In the deserts of Port Augusta, Australia, Sundrop Farms operates a 49 acre indoor farm that produces 17,000 tons of fruits and vegetables. 180,000 non-GMO tomato plants, grown without soil, herbicides or pesticides supply 13% of all the tomatoes consumed in Australia. Using a state-of-the-art solar tower and 23,000 mirrors, the facility produces the power to heat and cool the greenhouses, and to desalinate seawater pumped from 1.2 miles away to water all the crops. And, this year, Sundrop Farms has broken ground for two new farms, one in Portugal, and another in Tennessee.
Around the world, more and more high tech indoor farming operations are being built. But why? Why not just continue to farm as humans always have?
Because of human activities, the conditions that make growing food in open fields possible, are changing. Trade agreements “open markets” to countries in the interest of economics. Poor farming practices have contaminated soils. Industrial activities have polluted water sources. And Climate Change is causing growing conditions to become much more difficult.
Every year, more of the foods the average American consumes are imported from countries like China, Chile and Mexico, where the costs of production are lower due to a lack of effective regulations, and where people will work for a lower wage.
By 2010, China’s food exports to the U.S. had tripled over the past decade to nearly 4 billion pounds of food, worth nearly $5 billion. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration prevented over 9,000 unsafe products from entering the country between 2006 and 2010, but with a less than 2 percent inspection rate on imported food, countless other unsafe products no doubt entered the U.S. food system.
Whether it’s frozen or canned produce, seafood, candy, vitamins, or any type of processed food, these products or their ingredients increasingly come from China, where food manufacturers are legendary for cutting corners, substituting dangerous ingredients, and compromising safety in order to boost sales. Officials there have publically acknowledged their inability to regulate the country’s sprawling food production sector and China’s highest court even recommended stiffer penalties—including death—for those found violating food safety regulations.
Two-thirds of apple juice that Americans consume—more than 400 million gallons annually—come from China. By 2007, 90 percent of America’s vitamin C supplements came from China. One in 11 canned peaches consumed in the U.S. comes from China. 20 percent of frozen spinach and half the cod consumed in the U.S. come from China. In 2009, more than three-quarters of the tilapia (a freshwater fish) Americans consumed (287.5 million pounds) came from China.
According to a recent NY Times article, more than 80 percent of the water from underground wells used by farms, factories and households across the heavily populated plains of China is unfit for drinking or bathing because of contamination from industry and farming, according to new statistics that were reported by Chinese media.
But, it is not only imported food that raises safety and security concerns. At least five oil fields in California provide recycled water to irrigate crops including almonds, grapes, pistachios and citrus, as ongoing drought conditions in this important food growing state make clean water scarce.
And, maybe surprising to many, is the role conventional farming plays in air pollution. According to a study published in 2015, researchers found that in the U.S. Northeast, all of Europe, Russia, Japan and South Korea, agriculture is the No. 1 cause of the soot and smog deaths, and worldwide, agriculture is the No. 2 cause with 664,100 deaths.
Increasingly, “food security” is a concern voiced by the public and politicians alike. This can be in response to being vulnerable to food shortages or absence of supply in the event of earthquakes, storms and other disasters.
With bridges collapsed, and roads closed, how will foods normally trucked in from California reach store shelves in Clallam County? As seen during last years’ drought, farmers in Clallam County had their irrigation waters cut off, leaving crops to die. This year, the Pacific Salmon Fisheries Commission closed commercial salmon fishing as a result of massive declines. Ocean acidification has already impacted local oyster growers, who now have to raise larval oysters in Hawaii, and then grow them out here.
Indoor farms don’t have any of these problems. Because all growing conditions are controlled, every day provides a perfect growing environment.
Crops are not lost to sudden hail storms, or poisoned with pesticides to kill off bugs. Fruits received the perfect amount of water, unlike the cherry crop earlier this year, which was to be record setting because of the unusually dry spring, but was lost because of the unusually wet and cold start of summer.
Indoor lighting and temperature controls mean all year round food production. Because there is no soil, there are no weeds, and no need for herbicides. No need for high fences to keep out deer, which create barriers for area wildlife. No need for bird netting to protect berries, which ensnare and kill wildlife, or chemicals to kill slugs and snails that pollute the land. No need for poisonous bait to kill rodents in fields, which also kill owls, and other raptors. No need for field fumigation with highly toxic chemicals such as methyl bromide. No need for tractors, and other expensive tillage equipment.
And water? Indoor farms recirculate and reuse their water, and average 95% less water to grow the same crops, as compared to open field farming. In California, 80% of developed water is used by agriculture, where flooding entire fields as a means of watering, is still in practice. This, while Sundrop Farms in the deserts of Australia uses desalinated seawater in closed loop recirculating systems.
We may hold nostalgic images of what farming is, but today’s difficult conditions and demands for clean, safe and responsibly produced food are creating needs for new systems that address these new challenging times. Indoor farming is doing just that.