Workers using tablet on aquaponic farm, sustainable business and artificial lighting.

What if changing the way we eat could make a positive impact on our health and the planet, too? 

Our food systems are of course key to providing nutrition and food security to communities everywhere, but they also play an important role in maintaining the balance of our ecosystem. Agriculture practices have a major impact on our soil, water, and atmospheric conditions

Thankfully, with the rise in regenerative agriculture and the growing number of innovative solutions, the future of food is looking bright. On Wednesday, November 17, 2021, Planet Home Solutionists gathered in New York City and virtually to discuss the future of food, exploring the potential of solutions that can reshape our food systems to make a net positive impact on human health and the planet. The focus of the panel: vertical farming.

The Genesis of Vertical Farming

Vertical farming was first introduced by Dickson Despommier, a professor of public health and microbiology at Columbia University whose specialities include urban ecology and agriculture. Despommier, who was in attendance among our Solutionist panel last week, first introduced the concept in his classroom to a group of seven students.

The vision of vertical farming imagines the possibility of designing skyscrapers that produce fruits, vegetables, and grains while also generating clean energy and purifying water for cities. According to Despommier, roughly 150 vertical farms could feed the city of New York and its entire population of 8.4 million for a year.

Despommier began developing the vertical farming concept in the early 2000s, compiling much of his research in his book, The Vertical Farm: Feeding the World in the 21st Century. Since then, scientists and venture capitalists around the world, from Dubai to the Netherlands, have worked directly with Despommier or his ideas to bring the concept of vertical farming into reality. 

“When I first wrote the book in 2010, there were no photos of vertical farms because they didn’t exist yet. We had to make [the photos] up,” Despommier remembered. Today, there are so many vertical farms all around the world that he can’t venture to guess the number of them. “I’m humbled by the progress this idea has made over the last 10 years since the idea escaped from my classroom.”

Bringing Vertical Farms to Life with Farm.One

One company that has made vertical farming a reality is Farm.One, which leverages vertical farming to produce fresh, local, and sustainably-grown food that has better nutritional value and tastes great. What once started in 2016 as an experimental operation in downtown Manhattan that grew specialty ingredients for a few top restaurants, Farm.One has attracted the attention of hundreds of investors and created a loyal community of subscribing customers.

“We’re trying to build a better local food system with the technology of vertical farms,” said Farm.One founder and CEO Rob Laing, who not only joined last week’s panel, but also hosted fellow Solutionists onsite at one of Farm.One’s vertical farming facilities. 

Farm.One’s indoor farming operations allow for a variety of produce to be grown in a controlled environment, conserving quality and even improving flavor. Because the produce is grown locally, customers in the city are receiving a healthier option because the food doesn’t have to travel several days from a faraway location, losing nutritional value and creating more emissions along the way.

During the pandemic, Farm.One created a subscription service that allows customers to receive their greens on a weekly basis. The product is delivered to customers in reusable containers, to reduce waste and further reduce environmental impact. According to Laing, customer retention is over 60% and the lifetime value of each customer is more than enough to sustain their business model. Farm.One also partners with local businesses, either by providing ingredients or sustainable packaging solutions.

“What’s really crucial is that we love supporting the community and making a difference for the environment,” Laing says, “But it’s also important that we build a profitable business that will allow us to scale and sustain our model while paying our workers a competitive wage.”

Farm.One plans to move its operations to a larger facility and increase the number of its locations, not only in New York but in communities all around the United States and across the world. Current Farm.One employees will help upstart new locations in other cities, but the company is most excited to partner with local organizations in each community who are already doing great work in reshaping food systems for the better.

Making Vertical Farms, Food Security, and Nutrition Accessible

Working with local organizations on the ground is an important strategy, not only for Farm.One, but for any solution to ensure that it is accessible to members of the community. When it comes to food, especially in urban contexts, it’s important to consider the barriers that marginalized communities may face when it comes to accessing healthy, nutritious food that is also affordable.

In Brooklyn, NY, Solutionist LaToya Meaders is committed to increasing access to healthy food in her community, and also providing educational opportunities to reshape our mindset around food. Meaders is CEO and Founder of Collective Fare, full service catering and culinary education company. She is also the founder of Collective Foodworks, a non-profit focused on creating equitable initiatives and community-based solutions for food security, workforce development, and food sovereignty.

In conversation with our Solutionist panel, Meaders posed the question, “What if we changed the way we looked at these communities, and injected sustainable ways of farming like vertical farming, to empower people to grow their own food and create their own workforce?” 

By creating these changes, she explains, we could bring economic development into communities that need it, while also educating people about the ways our food systems affect our lives. Meaders believes this can help create a path to a better quality of life for people around the world, especially communities in urban settings where it is harder to come by locally grown, nutritious food.

“It is easier to feed people cheap, processed food than it is to grow organically,” Meaders said, “We need to change that.”

Collective Fare provide healthy meals to those who need them, and are also building a local food system that empowers the community with the tools and knowledge it needs to achieve food sovereignty. Collective Foodworks partners with local schools, working with students as young as middle school, to give them hands-on experience growing their own food through vertical farms and deepening their understanding of how food systems affect their nutrition. 

What began as an idea in Despommier’s university classroom has now become a viable business for organizations like Farm.One and a necessary tool for community-based programs like those run by Collective Foodworks. Vertical farming is one of many exciting solutions that is helping us Eat better, reshaping the future of food to be better for people and the planet.