The Icebergs Are Coming: What the changing fragility of lettuce means to vertical farmers

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Lettuce dies in droughts. Unless you’re a vertical farmer.

hydroponic lettuce, climate change

Last week, Governor Jerry Brown announced the end of California’s historic 5 year drought. While it was certainly good news, this announcement came shortly after crop failures had already interrupted the nation’s supply of leafy greens. Centralized (re: the opposite of local food production) production of lettuce in Arizona’s Yuma County and California’s Salinas Valley, the two places where the United States grows most of its leafy greens, left the entire country vulnerable.

The impact of the western part of the country’s weather were even felt over here in DC.

IMG_20170402_195201427

Sign at a local Cava

The Washington Post reported “In Yuma, the lettuce harvest, which usually runs from November to April, wound up early because of unusually warm weather. And in central California, which typically picks up the harvest once Yuma is done, heavy precipitation delayed some plantings.”

Each of these weather patterns, and the larger drought context they are a part of, are unusual – and this unusual weather is of course getting more and more frequent.

To be honest, a brief and hardly-noticed interruption in the availability of leafy greens is really not a big deal in the grand scheme of food security. But the implications that this is a harbinger for more climate-related instances to come is sobering. Lettuce can’t grow in a drought and it can’t grow in bad weather.

Yet, there is hope. At the risk of being too techno-utopian (a terrible trap that most people involved in vertical farming ignorantly fall into), new technology development can help us here.

Unfortunately, the historical development of technology in agriculture generally pointed in the wrong direction. It is even still egged on by profits from commodity companies rather than a real sense of ecological responsibility or desire to foster nutritious eating habits. For example, look at the disparity in research dollars (including those funded by taxpayers) aimed at commodity crops and indirectly at monoculture systems compared to agroecology which only receives between 2%-4% of agricultural research funding. (Carlisle and Miles, 2013 and DeLonge et al. 2016)

Research and technology go hand-in-hand:

“Subsidies on their own don’t explain why processed foods are cheaper than produce, calorie for calorie. Fruits and vegetables, first and foremost, are highly perishable, which makes everything about growing, harvesting, storing and shipping them infinitely more complicated and expensive. Many of these crops also take a ton of labor to maintain and harvest. Economists who’ve crunched the numbers have found that removing agricultural subsidies would have little effect on consumers’ food prices, in part because the cost of commodities like corn and soybeans represent just a tiny share of the cost of the food sold in the grocery store.

The U.S. has simply gotten much better at growing corn than lettuce. Today, we get about six times as much corn out of one acre of land as we did in the 1920s, when Bruce Church started his lettuce farm. Iceberg lettuce yields, on the other hand, have only doubled in that time. The USDA didn’t start tracking such data for most of the darker leafy greens until the 1990s.”

Essentially what this means is that people are spending more money figuring out how to grow food that doesn’t really matter…* And, as a result, are now better at it than growing nutritionally beneficial food.

Taking this into account, investing in controlled environment agriculture and vertical farming, which we’re understanding more and more is not just a technology on its own, but rather an approach to farming that seeks to maximize production in a given space by increasing the growable area of that space, kills two birds with one stone.

First, growing indoors means our food is more resilient to climate change. Our lettuce supply won’t be interrupted as unpredictable weather patterns continue. CEA lettuce can grow in a drought.

Second, this investment has the means to seriously impact how we grow food and what people eat. And there is a lot of precedent for this.

“In the great quest to get Americans eating healthier, spinach is an unusual success story. We’re consuming four times as much fresh spinach as we were four decades ago, as a vegetable once derided as choke-it-down “good for you” has become a mainstay of home cooking and upscale restaurants. But the spinach boom wasn’t driven by changing tastes, or the cartoon exhortations of Popeye. It was driven by technology.

Spinach, like many vegetables, is finicky. If you packaged it in the same airtight bags used for potato chips, the leaves would start to break down before they made it from California’s Central Valley to a supermarket in Chicago. It wasn’t until scientists came up with a special bag—one that controls how much oxygen and carbon dioxide can seep in and out—that pre-washed, ready-to-eat spinach became something that a shopper could grab in the produce section and dump straight into a salad bowl or smoothie. Spinach, and leafy greens in general, have become so convenient that Americans are actually eating more of them.”

And this article’s titular iceberg lettuce fits the pattern as well. Iceberg lettuce got its name when train cars from the Salinas Valley packed with ice to refrigerate the lettuce would arrive in places as far as Maine and kids in the new towns would shout “The icebergs are coming!” It is now extremely popular. But, as most farmers know, it’s not a great food product compared to what else we can grow. It’s ubiquity has to do with it’s ability to be shipped (in those iced train cars!) rather than its taste. In other words, technology made iceberg lettuce’s popularity possible.

Conclusion

Climate change is already impacting global food supplies. The recent lettuce shortage in the United States is just one example among many more serious global ones. Our food supply in general, and lettuce in particular for vertical farmers, is fragile in the face of climate change. This creates an opportunity for controlled environment agriculture to step in and work to reduce this fragility.

There is a precedent for technology to make us healthier eaters. Before it was shipping and storage methods, now it is CEA. This has implications beyond climate change resilience. Increasing investment into specialty crop production can potentially positively influence nutrition as well.


Read More

About vertical farming and climate change:

Vertical Farms and Changing Climates

What it means when big business listens

At this point, both of the above articles are old in the context of this site. It’s kind of cool to look back and wee where we’ve grown from.

About climate change’s impact on the recent lettuce shortages:

Washington Post

NPR

About technology and food (and the article where all the block quotes in this piece came from)

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The people that work on this website care about vertical farming and the planet, not about “content creation.” We write good articles, include useful information about the realities of vertical farming, and look at the industry from the perspective that only someone working in it for a long time can. We have even more detailed information (for instance, we sent out our initial cost/sq ft calculations for our vertical farm a few weeks ago) that goes out on our newsletter, so sign up.

Why put our financial details in a free newsletter? For a more detailed answer, check out our philosophy, but in short we want to give back and aren’t scared by competitors. Anyone actually motivated enough to do something is going to do it with or without our insight, and since we believe vertical farming is a real way to make our food system less environmentally damaging, we might as well help them (or you!) along the way.

*”Doesn’t matter” as in we mostly grow corn, soy, and cotton in the United States. We do it in a way that’s bad for the environment and we don’t even eat it. It’s used for fiber, high fructose corn syrup, ethanol, or animal feed. It’s grown in chemically intensive monocultures and is just…bad practices.

 

 

 

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