Food for Thought

How Controlled Environment Agriculture Can Help Solve the World’s Food Waste Challenge

It may be hard to face the facts, but the world is experiencing an imminent agricultural crisis. With the onset of COVID-19 and the rationing of fresh eggs, milk and produce at your local markets, it has become increasingly apparent that we must make major shifts in how we grow our food if we want to be able to sufficiently feed the planet. The world will need 70% more food to feed our growing population by 2050, yet there will not be enough arable land and water to sustain traditional agriculture to meet these needs. 30% of arable land in the U.S. has been lost in the last 40 years. In addition, 60% of all available crop land today has been severely depleted from irrigation use.  More alarming, 25% of all people across the globe lack adequate nutrition, with nearly nine million deaths per year from hunger. 

Exacerbating the challenges of limited water and land resources is the growing amount of food waste. 130 billion tons of food (over $160 billion) is wasted annually, which represents one-third of our global food production. Nearly half of that food waste is fresh fruits and vegetables. How many households buy fresh cucumbers and apples only to let them rot in the fridge? How many grocery stores overstock their shelves with bagged lettuce to maintain an image of abundance, only to toss expired bags not purchased in time? How many farmers are unable to sell their produce because it looks imperfect or was not harvested properly?

Food waste is not a new challenge. In fact, it’s an age old crisis that the world continues to try to solve. Following nearly three years of intense fighting in World War I (WWI), on August 10, 1917, the United States established the U.S. Food Administration to manage wartime food supply and distribution and reduce food waste. Popular slogans at the time such as “Food will win the war” encouraged people not to waste their groceries and to eat fresh fruits and vegetables. The U.S. Food Administration encouraged: “Food: buy it with thought, cook it with care…serve just enough, use what is left, don’t waste it.” 

Food waste does not just result from fresh produce not being eaten. It also results from exposure to bacteria, animal feces and even human touch in the growing and packaging processes that cause our produce to spoil. Unlike traditional outdoor farming, controlled environment agriculture (CEA) significantly reduces exposure to bacteria, weather, animals, and other forces that can cause damage to crops. As a result, one of the largest sustainability-related impacts of CEA is that it offers a drastic reduction in food waste. During WWI, indoor victory gardens popped up across the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and Germany as governments recognized the ability to safely and abundantly grow fresh produce indoors and reduce the pressure on the public food supply in a time of extreme rationing.

Since the early 1900s, and the Canadian Ministry of Agriculture’s campaign “A Vegetable Garden for Every Home,” indoor farming has come a very long way. From customized genetics to state-of-the art technologies that monitor everything from climate to nutrient content, there’s no question that CEA disrupts conventional outdoor agriculture. Produce is grown indoors often with zero residue of pesticides or herbicides. Given its minimal exposure to the elements, produce grown indoors can have 10 times to 1,000 times less bacteria than food grown outdoors, further reducing spoilage. Due to the hyperlocal nature of CEA farms – think less than 100 miles to the grocer compared to over 1,100 miles, on average, for conventional agriculture – produce can be delivered to stores within hours or days of harvest, expanding shelf life significantly. Outdoor grown lettuce tends to have a three to five-day shelf life, while greens grown indoors can last up to five weeks! As an added bonus, the short distance from farm to retailer means lower greenhouse gas emissions during transit. Food grown in CEA facilities might just be the answer to preserving quality, freshness and value for consumers and retailers.

As our name implies, here at Local Bounti our product is hyperlocal and our harvests are bountiful. We are connected to our community, bringing fresh, local produce to the neighborhoods we live in and grow in. Our modular indoor facility provides an ideal controlled environment for our herbs and leafy greens to thrive. We grow hydroponically, submerging our plants’ roots in a nutrient-rich water solution rather than in soil, cutting down significantly on their exposure to bacteria. In addition, since we grow indoors, we can cultivate our produce 24/7, 365 days per year. 

Importantly, our growing methods are very sustainable. We use 90% less water than conventional outdoor farming with no run-off.  Our indoor facility leverages an ideal combination of natural and artificial light and is less than 100 miles from each of our retail partners, significantly reducing our carbon footprint when transporting food to retailers. In addition, given the hyperlocal nature of our facility, our produce is picked at the peak of freshness and nutrient density, landing on retail shelves within 48 hours of harvest.

Local Bounti is a win-win for both the consumer and the retailer. The consumer is able to purchase better quality food at the same price or lower than retail, while grocers reduce shrinkage, minimize their risk of recalls and have a more reliable, consistent supply chain.

Local Bounti’s process is a win-win for both the consumer and the retailer. The consumer is able to purchase better quality food at the same price or lower than retail; they can trust the safety of how their food is grown and packaged; and they are able to make fresh salads for weeks on end with just a single trip to the grocery store. Grocers reduce shrinkage as a result the longer shelf life of Local Bounti’s produce; they minimize their risk of recalls from bacteria exposure; and they have a more reliable, consistent supply chain that they can count on year round. These benefits, combined with shortened food miles, result in 10% to 30% less food waste for the grocer on average. 

At our Bitterroot facility in Hamilton, Montana, we grow living herbs, living lettuce and cut lettuce varieties. Given our highly replicable, but proprietary model, we anticipate that Local Bounti will be able to expand our product count and number of locations in the near future and bring our sustainable growing methods across the globe. Just like Bitterroot, each of our growing facilities will be designed for automation and efficiency, significantly reducing food waste, cost and miles, while increasing quality, quantity and reliability. While there is still much to accomplish before our world has enough food to feed a population of nearly 10 billion by 2050, CEA and Local Bounti will hopefully help begin to close the gap between food demand and food availability. As author Katherine Anne Porter once said, “You waste life when you waste good food.” Let’s take the next steps in reducing food waste and preserving good food. Our planet certainly needs it.