THE BLOG
12/13/2012 11:34 am ET Updated Feb 12, 2013

The Future of Food Series: Exponential Solutions to Transforming Our Food System

Part 1: Smart Food -- Is there an alternative to GMOs?

By 2050, we need to figure out how to not only feed but also nourish the three billion new people who will be joining the seven billion of us who are already here on the planet. And we need to figure out how to do this as effectively, ethically and as environmentally sensibly as possible.

Since the 1980s the only celebrated solution has been GMO's -- genetically modified organisms. Genetic modification allows genes from one species to be moved into another. If anyone had never heard of GMOs -- like the latest pop band -- Prop 37 made GMOs a household name.

Proposition 37 was one of the more controversial issues on the ballot in California last November because nothing gets people in the gut more than fear about their food. Prop 37 would have required any food sold in grocery stores to be clearly labeled if it was produced using genetic engineering. It would have also prohibited these foods from being labeled "natural." While there are many cases of GMO crops contaminating neighboring crops and there is research to support that GMOs are possibly harmful to human health, many experts say the evidence against GMOs is not conclusive and also argue that GMOs are our only pathway forward to feeding our growing population. In fact Norman Borloug -- winner of the Nobel Prize for his work in curbing world hunger through The Green Revolution which were a series of innovations in genetic engineering -- still believes in the promise of GMOs to feed the planet and that it is the anti-science movement that is prohibiting progress.

It's absolutely true that we need to be planning now for how we are going to sustainably scale our food distribution systems for a much larger global population on a restricted water supply and nutrient depleted soil. Over 850 million people today do not have access to enough food to lead healthy lives. As our numbers only grow, a serious breakthrough is needed.

Is "Franken-food" the only answer?

While Ann Powell, a biochemist in the Department of Plant Sciences at UC Davis is trying to engineer a better tasting tomato that can withstand the industrial produce transport system the success of the company I am featuring today would render this effort moot. How about we preserve the identity of the tomato, and build a better distribution model?

Luckily there's a way -- or, rather, many of them -- being implemented right now to produce large volumes of nutritious food with a small footprint. In my next several blogs, I'll be looking at a handful of trailblazing companies that are providing the scalable solutions we need to build a new and secure food distribution system for fresh produce. All of them offer their own spin on Controlled Environment Agriculture (CEA)

If you are reading this and have any other solution that you have come across I invite you to send your ideas my way. Together we can start to aggregate opportunities for creating the future of an equitable and sustainable food system.

In this first post I want to feature a company that I find particularly forward thinking.

BrightFarms: From Roof to Market

Across a rooftop in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, a 100,000 square foot hydroponic greenhouse will soon be constructed in a partnership with the A&P supermarket chain and the innovative startup BrightFarms Systems. Hydroponic farming is a method for growing produce without soil, in a shallow pool of nutrient laden water.

BrightFarms designs, builds and operates new, high-tech greenhouses for grocery stores on their roofs or nearby on the ground -- thereby disrupting the absurdly long distribution chains that separate consumers from their fresh produce. Right now, much of the food we buy in our stores travels a week or longer before it gets to us and incurs huge costs financially, and environmentally, along the way.

"Our food supply chain is incredibly efficient and inefficient at the same time," says BrightFarms cofounder and Chief Executive Officer Paul Lightfoot. "The system breeds food-borne illness and it's killing our environment" because of its massive consumption of crude oil, natural gas, water, land and food. More than half the cost of lettuce most Americans eat today isn't in the lettuce, he says, but in the long and refrigerated supply chain.

BrightFarms was born to change this and to put the source of produce back into the neighborhoods of the people who consume it.

PHOTO GALLERIES
Smart Food- Bright Farms Raises the Roof with Local Produce

When BrightFarms' Brooklyn greenhouse is completed, it will provide up to one million pounds of fresh produce, including tomatoes, lettuce and herbs, to 5,000 New Yorkers. It will also create 25 full-time jobs and keep 1.8 million gallons of storm water from running into local waterways. Not incidentally, this produce will taste better and be more nutritionally rich, Lightfoot says, because BrightFarms won't be growing only lettuce and tomatoes that are hardy enough (read: tough and tasteless) to survive for days in transit. Instead, they will be picked and placed on market shelves the same day, making it easier to grow heirloom and delicate varietals. If that concept sounds both revolutionary and remarkably obvious, that's because it is.
Lightfoot and his partners understand that controlled environment agriculture is riding a trend already well underway: urbanization. By 2050 an estimated 70 percent of the world's population will live in cities, compared to 60 percent today. In the past decade, for example, more than 300 million Chinese have migrated to urban centers. Environmentalist Stewart Brand in his book Whole Earth Discipline proposes that cities can be comparatively sustainable for many reasons. One of which is that native forests are reclaiming rural land as farmers depart.
This is all to the good; although humans romanticize open-field agriculture as natural, in reality there's nothing "natural" about it.

We can no longer afford open-field farming

"You take a nice complex ecosystem, chop it into rectangles, clear it to the ground, and hammer it into perpetual early succession!" writes Stewart Brand. "You bust its sod, flatten it flat, and drench it with vast quantities of water! Then you populate it with uniform monocrops ...!"

I share Brand's exasperation with this practice. We simply can't afford it anymore.

More than 40 percent of our globe's land surface is taken up for this purpose. Experts have known for decades that our industrial model of agriculture doesn't have the capacity to sustainably serve an explosively growing global population. I recently learned from the team at The Carbon War Room that agriculture contributes 12 percent -- or six billion tons -- of all manmade emissions of CO2. While hydroponic greenhouses once had a bad wrap for guzzling energy and water and breeding fungal contamination- new technologies are forging a breakthrough and making CEA the most resource efficient way of growing vegetables. Ultimately, we also need innovative solutions in producing grains and proteins sustainably as well -- as the CEA model is most effective for perishable produce.

So its good for the planet -- but what's in it for the grocers?

Supermarkets have no upfront cost. Like all of its other supermarket partners, A&P isn't paying BrightFarms anything for this new facility. Instead, it is committing to buying the greenhouse's output at a fixed price over a number of years. BrightFarms finances, designs, builds and operates the facility.

With this model, BrightFarms now is working with 20 pecent of the country's largest supermarket chains. It is currently in development with greenhouse projects in six areas, including Brooklyn, Bucks County, Penn., Chicago, Oklahoma, St. Louis and St. Paul.

"The market is going for it," Lightfoot says.

And why wouldn't they? Rock solid proof of this concept has been around for eons, Lightfoot points out. For generations, small European countries with limited land for cultivation have been relying upon hydroponic greenhouses to feed their populations. Holland in particular has become so successful that they export produce around Europe and to the Middle East.

By using this form of controlled agriculture, Lightfoot says, growers can increase yields of tomatoes by 10 percent and lettuce by 30 percent using just a tenth of the water and a fraction of the land.

Oddly enough, it took someone from the software industry -- not the grocery industry -- to put this obvious-sounding business plan into motion. While working as the CEO of a supply chain software company years ago, Lightfoot said, he became obsessed with eating local foods and shopping at farmer's markets.

Combining his passion with his skill set allows him to explain the value proposition of ultra-locavorism to large grocery store chain managers seeking insulation from the oil and gas price risks that come with imported foods. Today, BrightFarms is one of a small handful of companies building commercial-scale rooftop greenhouses. Along with investment from heavy hitting clean tech funds, the still-young company has attracted Sunedison's founder Jigar Shah as an investor, along with Robby Kenner, the Oscar-nominated director of the influential movie Food, Inc. and the CEO of a $26 billion-revenue grocery store chain, one of the largest in the world. In fact Norman Borloug -- winner of the Nobel Prize for his work in curbing world hunger through The Green Revolution which were a series of innovations in genetic engineering -- believed in the promise of GMOs to feed the planet and that it is the anti-science movement that is prohibiting progress.

Does freshness matter for health?

According to Dr. Isabelle A. Moser in her book How and When to Be Your Own Doctor:

"Most people do not realize the crucial importance of freshness when it comes to produce. In the same way that seeds gradually die, fruits and vegetables go through a similar process as their nutritional content gradually oxidizes or is broken down by the vegetables own enzymes, but vegetables lose nutrition hundreds of times more rapidly than cereals. Produce was recently part of a living plant. It was connected to the vascular system of a plant and with few exceptions, is not intended by nature to remain intact after being cut. A lettuce or a zucchini was entirely alive at the moment of harvest, but from that point, its cells begin to die. Even if it is not yet attacked by bacteria, molds and fungi, its own internal enzymes have begun breaking down its own substances." She continues, "vegetables, especially leafy vegetables, are far more critical in this respect than most ripe fruits. All, however, deteriorate much like radioactive material; they have a sort of half-life. The mineral content is stable, but in respect to the vitamins and enzymes and other complex organic components, each time period or "half life" results in the loss of half the nutrition."

So if you purchase and consume lettuce at your local supermarket that was picked fresh that day, it will have twice the nutrition as lettuce picked yesterday, and far superior to lettuce picked last week in California and trucked out to New York.

Urban farming can help weather the storm

As the east coast of the United States picks up the pieces after Hurricane Sandy, the question of how we can insulate our cities and towns against future natural disasters is uppermost in peoples' mind. Food security is an important topic in this discussion. A highly decentralized food distribution system, by definition, also will be a more secure one. Right now close to 100 percent of certain fruits and vegetables eaten by Americans are produced in California's central valley. A single natural disaster in that area could put the entire nation's produce supply at risk. Brightfarms production was untouched by Sandy, leading me to imagine rooftop farms in every city keeping fresh food available in times of crisis.

The past leads the way

We can turn to the past for a better solution. As I've mentioned, the core of hydroponics is nothing new. Historians suspect the practice may have sustained the fabled Hanging Gardens of Babylon thousands of years ago. During World War II, the U.S. government advanced our understanding of the field in order to grow food on barren islands in the South Pacific. Today, for the same reasons - especially the elimination of high transportation costs - researchers on the frigid South Pole get their fresh foods hydroponically. The moment humanity begins taking up residence on other planets or moons, the technology is good-to-go to produce fruits and vegetables for space travelers.

Back at home on terra firma, we've all been eating hydroponically grown foods from our groceries for some time now. But cheap fuel and seemingly abundant water have prevented farmers from improving on the practice. In short, today's hydroponic produce won't be as smart or as tasty as tomorrow's.

Recapturing what was lost

One limiting factor to the BrightFarms business model is that currently a single installation can provide only about 10 percent of a store's produce needs. However, as the business model is proven, Lightfoot anticipates BrightFarms will colonize rooftops on surrounding buildings that house bakeries, data centers and shopping malls. The businesses in these buildings throw off "waste heat" from ovens or air conditioning systems that cool the inside of malls or stacks of computer equipment. BrightFarms can grab that heat and use it to heat the interior of its greenhouses. "Whenever we can, we try to not burn fossil fuels," he says.

Over the long term, Lightfoot believes his company's potential is limited only by the pace at which it can grow. Shah says he sees far greater potential for local agriculture in general and controlled environment agriculture in particular than he does even for solar. He estimates that while the solar industry ultimately will produce hundreds of thousands of U.S. jobs, new local agriculture will produce 1.5 million jobs in the U.S. alone.

"That's tremendous growth," Shah says.

And its growth that we need to feed a growing population on limited resources. We need growth without sacrificing the genetic identity of our food, and ensuring safe and abundant nourishment for all.

Check out BrightFarms here.

And let me know your ideas on how to feed a growing planet ethically and sustainably.