Ecology, not technology

I have seen several announcements and follow-up articles recently in the local and regional press about a new aeroponic production facility near Danville called AeroFarms and want to provide a different perspective than I have seen so far, a perspective that typically—and unfortunately, I think–gets lost in all the hullabaloo surrounding a project of this nature. 

AeroFarms is by all measure a feat of technology.  Using what has been called indoor vertical farming, production of crops—mainly leafy greens—can be intensified by controlling factors such as temperature, humidity, airflow, light intensity and water supply in order to produce what proponents call “optimum conditions for growth”.  

According to their website, AeroFarms says they “…are on a bold mission to grow the best plants possible for the betterment of humanity”.  While I agree with that mission, I don’t necessarily agree that this type of food production can or will actually meet that goal. 

I’m not saying that AeroFarms doesn’t have a right to setup shop and produce as much lettuce in vertical trays in a warehouse using whatever technology they have developed.  What I want to point out is that I think that the $42 million investment in this 140,000 square foot facility could have been much better used to promote small, diversified family farm operations growing food in that part of the country, increasing the actual benefits to that locality multi-fold beyond what I think AeroFarms can provide.  Let me elaborate…

First, as I’ve written here before, we are in the midst of a paradigm shift in the way we grow our food and I think vertical farming offers few if any of the long-term benefits we seek.  There are more and more folks who want to grow food these days, whether just for themselves or for their neighbors and community.  One of the reasons for that is the desire for a more decentralized model of food production, one that is more resilient in the face of weather or market extremes.  

Remember April 2020?  Growing ‘vertically’ in a warehouse doesn’t spread that risk the way multiple small-holder farms would say, in a pandemic.  There is also the overall benefit to the locality.  Where do the profits from production at this facility go?  I doubt they will stay in the Pittsylvania County area—AeroFarms is based in New Jersey–which is typically one of the reasons that local officials agree to these types of projects in the first place, often providing huge tax breaks for companies to move in.

Further, most family-scale farms participate in myriad ways in their local economy, from purchasing materials and equipment from local vendors to selling direct-to-consumer or wholesale to local buyers.  Either way, that money is being pumped back into the local economy. Where is the market for vertically-produced aeroponic leafy greens and what will be the impact on existing local farms who produce leafy greens?  

Second, the USDA just funded nearly $3 billion in ‘climate-smart’ programs for agricultural producers and farmers to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and build soil carbon (more on that next month!) and whether you agree with it or not, this program puts soil health and regenerative practices on the front lines of even the most conventional farms if they are to stay competitive.  Vertical farming seems to me to be going in the opposite direction, like the proverbial solution looking for a problem to solve.  Their “patented, data-driven growing approach” doesn’t help us sequester carbon in the soil because, well…there is no soil.

Which brings me to my third point, the soil.  We are literally learning more every day about how the interactions between the biological, chemical and physical components of the plant-soil system and how we can improve upon those natural processes.  That’s hard to do in trays where plants are “produced in three dimensions”.  On many farms, we are growing nutrient-dense foods while simultaneously building soil carbon, increasing diversity in our food supply and providing outsized benefits to the local ecosystem, like clean water, reduced runoff, diverse habitats and healthier humans and animals.  

On their website, AeroFarms claims to “understand plant biology to be great farmers and solve broader problems in agriculture”.  At some point, we have to admit that removing plants from the soil—the natural growing medium they have evolved with, adapted to and rely upon—is a very unsustainable endeavor.  Plant biology is completely dependent upon and intertwined with soil biology and removing the soil from that relationship leaves the plant without its natural feeding and defense mechanisms.  Nutrient density and flavor come primarily as a result of biological processes in the soil that the plant has utilized through and by synergistic relationships with soil biology—all of which are absent in a soilless growing environment. 

Finally, one claim made by AeroFarms is that they “use less than regular field farmers” and that their closed loop system “uses up to 95% less water for leafy greens than field farming and even less than hydroponics, as well as a fraction of the fertilizers” according to the website.  I don’t think simply substituting LED lighting for sunlight and misting plant roots with “…targeted nutrients, water and oxygen” means that the process uses “less”, and I’d like to see what farm field data they are comparing to, as well as what they are actually feeding the crop.  Plants derive nutrients in many ways, and misting with water-soluble nutrients simply cannot replace the multi-functional symbiotic relationship that plants have with soil.  Come to think of it, they may indeed have a point there: if they are using as a comparison conventional commodity crops, grown in monoculture, genetically-modified to express certain traits unknown in the plant world, then they might be right.  Those ain’t natural systems either, so we need to keep in mind the worn cliché of the need to compare, uh…lettuces to lettuces.

In my experience, the healthier the soil, the healthier the crop.  And the healthier the crop, the healthier the animal that eats it.  And well-managed crop land spreads health to the ecosystems around that farm, especially adjacent and downstream, benefiting the entire community.  The sheer resources used to bring this technological model for food production would have been much better spent incentivizing farmers to transition to more biological practices, help them focus on regenerating their soils and diversifying their crop and livestock systems and collectively build and support more local and regional markets that don’t always need the technological fix.  

About Brent Wills

Brent's a good guy.