Why Vertical Farms Are Able to Avoid the Current Romaine Debacle

Are we witnessing the fall of the Romaine Empire?

Probably not, but most Americans are heeding CDC warnings and staying away from romaine lettuce. Lettuce growers are taking a hit all across North America because some industrial-scale Ag growers screwed up again. The unfortunate part of this debacle is that not all lettuce is affected by the CDC recall, but how is the public to know?

I previously wrote that this latest outbreak argues a case for vertical farms. It’s true, hydroponic growing technology eliminates many of the potential health hazards that we face when we eat industrial lettuce. Plus, hydroponic vertical farms and controlled environment agriculture offer a wealth of health benefits.

In 2011 the Food Safety Modernization Act was signed into law. It directed the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to establish systems and protocols to prevent contamination from occurring in the food supply. It came into law none too soon, there were 10 outbreaks of illness from leafy greens that year alone.

FSMA guidelines cover produce growing and handling activities for raw agricultural commodities (RAC); i.e. raw produce. The guidelines cover 6 areas:

  1. biological soil amendments,
  2. agricultural water for pre- and postharvest uses,
  3. contact with domesticated and wild animals,
  4. worker health, hygiene and training,
  5. Sanitation of equipment, tools, and buildings,
  6. Record keeping

Hydroponic and aeroponic vertical farming operations address many aspects of food safety by design. Biological soil amendments (the polite term for manure) is virtually eliminated from plant production. Most vertical farms use no pesticides, herbicides, or fungicides either.

Let’s hear it for clean food!

Essential nutrients are delivered by continuously circulating water within the system. Water used for growing is filtered for biological and chemical contaminants in most systems, which is easily accomplished because vertical farming uses 70%-90% less water than field-grown crops, and post-harvest handling tends to use potable water from municipal systems.

Contamination from animals is kept to a minimum. Most vertical farms practice integrated pest management to prevent infestation, and access to vertical farming operations is usually well-controlled. Most vertical farms have robust Standards Operating Practices (SOPs) that regulate worker hygiene and safety. Staff are continually trained on best practices and safety protocols. Worker training is an essential part of a successful farm plan and required for third-party certification. Oh, and most vertical-farm operations are third-party certified!

The beauty of third-party certifications such as USDA’s GAP (Good Agricultural Practices) and GHP (Good Handling Practices) audit programs is that they require the type of best practices that prevent food related illness such as the recent e. coli outbreak from romaine lettuce.

The best way to protect your family’s health is to know where your food comes from, who grows it, and who handles it. Non-industrial farms are good, local farms are better. Fresh, local, produce is the best. Our industrial food system struggles to deliver safe, nutritious food consistently. Cheap food comes at a price. Local vertical farms can change that. Eat healthy, Be Safe!

Frank Sherman is a Managing Director of First Light Project, and Director of First Light’s vertical farm initiative. Frank resides in Philadelphia with his husband Chris and an unruly dog named Jake.


A Case for Vertical Farms

photo courtesy of AVF

Two days before the biggest food holiday of the year the CDC warned North Americans not to eat romaine lettuce. So what did I do yesterday? I threw away three heads of lettuce and headed out into grocery store madness to find a suitable salad substitute.

Think of all the Foxy, Dole, and Andy Boy hearts of romaine that went into the trash. Think of all the Fresh Express and Earthbound Farms bags of mixed lettuce that got chucked. I went to the grocery store and employees were frantically pulling any product with compromised content from the shelves. This is happening all too often. There have been 40 outbreaks of food related illnesses traced to leafy greens in the past 10 years, this is the third time in the past 12 months, and 2011 was a particularly notable year with 10 outbreaks.

This type of disruption to the food system need not happen. We have the means to grow clean food. Controlled environment agriculture grows clean food by design. I realize that no food is 100% safe, but when produce enters the industrial food chain it is touched by many hands and that provides entry points for contamination. (If you are cooking while reading this wash your hands!). The trouble starts even before produce becomes product. A major source of e-coli contamination comes from organic fertilizers, the polite term for manure. “Triple washing” does not effectively remove e-coli bacteria, it’s more of a marketing phrase to convince us that we are not paying for grit in our lettuce mix, but I digress.

What if there was a way to eliminate the threat of e-coli contamination during the growing process?

There is! Using hydroponic and aeroponic technology in controlled environments eliminates the need to fortify the soil with contamination prone organic fertilizers, Indeed, this technology eliminates the need for soil altogether. This is the preferred technology for controlled environment agriculture. This is the case for vertical farms.

We all expect a safe food supply. We want food we can trust, grown locally, that is fresh and affordable. This is the case for vertical farms. It is exciting to see vertical farms being created in communities across the country and around the world. It is exciting to see technology that advances how and where we grow food. It is exciting to see a new generation interested in urban farming in its myriad of forms. It is exciting to see people finding solutions that address food safety and food insecurity. This is the case for vertical farms.

We put a lot of blind trust in how our food is grown and handled. But every once and awhile we are reminded that having a closer connection to where food our loved ones eat comes from is a good thing. Make a connection with your local farmer. With any luck she is a vertical farmer!

photo courtesy of PLENTY


Frank Sherman is a Managing Director of First Light Project, and Director of First Light’s vertical farm initiative. Frank resides in Philadelphia with his husband Chris and an unruly dog named Jake.


Why Food?

I was asked the other day why First Light Project is building a farm in West Philadelphia. I said; “it is because it serves our mission”. They replied; “Yes, but why food?”

When we look at the greater Philadelphia community, we see deep pockets of poverty and inequity. There are families that lack adequate shelter, food, employment, education and healthcare. We are driven now to find sustainable solutions for those who live in our own communities, just as we are driven to help those in need around the world.

photo courtesy of Food Revolution Network

First Light Project was conceived with a mission to improve community well-being. We use accessible technology to provide sustainable solutions that improve the lives of people in under-served areas of the world. Since 2014 FLP has supplied LED lighting technology to projects on three continents as well as to local organizations. LED Lighting is now widely available and affordable, but need still exits at home and abroad.

Why food? Because accessible technology exists today that can grow and provide healthy fresh produce in urban neighborhoods. There is science which tells us that people who do not get adequate nutrition become trapped in a cycle of generational poverty. We know there are sustainable solutions that can feed communities, create opportunity, and that can fundamentally improve people’s lives.

Why food? Because food brings people together. Food is where many conversations start and where much joy is created. Food is fundamental to our lives and well-being. Food brings people to the table.

First Light Project started with a vision of how lighting technology could address energy insecurity. We have expanded our mission to encompass projects that also tackle food and water insecurity. We are building farms to grow stronger more sustainable communities.

Why Food? Because it is essential for life and key to achieving a better life for our children and their children.

Why Food? Because growing food creates jobs, improves health, and plants the seeds from which stronger communities grow.

Why Now? Because the need exists in our own backyard, as it surely does in yours. What we can achieve can be replicated in other places. We aim to empower people to grow food and build a better life for their families. We hope you will support our work and mission to grow stronger more sustainable communities.


The Many Faces of Climate Change

Image courtesy of AP

Climate Change is happening today. We are past the theoretical and philosophical discussions of what a changing global climate means to our planet. Here is some food for thought: we know that historically wars have been fought, and great migrations of people have taken place, due to lack of water and food. When populations are denied, by man or nature, the most basic needs of food, water, shelter and human rights, civil unrest ensues. History gives us a lens to see the dramatic impact of such cataclysmic events. Events that unfold in the present are more insidious.

 We are past the theoretical and philosophical discussions of what a changing global climate means to our planet.

Climate change is affecting all aspects of our lives. It has very real economic, social and environmental impacts. It has very real impact on the food we eat which supplies the nutrition we need to survive. We see its impact  on our food supply in the form of rising temperatures, severe droughts, intensive storms, and flooding from rain events. We compound these disasters by continuing to use farming practices that degrade the soil, poison the environment and pollute the air. Climate change only hastens the demise of a broken food system. But amidst all the doom and gloom are new ideas driven by technological innovation that along with the recognition that older more sustainable approaches can help create more resilient food systems.

How we feed the planet is a global challenge that requires local and regionally appropriate solutions. Climate change is hastening the need to put these local solutions in place. Food insecurity is real and can be addressed by creating local food systems. Food sovereignty is a human right not just a social justice issue. Even the most sought-after consumer demographic wants knowledge of and control over where their food comes from and how it is grown. In the face of the very real threats of climate change we have the ability and the right to take back control of our food supply and ensure access to healthy, accessible and affordable food.

Food insecurity is a daily reality for many people in this country as well as across the globe. Climate change threatens the tenuous web we call our national food system. Those who struggle to get the daily nutrition they need will be affected disproportionately by the impact of climate change on their lives, making them more food insecure. The gluttonous debate climate change while the food insecure scramble to get the nourishment they need. We need to give them something more tangible than food for thought.

Just because technology says we can does not mean we should.

I am not convinced that industrial scale plant factories run by robots is the right answer. The vision of such high technology operations to me is neither resilient nor sustainable. AI and automation are tools not replacements for human ingenuity. Large scale plant factories spring from the same vision that gave rise to industrial agriculture and the food industry after the second world war. The reality of climate change is forcing us to acknowledge that the global industrial food system is not resilient and we need a different approach.

What are our options? For one, redesign our food systems to scale at much smaller scale. Create more equitable distributed networks of farmers and food producers that serve urban and rural communities. Create food systems for the benefit of communities not corporations. Grow a diverse selection of food where people are; be it the city or the countryside. Create local and regional food networks that provide reciprocal nutritional and economic benefit. Focus on nourishment that encourages health rather than on satiation that encourages addiction. Change what we eat by giving people better options that they can afford. It is a tall task in the context of a dramatically changing climate, but dramatic change is what is needed. And what is needed is change that happens one small step at a time.

First Light Project, a Philadelphia area non-profit that aims to be more than thought leaders in the sphere of food insecurity and climate change. We are planning on opening our first neighborhood-based vertical farm in the Spring of 2019 with the expressed mission to grow food and create jobs for residents living in Philadelphia’s struggling neighborhoods. Victory V Farms is a piece of the puzzle, not the whole solution for building strong resilient communities; communities capable of sustaining healthy food systems, creating wealth for residents, and improving the health of people and the environment alike. We are one of many partners, collaborators, and supporters working to make Philadelphia a vibrant, sustainable, healthy and welcoming community for all.

Victory V Farms will be a vertical farm housed in an underutilized factory building in the middle of an urban neighborhood. We will use controlled environment agricultural technology as tools for humans to grow leafy greens. We will teach local residents how to grow, provide them with jobs at a living wage, and in the process engage them in conversations about the joy of food and the benefits of good nutrition. We aim to demonstrate that there are other models for creating healthy food systems, models that are good for communities, that are accessible, equitable, and ultimately more resilient. We aim to help communities change, before change is forced upon them, one neighborhood at a time.

Frank Sherman is a Managing Director of First Light Project, and Director of First Light’s vertical farm initiative. Frank resides in Philadelphia with his husband Chris and an unruly dog named Jake.