Preserving the Environment

Could One Parking Lot Feed a City? They’re Betting on It

May 3, 2019
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Could One Parking Lot Feed a City? They’re Betting on It
Vertical farming company Square Roots has a plan to feed city residents with locally grown produce. The only catch is, can we afford it?

In a parking lot in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York, there’s a 20-acre farm. But there’s no soil or tractors in sight. Instead, 10 bright white shipping containers occupy the asphalt.

The lot is contested space in a major city like Brooklyn. But Square Roots isn’t using it for parked cars. It’s using the space to grow herbs. The company has deliberately chosen the middle of an urban environment, and its goal is to feed the city that surrounds it.

“We’re literally in a parking lot of an old Pfizer pharmaceutical factory. We’re across the road from the Marcy [housing] project. We’re within a subway ride of 8 million people in New York,” Tobias Peggs, a co-founder of Square Roots, told NationSwell.

Square Roots, a vertical farming company, runs its operation out of the refurbished containers. Its goal is to make local food accessible to everyone.

A lack of fresh produce is a major problem for many residents in urban areas like New York, where over 16 percent of the population is food insecure. And for those who do have access to fresh produce, chances are it traveled hundreds of miles before ending up at the grocery store.

This leads to a variety of problems. People living in food deserts generally rely on processed foods and have higher health risks than those who can afford weekly trips to Whole Foods. Transporting vegetables and fruits around the world has a hefty carbon footprint and nutritional values quickly diminish after produce is picked.

And as the world’s population grows to 10 billion by 2050, our food output will need to drastically increase — by an estimated 70 percent, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization.

Square Roots’ founders think they may have found a solution to the aforementioned problems.

“Rather than shipping food from one part of the planet to the next, what if you could just ship environmental data?” Peggs asked. “And recreate climates from all over the world, but recreate those climates in your backyard.”

Square Roots relies on technology to create each crop’s ideal environment in every container. The humidity, temperature, water and light are all controlled. The farms are connected to the “cloud,” which provides accurate, real-time information on each crop.

And the setup is yielding results. When Square Roots first grew basil it took 50 days. Now the growth cycle is just 28 days. By tracking light, heat and water, it can adjust each variable and create the conditions under which each crop grows best.

Tobias Peggs dives into the technology behind Square Roots’ operations.Photo courtesy of Square Roots

Once a month, Square Roots invites people from across New York’s five boroughs to look inside the business’s operations. Visitors trickle in, and I watch as they munch on the 28-day-grown basil, chives and mint while learning about Square Roots’ operation.

“We picked them yesterday,” a farmer said.

After a quick overview of the program, we head outside for the main attraction a peek inside the farm.

Peggs commands the crowd. Eager for the big reveal, he opens the heavy, metal doors. A pink glow cascades over us energy-efficient light that helps the herbs grow.

Peggs dives into the science. “Basically, when you study photosynthesis, plant growth, the plant doesn’t absorb the full spectrum of white light. The plant only absorbs certain spectrums of light. A lot of red and a lot of blue. What we’re able to do in the farm is really control that light spectrum and only give the plant the spectrum of light that it needs.”

Efficiency is at the core of Square Roots’ operations. Besides refurbishing old shipping containers, each farm uses 90 percent less water than a similarly sized outdoor farm. There’s no soil; instead, the plants are fed nutrient-rich water. The containers also boast energy-efficient LED lights, and there are rumors of adding solar panels to power them. The produce is then biked to grocery stores across Manhattan and Brooklyn, which cuts back on emissions from transportation.

The result is a higher yield with fewer resources. Currently, the farms grow herbs, like mint, basil and chives; and greens, like romaine, gem and Tuscan kale. Peggs says the farms can grow practically anything. Strawberries, eggplants, beets, radishes and carrots are on its horizon.

But the catch is that each type of produce has unique energy requirements. One of the main criticisms of vertical farming is its lack of variety. Most vertical farms focus on lettuces and herbs because those greens have the largest output and highest profitability. Denser crops require more sunlight. That means more energy, and therefore, higher costs and more emissions.

Paul Gauthier, an associate research scholar at Princeton and founder of the Princeton Vertical Farming Project, researches vertical farming’s sustainability.

“In terms of carbon emission, it’s actually better to have your lettuce transported from California to New York if your [vertical farming] energy is coming from any fossil fuel,” he told NationSwell. “The energy consumption in a vertical farm in New York would be so high that you would produce more CO2 for lettuce than you [would] if you ship it from California.”

But if the energy is coming from renewable sources, then vertical farming is a competitive player.

It comes down to fueling these farms with the right energy and using efficient light.

Gauthier believes that vertical farms and other small, high output farms will be a key factor in feeding the world — but only if the crop variety grows.

“We won’t feed the world with lettuce,” he said.

A farmer harvests basil in Square Roots’ vertical farm.Photo courtesy of Square Roots

But there’s debate on whether these ventures are affordable or realistic.

For example, Square Roots’ lot in Brooklyn cost about $1.5 million to build, which was funded by Peggs, the former CEO of Aviary, a photo-editing program, and Kimbal Musk, Elon Musk’s little brother, who sits on the boards of Tesla and SpaceX. So the idea that shipping container farms are scalable feels a little out of reach for the average person or company.

But the cost hasn’t deterred interest. This year Square Roots partnered with Gordon Food Services, which is the largest food distribution company in North America. This partnership will put Square Roots containers across the country.

Even as the company scales, it won’t reach every demographic. A $3 an ounce, basil isn’t something that’s going to solve America’s food deserts.

Peggs stressed that we’re just not there … yet.

“The reality today is that we’re right at the beginning of the technology road map here. Right at the beginning.”

Square Roots isn’t the only private urban farming company that’s professing scalability. Urban farms, such as AeroFarms and Bowery Farming, are currently attracting lots of attention for their potential to make local food available to everyone. According to AgFunder, agriculture-tech startups raised $16.9 billion in support in 2018. And investors, like Google Ventures and IKEA, have poured millions of dollars into supporting those initiatives.

And urban farming is likely to take root in the coming years. A study published in 2018 on Earth’s Future, found that if urban farming is fully implemented around the world, it could account for 10 percent of the global output of legumes, roots and tubers and vegetable crops — 180 million tons of food every year.  

“Not only could urban agriculture account for several percent of global food production, but there are added co-benefits beyond that, and beyond the social impacts,” Matei Georgescu, a co-author of the study, told City Lab.

Peggs and Gauthier agree that there isn’t one clear cut solution. Instead, it’s going to take a combination of urban and traditional farming to feed the world in the future.

“The very clear position here is that the more of us working to get people connected to locally grown food the better,” said Peggs.

More: Five Apps for the Tech-Savy Environmentalist

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