New technologies are changing the landscape of food in America. Now, there is the ability to grow food that may be better than organic. How is this possible? It helps to understand that there are some huge misconceptions about organic food.
For starters, despite popular belief, organic farms can use pesticides. The difference is that they only use naturally-derived pesticides, rather than the synthetic pesticides used on conventional farms. Natural pesticides are believed to be less toxic, however, some have been found to have significant health risks.
Some studies have indicated that the use of pesticides—even at low doses— can increase the risk of certain cancers, such as leukemia, lymphoma, brain tumors, breast cancer and prostate cancer.
Children and fetuses are most vulnerable to pesticide exposure because their immune systems, bodies, and brains are still developing. Exposure at an early age may cause developmental delays, behavioral disorders, autism, immune system harm, and motor dysfunction.
Pregnant women are more vulnerable due to the added stress pesticides put on their already taxed organs. Plus, pesticides can be passed from mother to child in the womb, as well as through breast milk.
The widespread use of pesticides has also led to the emergence of “super weeds” and “super bugs,” which can only be killed with extremely toxic poisons like 2,4-Dichlorophenoxyacetic acid (a major ingredient in Agent Orange).
Rinsing reduces but does not eliminate pesticides. It is important to wash your fruits and vegetables, but in most cases, this will not eliminate all traces of pesticides. Even organic foods can use certain pesticides, and outdoor grown organic food can pick up pesticide residue from nearby farms.
According to the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit organization that analyzes the results of government pesticide testing in the U.S., the following fruits and vegetables have the highest pesticide levels:
There is also confusion about organic food labels:
Organic foods are described on product labels in a variety of ways, but they mean different things:
- 100 percent organic. This description is used on certified organic fruits, vegetables, eggs, meat or other single-ingredient foods. It may also be used on multi-ingredient foods if all of the ingredients are certified organic, excluding salt and water. These may have a USDA seal.
- Organic. If a multi-ingredient food is labeled organic, at least 95 percent of the ingredients are certified organic, excluding salt and water. The nonorganic items must be from a USDA list of approved additional ingredients. These also may have a USDA seal.
- Made with organic. If a multi-ingredient product has at least 70 percent certified organic ingredients, it may have a “made with organic” ingredients label. For example, a breakfast cereal might be labeled “made with organic oats.” The ingredient list must identify what ingredients are organic. These products may not carry a USDA seal.
- Organic ingredients. If less than 70 percent of a multi-ingredient product is certified organic, it may not be labeled as organic or carry a USDA seal. The ingredient list can indicate which ingredients are organic.
Is there something better than organic?
Yes. Recent developments in agtech provides the ability to grow food without any pesticides or harmful ingredients. Controlled Environment Micro-Farms allow growers to cultivate fruits, herbs and vegetables in a sealed environment that virtually eliminates the need for pesticides and harmful chemicals.
These tightly managed ecosystems use much less water and fertilizer than on conventional farms, and allow growers to cultivate throughout the year, regardless of the season or weather.
A 40-foot Controlled Environment Farm can yield about 3,500-4,000 heads of lettuce every ten days. The greens are priced competitively with traditional produce, yet the process uses 97 percent less water than a conventional farm and no pesticides or herbicides, since bugs and weeds are much less likely to get in. In fact, some say that produce grown in a Controlled Environment Farm is actually “better than organic,” noting that organic growers can still use certain pesticides.
Closer to Consumption
The Controlled Environment Farm (CEF) provides higher quality food that’s grown closer to where it will be consumed, which means food arrives ripe and ready to eat, with less cost and environmental impact. CEFs are also resource friendly and use less water, energy, space, labor, and capital than other methods of farming.
Shipping containers are ideally suited to be repurposed into Controlled Environment Farms. There are millions of shipping containers in the world, but only a fraction of them are in service and used actively. Many of the remaining containers are wasting away in ports and storage yards across the world.
Repurposing these gentle giants into robust farms is not only good for producing clean, healthy food, but it is also good for the environment.
Real World Uses
When Michael Bissanti opened Four Burgers in Cambridge, Massachusetts, he knew he wanted to create a restaurant with a strong sense of sustainability. Initially, that meant procuring only ingredients deemed natural, as well as sourcing from organic and local farms. But Bissanti quickly realized that the “natural” label wasn’t a panacea for a sustainable food system — and so he went looking for a way to bring sustainable, local ingredients even closer to his kitchen.
Today, those ingredients could hardly be closer — Bissanti only needs to walk out the back door of his restaurant to pick all the fresh lettuce, arugula, mustard greens, and herbs he needs. Even in the cold Boston winters, Bissanti is merely feet away from fresh produce, in spite of the fact that his restaurant is located right in the middle of an urban thoroughfare between Harvard and MIT.
That’s because Bissanti is one of the hundreds of farmers across the country growing produce in Controlled Environment Farms built into repurposed shipping containers.
Companies that manufacture these farms, such as GP Solutions and Freight Farms, say that even traditional greenhouses and rooftop gardens require the expertise of an engineer, a plumber, an electrician and a horticulturist. And, rooftop greenhouses are also expensive, costing between $1 million to $2 million to get started. A “GrowPod” from GP Solutions or a Freight Farms unit, by comparison, costs only around $48,000-$100,000.
One of the key differences in these Controlled Environment Farms is that everything is included. Everything from water to the LED lights in the units are digitally controlled, and each unit is also connected to the internet so that it can be monitored and managed from anywhere in the world.
“Everything is fully contained within the GrowPod so that it arrives as a turnkey product, ready to grow,” said George Natzic, President of GP Solutions.
These containers allow growers to generate local food production in any location. And manufacturers point out that unlike other indoor growing operations, the shipping container farms are scalable. You can locate the system in a parking lot or the corner of a warehouse and expand incrementally.
Meeting the needs of a changing world
With 54 percent of the world’s population residing in urban areas—expected to increase to about 66 percent by 2050, Controlled Environment Farms allow growers to reduce their agricultural footprint on the environment and address food security of the urban population.
Kimbal Musk (brother of Elon) says that these high-tech shipping container farms are creating “a real food revolution.”
What do you get by growing hyper-local to the end consumer? The answer is that the food you are eating right now at the restaurant was grown right outside and picked minutes ago. This is in stark contrast to traditional agriculture that often supplies produce that was picked when still hard, could sit in a warehouse for weeks, and has chemicals applied that allow ripening just prior to distribution to stores and restaurants.
In summary, there is a great need for controlled-environment agriculture as it allows produce to be grown locally and delivered to the final consumer very shortly post-harvest.
Consumers have a desire for locally-grown clean produce during all periods of the year which they can buy at a competitive price. Controlled Environment Farms are a solution that are sustainable, easy to implement, affordable to acquire, simple to operate, and produce high quality food that can be considered better than organic.
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