June 12, 2020

Indoor Farming Will Drive a Post-Pandemic Food Supply Reset

Revolutionize Food Security

The coronavirus pandemic is shining a harsh and revealing spotlight on the fragility of our food supply. We can thank a globalized and fragile food supply chain for the empty grocery shelves, rising food prices, desperate farmers and ominous indications of future food disruptions. The coronavirus pandemic is a historic anomaly we have not experienced in our living history and its effect on our food supply cannot be dismissed. It has taken what had been warnings and made them reality. But, there is a silver lining in the chaos of our new food reality. Consumer and institutional interest in sustainable food production was growing by leaps and bounds before COVID-19. In the pandemic we are primed to make real, significant changes. The controlled environment agriculture industry — solutions as wide-ranging as solar-powered greenhouse growing; hydroponics and aeroponics; vertical farms grown under LED lights in warehouses; and freight containers or refrigerator-size growing units — will be an essential part of the sustainable food economy of the future.

Complicated Supply Chains and Food Waste Threaten Our Food Sovereignty

Watching the videos of farmers dumping mountains of zucchini, truckloads of milk and fruit and crops rotting in fields while desperate Americans line up for miles at food banks has been heartbreaking and unsettling. But as shocking as that is, food waste is by no means a new problem. Over ninety-five percent of our leafy greens are grown in California and Arizona. From this drought-threatened region, fragile leafy greens are shipped to multiple distribution points across the U.S., before they finally reach consumers’ fridges and then – maybe – their plate. Even once fresh food purchases make it to our homes, consumers alone experience up to 50 percent spoilage. Combine that with unexpected distribution disruptions – as COVID 19 has so recently amplified and we have experienced many times before via foodborne illness outbreaks or climate-change-related weather events – what you get is a highly inefficient process, wasting food that consumers desperately need, and highly vulnerable to food security disruptions that have a nationwide impact.

Reducing transportation miles eliminates a lot of production problems. The more areas growing more food closer to the end consumer results in a more resilient system. It also means a wider selection of fragile fresh greens become viable commercial crops because they can be harvested and consumed quickly. Many biodiverse crop varieties with unique flavours, textures, and nutritional profiles don’t hold up to the long transport miles and processing techniques of industrial agriculture, but with local production these varieties can become available to consumers again.

Efficient Indoor farming requires a controlled environment. That means we can control insects, diseases and pathogens in a way that simply isn’t possible in large-scale outdoor production methods. This gives us more variability in varieties we can grow — including non-GMO and heirloom cultivars grown without human and earth-damaging pesticides — to produce the freshest and more nutritional food we can. And it puts us incredibly close to the consumer.

In the case of Babylon Micro-Farms, our ‘food miles” are literally as far as it takes to harvest it from one of our on-site micro-farms, plate it up and sit down to eat. The fewer food miles we have to worry about, the more flexibility we have in what can be grown and eaten locally. And the more we can spend our resources working to grow healthy, locally abundant food rather than transportation costs growing crops that were bred to be shipped, not necessarily eaten.

The 21st Century Needs a “Digital Victory Garden” Renaissance

When things really go south, basic needs remain. Food is a big one. That’s why — after the toilet paper panic resided — so many rushed to buy seeds, plant a garden and grow their own food. It is reminiscent of the “Victory Gardens,” the backyard home kitchen gardens, of our last food crises — WWI, the Depression, and WWII — when Americans produced as much as 40 percent of our fresh fruits and vegetables from their own gardens. But today’s world is vastly different from the Victory Garden era of our grandparents. Fifty-five percent of the world’s population currently live in an urban area. That figure is expected to grow to nearly two-thirds over the next thirty years. People in the 21st century don’t have access to a plot of land like their grandparents had. Nor do they have the knowledge or the time to grow food in the traditional ways.

Food is consumed in different ways as well. Once the ‘shelter-in-place’ orders are lifted, we can assume that eating outside of one’s home — in lunch-room business cafeterias, on-the-go, in restaurants and even when at home, via prepared meals or food kits — will resume, as will financial pressures. Very few families will be able to afford to have a ‘homemaker’ sitting at home making the daily bread from scratch and canning the bumper crop of green beans. Yet, we still need a way to have more control over our own food. And we need to shorten our supply chains to build up resilient, localized foodsheds for our urban populations. But we won’t be able to do it the same way our grandparents did. Luckily, we do have advantages they didn’t — technology, data collection, and analysis. That’s where indoor, controlled environment vertical farms come into play. We are the “Digital Victory Gardens” of the future.

It Will Take Baby Steps, and Many Innovative Solutions, to Reframe our Food Supply

Just a few years ago indoor hydroponic or aeroponic farming under LED lights was perceived as an impractical solution for food production, cost-prohibitive and unable to produce significant yields. That didn’t stop those of us who saw the potential to develop technology to improve efficiency, increase yields, and ultimately transform this fringe method of crop cultivation into a mainstream industry that future generations can rely on for their fresh produce.

As our technology and expertise evolves, the cost of production is falling and the knowledge and ability to grow more crops more efficiently in indoor environments is increasing. We are also finding different ways to serve different market sectors with a year-round supply of fresh produce, all via indoor farming solutions. The AeroFarms, Plenty, and Bowerys of the world, with their impressively large warehouses stacked sky-high with leafy greens, are serving the wholesale grocery market needs of their local foodsheds. Whereas here at Babylon Micro-Farms we focus on hyper-local vertical ‘micro-farms.’ We are the vertical farm equivalent of locally controlled, small-scale food production. Only we do it via a remotely managed, data-driven, resource-efficient core technology platform.

Babylon was founded on the principles of developing integrated technology to address the missing link that makes vertical farming inaccessible to most communities and organizations. Our belief is that there is a significant untapped opportunity in creating smaller-scale modular indoor farming solutions that can “plug in” to existing food supply chains. However, in order for these solutions to work, they needed to be powered by a comprehensive operating system that enables all of the technical and operational expertise to be outsourced and controlled remotely through the cloud with a meal-prep style subscription of growing supplies delivered as needed to each farm installation. Our modular controlled environment farms can be placed in almost any business lunchroom, healthcare or educational cafeteria or group-living situation like retirement communities. The service is designed to allow anyone to successfully ‘grow their own food’ indoors by supporting them with on-demand delivery of supplies, a Guided Growing app and a remote-managed system. The operating system we have developed is designed to support a range of modular systems and the data we collect allows us to continually refine the user experience, improve yields, and make this kind of crop cultivation accessible to those who need it most.

The point is vertical indoor controlled environment farming is not a one size fits all solution. That’s the beauty of it. There are countless ways this new technology can (and will be) adapted to fit the many needs of our world’s food system. But it’s not just indoor farming innovations that will revolutionize our food system. We are part of a bigger ecosystem that includes innovations like plant-based protein, advances in solar and wind power, robotics, AI technology and carbon-based, and regenerative farming techniques. Together, we are already disrupting the food system as we currently know it. After the COVID 19 coronavirus pandemic recedes, we will completely reshape it.

Don’t Dismiss the Power of Being Involved in Food Production

At Babylon Micro-Farms our ‘micro-farm’ indoor growing technology puts units right in front of the consumers that have the novel experience of watching and monitoring the food they will eat being grown in real-time. This has given us a unique perspective on the psychological power of keeping people involved in the process of growing their own food, like those old Victory Gardens of old. But in new, novel ways. Our technology takes what had seemed strange and novel and makes it accessible to people without the need for horticulture experience. Our customers have responded with immense excitement, pride and, most notably, strong interest in more sustainable solutions.

This feedback has made it obvious to us just how important it is that we include consumers in the food-growing technology of the future. Removing the people from the process of growing the food they consume was a massive mistake that our current food system made and has paid for. The ‘digital’ food solutions of the future must involve consumers, businesses and institutions as much as possible in the process of growing their own food. Babylon Micro-Farms technology is uniquely positioned to do just this. But other solutions can find similar opportunities.

It is crucial that we begin giving businesses and their consumers more control over, and more experiences with, how their food is grown. This exposure will lead to people embracing even more sustainable food innovations. We must not leave the end consumer out of the equation.

If we look back in human history there are obvious inflection points. Culturally, economically and psychologically, humans reached a point where they were primed to make giant leaps forward as a society. Among these major shifts are the transition from fragmented hunter-gatherer paradigms to agriculture-based societies, the industrial revolution and the creation of a factory-based economy, and the technological revolution with its modus operandi of data-based solutions.

We are at the precipice of a food renaissance that will completely change how we produce food over the next few decades. Here at Babylon Micro-Farms, we strive to be a leader in this imminent revolution.