While New York City as a whole by no means is a food desert, wherein access to fresh produce by its residents is severely constrained, such access nonetheless appears to require significant enhancement.
The 2019 American Fitness Index for America’s 100 largest cities, for instance, shows that only 17% of New York City’s residents get their recommended daily portion of vegetables, compared with the top-ranked city in the category, Washington, D.C., wherein 30% of its residents do.
Intriguingly, the same survey shows that New York City only has 18 farmers’ markets per one million residents compared with Washington’s 82.
It does not help that the state of New York’s production of vegetables, representing a measly 7% of its total agricultural output, does not come close to meeting the city’s demand.
Not surprisingly, a significant portion of New York City’s fresh vegetables are sourced from California and Arizona, a distance of at least 2,500 miles. This leads to considerably diminished food freshness, food waste through spoilage, significant long-distance transport energy expenditure and substantial greenhouse gas emissions, among others problems.
In the last few years a novel form of urban farming — vertical farming — has been slowly but surely emerging in the greater New York area, holding promise as a potent antidote to the city’s notably burgeoning food miles by growing and offering fresh produce locally.
Vertical farms are indoor crop production systems — using a warehouse, greenhouse or a modular structure like a shipping container — wherein crops are grown without soil and using liquid nutrient solution that is either flowing (hydroponic) or sprayed (aeroponic). Crop lighting in vertical farms is typically provided using red and blue LEDs, and ambient air temperatue and relative humidity are also regulated. The concentration of carbon dioxide in its air is also typically enriched to hasten the crop’s photosynthetic growth.
Consequently, the growth, yield and quality of crops in vertical farms are consistently much higher than in open-field cultivation, and the reliability of harvest throughout the year independent of the season and external climate conditions is virtually guaranteed.
And in addition to consuming less than 20% freshwater compared with open-field production, produce from vertical farms are patently fresh, pesticide-free and hyper local — with all of the latter’s attendant benefits including local jobs creation.
The greater New York area is now home to a number of highly innovative and enterprising vertical farms, including Square Roots, Gotham Greens, Farm.One, Aerofarms and Bowery Farming, among others, most of which regularly deliver their produce to the city’s local grocers and even to Whole Foods Market and to numerous high-end restaurants.
To help ensure both the economic and environmental sustainability of New York City’s growing vertical farms, however, the city needs to see and recognize them also as crucial nodes in the design of the city’s emerging circular economy. We need many more vertical farms.
In a circular economy, the methods of production and consumption are looped into a continuous cycle of resource recycle and reuse, thus minimizing or eliminating waste, with a view to achieving optimized resource utilization and value preservation.
Vertical farms serve as crucial nodes in a circular economy because they consume energy and require material inputs in the form of water, nutrients and carbon dioxide, among others — which may be derived or up-cycled from the effluent streams of other existing nodes in the economy.
For instance, while Gotham Greens is already harnessing solar photovoltaic electricity to power their indoor farming operations, the use of renewable natural gas produced from digested organic wastes is also an already available option for others — and for which vertical farms can possibly deliver their own organics in the form of inedible plant biomass waste.
The needed freshwater, nutrients and carbon dioxide for vertical farms may similarly be bio-cycled from other existing nodes in the economy.
In New York City and other big cities around the world, the future of food is decidely vertical and circular. Let’s seize it.
Cuello is vice chair of the Association for Vertical Farming and professor of biosystems engineering at The University of Arizona.