, not less?

Unfortunately, the answer is no.  Researchers have documented a steady decline in the amount of calcium, iron, phosphorus, protein, and vitamins in today’s produce over previous generations, thanks to the ways in which modern agricultural methods hve stripped nutrients out of the soil.¹

What’s going on? In a nutshell, we’re trying to feed ever more people at ever lower costs.

And these two factors – together with the fact that many Americans live in regions with extremely short or even nonexistent growing seasons, has led to our current predicament.

From what was once a patchwork of family farms, we now have vast international agribusiness enterprises where innovation has focused on producing the highest possible yields and on engineering fruits and vegetables that can be transported and stored over long distances and time periods.

In short: conventional farms grow food for trucks, not people.

There are some nice benefits to this, of course; no matter what the season, we can start our day with mangoes from Mexico and finish our day with peas from South Africa. And thanks to regular deliveries from Chile, we can eat grapes — once a much-anticipated summer specialty — all year long.

But those grapes are likely doused with pesticides, and that year-long access comes at the expense of nutrition. And if you’ve ever compared a peach plucked ripe from the tree to one of those hard greenish ones at your local store, you know you’re paying a price in taste, too.

Quality’s comeback

Of course, it’s not all about modernization – the other big news has been the return to basics. Take the rediscovery of heirloom varieties; there are now whole seed catalogs and nurseries devoted to popularizing obscure and highly localized varieties of everything from pumpkins to sunflowers. Ask a farmer or backyard gardener planting Black Vernissage tomatoes, Violetta Italia cauliflower or Sheep’s Nose apples and you’ll get a different perspective on where farming is going today.

Around the country there’s been a return to small specialty farms producing high-quality local produce, much of it organic or pesticide-free. Go to any farmer’s market – and there are more and more of them springing up in towns and cities around the country – and you’ll see stalls selling just about every type of produce that can be grown within a day’s drive, and enthusiastic hands bagging them up.

But those fresh-from-the-fields strawberries and sunset-hued beets have us wondering… “When did quality become a throwback?” The fact of the matter is that special heirloom varieties aren’t affordable or available for everyone. Because of the increased labor and other costs that go into producing them, farmers have to jack up prices to make any margin on their crops. This means that the price of specialty produce is out of reach for many consumers. And many varieties are only available for a brief time each year.

Meanwhile, humans everywhere pay the price

Sadly, quality and seasonal produce brings with it high costs financially and in terms of health. One study found that Californians who live in the least healthy “food environments” had rates of obesity and diabetes 20 percent higher than average; another found that residents of Chicago and Detroit who didn’t have easy access to full-service, produce-stocked grocery stores were dying from diabetes at significantly higher rates.²

And yet, shockingly enough, more than 50 percent of produce grown ends up being thrown away because it rots before consumers can buy it.

Clearly, there’s a breakdown here – one that our CEO, Matt Barnard, saw first hand growing up on an apple and cherry farm in rural Wisconsin. And it’s this access gap that Plenty’s ground-breaking agricultural enterprise seeks to bridge.

Bringing quality, health, and responsibility back to our food system

Plenty’s approach turns the entire equation of modern farming on its head — literally. Located in large, indoor spaces within an hour’s drive from urban centers, we’re using the latest modern technology to grow food that prioritizes nutrition, flavor, and responsibility over storage and transport.

But here’s the real breakthrough: We’re not sacrificing yield to do it. In fact we are dramatically increasing the yield possible from an acre of land.

Step into one of our urban farms and you’ll see floor-to-ceiling towers nurturing crop varieties chosen for their taste and nutrient profile.

The latest in sensor technology and machine learning allows us to create the optimum growing environment; one with no need for pesticides or GMOs.

Plenty isn’t just going to bring consumers fresh, local produce all year long; our growing methods are also environmentally friendly. Let’s take water, which made headlines nationwide during California’s 7-year drought. Even as water resources worldwide are dwindling at scary rates, more than 70 percent of water in developed countries continues to be used for agriculture, and that percent will continue to grow.

For that reason, Plenty is using growing methods specially designed for low water use. By reusing water and carefully controlling light, temperature, and humidity, we can grow up to 350 times as much produce per square foot as a conventional farm, while using just one percent of the water. And by locating our farms close to where people live, we can have our produce on your table within a day of being picked – and cut our carbon footprint at the same time.

Finally, we’re following in the footsteps of local farmers, who’ve already done so much to bring back heirlooms and re-introduce organic growing techniques. Like them, we’re committed to getting hand-raised locally grown produce onto American tables, raising the quality of what’s available for all.

Research from recent issue of Issues in Science and Technology, published by the International Water Management Institute

Data are from several studies summarized by Scientific American