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!
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.