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.


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