NEWARK, New Jersey -- David Rosenberg is trying to build an agricultural empire out of an old paintball arena in a blighted urban neighborhood about 45 minutes outside Manhattan.
Needless to say, Rosenberg, the chief executive of Aerofarms, an indoor farming startup growing organic leafy greens without sunlight or soil, has his work cut out for him.
But so far, the pieces seem to be falling into place.
Though limited, the current growing operation produces enough kale, watercress, arugula and other leafy greens to feed a few restaurants and ShopRite supermarkets in the area. Next month, the 12-year-old company is set to open its new 70,000-square-foot headquarters, just two blocks away. That project, which broke ground only two months ago, is transforming a former steel mill into the world's largest indoor vertical farm.
"Our mission is to build farms in cities all over the world," Rosenberg recently told The Huffington Post. "We are very much building the infrastructure not to build one, two or three farms but to build 20, 30 or 50 farms."
Indoors farming has long been touted as a way to address two major problems. The first is macro-level and lofty: How will we, the Earth's 7.4 billion (and counting) humans, go about feeding ourselves in a changing world? The second is more immediate: How do you get fresh, healthy produce to people in urban food deserts, where diet-related conditions like diabetes and obesity run rampant?
The answers to those questions could be a gold mine. By 2050, the world's population is projected to rise to between 9 billion and 10 billion people. Those numbers, coupled with income growth across the world, could result in more than a 70 percent increase in demand for food by that year, according to a report by the World Bank. Making matters worse, the unpredictable and increasingly extreme weather, droughts and flooding that come of climate change are expected to grow more intense in the coming decades, as greenhouse gas emissions continue to warm the planet.
In places where extreme weather, flooding and desertification threaten agriculture -- think sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East and Southeast Asia -- farming techniques like those used by Aerofarms could take off.
“You have to look around the world and find out whose food supply is most threatened by climate change -- it’s about who really needs it, versus who could probably survive at least another 100 years without urban agriculture dominating the landscape,” said Dickson Despommier, an emeritus professor of microbiology at Columbia University who hosts a podcast on indoor farming. “For the most part, farmers are unable to move their farms when the climate changes to the point where they can no longer grow what they were growing before.”
Rosenberg said there is a “50 percent chance” the company will announce its first overseas project by the middle of next year.
To be sure, Aerofarms is no panacea. After 12 years at it, the company seems to have created a solid model for growing nutrient-rich leafy greens in urban spaces. But it's too small-scale to grow large cash crops like soybeans, corn and wheat -- all of which are among the more environmentally taxing food sources. Plus, there are apparent obstacles to growing fruits and tubers. Consider this calculation that Stan Cox, a senior scientist at the nonprofit research group the Land Institute, offered in an essay for Alternet in February:
Based on figures in a 2013 paper published by indoor plant-growth expert Toyoki Kozai of Japan’s Chiba University and on the assumption of efficient LED lighting, I estimate that plants like potato or tomato that produce a fleshy food product require about 1,200 kilowatt-hours of electricity for each kilogram of edible tissue they produce, not counting the water stored in the food.
That requirement approximates the annual electricity consumption of the average American home refrigerator -- and that’s a big energy bill to produce just two and a quarter pounds of food dry matter. This kind of thing could not be scaled up very far.
Ultimately, the world's looming agricultural crisis is going to require a patchwork of solutions. The sheer fact that they are indoors, protected from even the most volatile environments, gives farming units like Aerofarms’ serious potential in the long term. But in the short term, can this method provide a better alternative to greens harvested in the so-called “salad bowl of America” -- that is, in Northern California, where most of the country’s arugula, kale and lettuce is grown?
Pared down to its bare essentials, Aerofarms operates on a straightforward aeroponic design, using mist and carefully regulated LED lighting to grow plants without soil or another substrate. Seeds are sown into reusable growing cloths, each made from about 24 recycled plastic bottles, that are then stretched over tray-like frames. After the seeds germinate, the contraption is inserted into one end of a two-story growing tower, where the roots are regularly misted with water infused with microbes and other nutrients the plants would normally suck from the dirt around their roots. The plants then embark on an assembly line of photosynthesis, traveling down the rows of the growing tower over the course of two weeks. When they emerge on the other end, each tray is bursting with full-size edible greens.
But Aerofarms' produce isn't like the stuff that's sold in most stores after being plucked from fields in California. (For one things, the company only grows about half a dozen different crops, at least for now.) Aerofarms' greens are grown to emphasize specific flavors and textures. The mizuna, for instance, has a mustardy kick. Aerofarms grew it that way. The baby kale is almost nutty. There was no bitter chemical residue to clean off before eating.
“We grow without pesticides, herbicides, fungicides or GMOs -- we just give the plant what it wants at the root structure,” Rosenberg said. “They don’t need nutrients at the leaves, so there’s nothing to wash off.”
With its aeroponic technology, Aerofarms is betting that perfecting the leafy green is simply a matter of nurture over nature. There’s no need to tweak the DNA or add artificial chemicals, the company says, when you can create the ideal environment to promote certain traits in the plant.
In a conference room at the paintball-arena-turned-growing-facility -- where Aerofarms grows the crops sold in Newark in three towers stacked two stories high with plants -- co-founder Marc Oshima pinched a few sprigs of watercress and popped them into his mouth like an hors d'oeuvre.
“At home, we eat this instead of popcorn,” the chief marketing officer said, going back for seconds.
One of the main criticisms of indoor farming is that without soil or sun, flavor suffers. Aerofarms' fixation on taste may prove a competitive advantage as a bevy of competitors crop up around the country.
“It’s a shame that today we take the most highly nutritious category -- leafy greens -- and we supplement it with a lot of really fatty foods like salad dressing,” Rosenberg said. “Part of what we want to bring to society, and bring awareness of, is these greens in and of themselves. They’re not just nutritious. They’re all harbingers of taste.”
Anyone who's heard a seller at a farmers market or country fair talk about their crops should recognize the affection with which Rosenberg and Oshima tout theirs. But they’re just as much tech executives as they are farmers. Rosenberg started Aerofarms in 2004 after spending years working to reduce water waste with the architect and environmentalist William McDonough, a gig that made Rosenberg a regular in posh do-gooder circles like those at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.
Aerofarms purports to use 95 percent less water than traditional farms, and says it gets 75 times more crops per square foot of growing space than traditional field systems. To achieve that, the company has had to think of itself as a technology company as much as a farming firm.
“We’re spending big money on IT and our IT systems,” Rosenberg said. “We’re really calling it the heartbeat of the organization, in how it really touches on everything and pulls all the different pieces of the company together.”
Each of the three towers in the Newark facility is equipped with a circuit board, where sensors collect data and beam it back to the company’s servers.
“We had several 'aha moments' when we became Aerofarms -- one of them was that, to be great on technology, we needed to be great on data,” Rosenberg said. “For a while, the company was selling farm equipment. But to be great on tech, you need good data. To get uncorrupted data, we needed to be the farmer. To be great at farming, we needed to be a leader in the technology space, because the industry is so new.”
CORRECTION: This article originally misstated that Aerofarms yields 75 percent more than crops per square foot compared to field farming. It is 75 times more.