Your taste buds don’t lie. Vegetables and fruits are becoming blander, and many varieties are now endangered thanks to the spread of industrial agriculture. However, traditionalists and futurists alike are refining alternative farming methods that offer great-tasting and sustainable solutions. Who will win out?
On a cold, rainy night in Brooklyn, a crowd gathers inside the building that houses Square Roots, a company co-founded by CEO Tobias Peggs, a tech entrepreneur, and Kimbal Musk, who sits on the boards of Tesla and SpaceX (both started by his older brother, Elon) as well as Chipotle. Located on a dreary street in Bedford-Stuyvesant, the building is, technically, a farm. Its parking lot holds ten enclosed shipping containers.
With a bit of showmanship, Peggs throws open the door to one of the containers and a violet glow envelops the crowd. Inside, tightly packed vertical rows of red leaf lettuce, basil, and mint grow hydroponically through a combination of artificial light and a nutrient-rich solution. Musk and Peggs say they can cultivate three acres of plants in one container using a technique that could be adopted by any city in the world.
At the heart of the vertical-farming trend championed by Musk and Peggs is the idea that although you can find lettuce at your grocery store in Boston in January, thanks to a system that allows farms in states like California and Arizona to ship fresh greens across the country at a reasonable cost, there are better alternatives. Growing lettuce outdoors on a large-scale farm uses a lot of water. Plus, it’s estimated that during the up-to-five-day domestic trip from these farms to the grocer, the greens lose much of their nutritional value.
About 56km north of Brooklyn, a back-to-the-future approach to farming is growing. A few days later, I join Jack Algiere, the farm director of Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture in Pocantico Hills, New York, and we walk along a hillside path with cows and lambs grazing on one side, goats frolicking on the other. Dressed in a flannel shirt and a sturdy coat, he enters a half-acre greenhouse. Lettuce leaves the size of a baby elephant’s ears luxuriates in the warm air. Purple and yellow stalks of chard erupt from the earth, which is dark brown and lush. Algiere treats this food with the same care and attention as Dan Barber, a top chef. Barber runs Blue Hill at Stone Barns, a farm-driven restaurant that consistently ranks as one of the best restaurants in the world.
You would think the viewpoints of Musk and Barber, two of the most influential voices in farming, would be closely aligned, but their debate about how to grow lettuce is getting heated and dirty.
Barber: “[Kimbal’s] really smart, but the only reason he wants everyone to eat salad in the winter is because it’s the only thing he can grow in a vertical farm. He’d be telling you he’d want everyone to eat rutabaga if he could grow rutabaga. I love the guy, but let’s be honest: You can’t grow anything.”
Musk: “I don’t think [Dan] has a fundamental disagreement with what I’m doing. He sees the momentum moving towards indoor farming, and he doesn’t like that future.”
What’s at stake is billions of dollars and the future of food on the planet. Over the past 50 years, large farms growing massive amounts of one crop (known as monoculture) have gobbled up land. While industrial farming has increased crop yields, it’s done so at the expense of consumer choice. In a span of 80 years, the variety of the world’s seeds dwindled by 93 percent, according to the Rural Advancement Foundation International: In 1903, 497 types of lettuce existed, but by 1983, there were just 36. Industrial farming is so chemically reliant and ultimately bad for the soil (not to mention bad for the diets of those who live on its produce) that the United Nations’ 2013 trade and development conference urged a global return to sustainable farming practices.
Nowhere are the consequences of industrial farming more evident than at your supermarket, where identical-looking potatoes, carrots, and greens line the produce shelves. The presentation looks attractive, but that sameness is a result of destructive land-management practices—practices that lead to less nutritious produce. And then there’s foodborne illness. Remember the Great 2018 Romaine Lettuce Scare? Investigators traced that outbreak back to a large-scale farm in Santa Maria, California.
“It’s not like this is the question we should be thinking about five generations from now,” Barber says. “This stuff takes a long time, but time is running out.”
You can read up to 3 premium stories before you subscribe to Magzter GOLD
Log in, if you are already a subscriber
Get unlimited access to thousands of curated premium stories, newspapers and 5,000+ magazines
READ THE ENTIRE ISSUE
September - October 2019