Changing Behavior, One Crop at a Time: AeroFarms' Vision for a Healthier Future
As part of our work on FoodMap NY, the Invest NYC SDG team is interviewing stakeholders from a range of sectors across New York State whose work may address food insecurity. These conversations will inform different strategies to address issues of food insecurity, with the eventual goal of developing 4–6 pilot projects ready for investment. Highlights from selected interviews will be published here.
Technology will play an increasing role in our future, both good and bad, as we see with the recent attention and controversy regarding AI and ChatGPT. Primed to influence many industries, less attention has been paid to technology’s transformative potential in agriculture. High-tech indoor farms have begun to change the farming landscape, yielding a greater amount of produce per square foot than conventional field practices. Controlled environment agriculture (CEA), or indoor farming, aims to improve fresh food quality while contributing to environmental sustainability by using less land and water and no pesticides to grow many crops. The FoodMap NY team is exploring opportunities to address food insecurity through cross-sector collaborations and determine if CEA can play a role and, if so, under what conditions. As part of our research, we recently spoke with the CEO of one of the most prominent players in this field: David Rosenberg from AeroFarms.
Founded in 2004 by Rosenberg, Marc Oshima, and Ed Harwood, AeroFarms is a sustainable indoor agriculture company based in Newark, New Jersey, that uses proprietary aeroponics to improve the growth and distribution of fresh produce. AeroFarms reports that it uses up to 95% less water and zero pesticides while achieving up to 390 times the yield per square foot. As a result, AeroFarms’ environmental approach to agriculture has led it to become the first indoor vertical farm to become a Certified B Corporation as of February 2017.
At the moment, AeroFarms operates three different types of farms – commercial, research and development, and community. The company has two large-scale commercial indoor vertical farms: one in Newark, New Jersey, and, most recently, one in Danville, Virginia. The company also operates a Research and Development (R+D) farm in Newark as a leading center to advance its technologies, with another one which recently opened in Abu Dhabi, UAE. Its third type of farm, community farms, are deployed in partnership with cities such as Jersey City and with schools in order to bring custom indoor vertical farms into community settings. Together, these farms support AeroFarms’ goals of advancing plant biology, serving local communities, and growing sustainably.
Fighting food insecurity is not part of AeroFarms’ explicit mission, as CEO David Rosenberg does not feel that CEA companies can single-handedly solve the problem of food insecurity. After all, companies like AeroFarms primarily add fresh food to the market, which does not tackle the economic root of the problem. The foods they grow (largely greens) are certainly healthier than many options, but they come at a price premium in several higher-end grocery stores like Whole Foods that put them out of reach of lower-income communities. However, their community farm partnerships are working to alleviate food access issues, and they have also started to build a larger presence in stores such as Walmart.
Rather than eliminating world hunger, Rosenberg hopes that AeroFarms can “change behavior” surrounding food habits. He sees success as getting more people excited about eating healthy food by growing fresh, high-quality produce close to their consumer base. While not necessarily “food deserts,” many areas face a lack of access to healthy local options, which AeroFarms can help address. AeroFarms hopes that the quality of its products, such as microgreens and baby greens, will push consumer preferences toward a healthier diet. To accomplish this, the company would welcome more government support for incentivizing corner stores to carry nutritious options.
In addition, AeroFarms was recently elected by the St. Louis Controlled Environment Agriculture Coalition (STLCEA) to collaborate with the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) to build a commercial indoor vertical farm in the St. Louis region. WWF aims to explore CEA not only as a response to the climate impact of traditional agriculture and supply chain disruption but also to provide greater access to healthy food for lower-income communities – much as we seek to do through FoodMap NY. As such, we are excited to see how this project develops and what lessons it could provide as we explore the potential for an urban farm in upstate New York.
AeroFarms’ high-tech indoor farming techniques hold great promise for addressing this complex issue. By collaborating with government initiatives such as SNAP, engaging in cross-sector partnerships, and focusing on changing behavior around food habits, CEA companies promote fresh food access, advancing plant biology, and growing food sustainably. As AeroFarms has demonstrated, high-tech indoor farming can serve as a model for improving food access while working towards environmental sustainability, and further exploration of this space could hold promising solutions for the global issue of food insecurity.
Alan Fang is a sophomore at NYU Stern pursuing a B.S. in Business with co-concentrations in finance and sustainable business and a second major in history.