October 18, 2019
How Indoor Agriculture Can Improve Americans’ Access to Fresh Produce
Despite the United States being the richest nation in the world, hunger is a growing issue for many communities across the country.
Feeding America collected data in 2017 showing more than 40 million food insecure Americans. Even while the U.S. produces a surplus of food every year, millions of Americans face obstacles in accessing fresh, healthful fruits and vegetables, often living in areas deemed “food deserts.” The United States Department of Agriculture defines food deserts as “parts of the country vapid of fresh fruit, vegetables, and other healthful whole foods, usually found in impoverished areas. This is largely due to a lack of grocery stores, farmers’ markets and healthy food providers.”
In many areas, food must be transported several miles before reaching Americans’ plates, due to a lack of viable land or farms. Further, this means only the hardiest vegetables – such as iceberg lettuce – can make the trek. More delicate greens are more likely to wilt before reaching the destination.
But who wants to eat iceberg lettuce every single day? Indoor agriculture is taking local food to the next level. This approach, while still in its infancy, has the potential to reduce food deserts, bring nutritious produce to neighborhoods across the country and deliver specialized greens to homes and restaurants, diversifying and boosting American diets. The gardens of the future may very well be tended to indoors.
Parallel Industries: Edible Food and Cannabis
Cannabis provides one of the best examples for how plants can not only grow, but thrive, in an indoor setting. Due to years of prohibition, cannabis growers were pushed out of sight to indoor facilities. There is a silver lining though: taking inspiration from indoor growers already cultivating food crops, cannabis growers honed their craft. They discovered the most effective ways to cultivate cannabis, even without the life-giving light of the sun. We’ve explored the differences between growing flowering and nonflowering crops on our blog.
Many of the benefits indoor cannabis growers experience can also translate into edible food crops as well:
- Year-round harvests. Rather than being limited to a specific growing season, the controlled environment of an indoor garden yields harvests during any month of the year, regardless of the weather outdoors. More growers may decide to move indoors as climate change makes growing seasons more unpredictable and weather more intense.
- Fewer pesticides and insecticides. In traditional commercial agriculture, tons of chemicals, including insecticides, pesticides and chemical fertilizers are used on crops to stave off pests and keep plants healthy. These chemicals then leech into the soil, are ingested by birds and other animals and end up in water sources – long-lasting impacts that aren’t good for humans nor ecosystems. At indoor facilities, fewer chemicals are used and they’re less likely to end up in the natural environment.
- Happier, healthier plants. With the advance of full-spectrum LEDs, cultivators can boost nutrients, shorten the growing cycle, alter the plants’ physical appearance or even improve taste.
Technology with a Lower Environmental Impact, but Big Impact on Hunger
Cities are only going to get more crowded. According to the UN, there are going to be 43 megacities with more than 10 million inhabitants by 2030. Countries across the world will be pressed to find innovative solutions to feed bigger populations, often with less space available.
In addition, a recent UN report painted a bleak picture for the future of traditional agriculture, as climate change could potentially hasten land degradation and trigger more violent, unpredictable weather patterns.
Creative, applicable solutions are required to ensure there’s enough food to supply bigger, more crowded cities in an increasingly inhospitable climate. The rapid growth of the cannabis industry and it’s focus on indoor growing techniques has encouraged and accelerated technologies that have functional overlap between both cannabis and food production. Indoor agriculture is certainly a realistic option, especially with environmentally conscious technologies and approaches, including:
- LEDs. Simply the choice for eco-conscious growers, LEDs use less electricity and last much longer than HPS or fluorescent options, while providing the intensity and photosynthetically active light needed for all types of crops. They’re the closest replicate to the sun for indoor lighting.
- Vertical racking. Because LEDs run at a much lower operating temperature, they’re able to be vertically racked to create dense and compact vertical gardens. This is ideal for crowded cities without a lot of square footage to spare, and for growing smaller greens such as lettuce, arugula and sprouts.
Innovating to Feed the Future
Indoor agriculture not only holds promise to feed the megacities of the future, but it can have an impact on access to fruits and vegetable today, therefore helping to reduce prevalent food deserts. Furthermore, the cannabis industry’s continued growth will likely benefit the development of technologies that will have ancillary food production value, particularly as it applies to the mitigation of food deserts.
Already, indoor farms are bringing fresh produce to inner city school cafeterias in New York, replacing junk food with tasty greens in San Francisco and producing vegetables and herbs with a low environmental impact in Virginia. With a continued focus on sustainability and accessibility, indoor gardens are facing the hunger issues of today and tomorrow.