Can Kimbal Musk Do for Farms What Elon Has Done for Cars?

For more than 150 years, Pfizer manufactured pharmaceuticals in its 660,000-square-foot factory on Flushing Avenue in South Williamsburg, Brooklyn, New York. The pharma giant shut down operations in 2008, and since 2011, a host of food start-ups have taken up residence in the building’s cavernous halls. Starting next year, the bakeries and distilleries and kimchi companies will be joined by a venture called Square Roots. Founded by Kimbal Musk and Tobias Peggs, the urban farming accelerator aims to empower “1,000s of millennials to join the real food revolution,” as Musk (Elon’s brother) wrote in a Medium post announcing the venture last week.

“Our goal is to enable a whole new generation of real food entrepreneurs, ready to build thriving, responsible businesses,” Musk continued. “The opportunities in front of them will be endless.”

Square Roots’ real-food revolution will be built around container farming: shipping containers retrofitted into self-contained, highly efficient hydroponic mini farms. Beginning next fall, 10 ag-tech entrepreneurs will each develop an urban farming business in their own 350-square-foot shipping container housed in the Pfizer building. The containers will be able to produce the equivalent yield of two acres’ worth of farmland annually, with 80 percent less water than a conventional farm, according to Musk.

Brooklyn will be just the beginning: “Square Roots creates campuses of climate-controlled, indoor, hydroponic vertical farms, right in the hearts of our biggest cities,” Musk wrote on Medium. “On these campuses, we train young entrepreneurs to grow non-GMO, fresh, tasty, real food all year round, and sell locally. And we coach them to create forward-thinking companies that—like The Kitchen  [Musk’s chain of eco-friendly restaurants]—strengthen communities by bringing local, real food to everyone.”

Square Roots joins the growing ranks of high-tech indoor-farming operations that are cropping up in old industrial sectors of major cities across the country—from Newark’s AeroFarms to Chicago’s FarmedHere—that are seeking to both shorten the food-supply chain and fundamentally reimagine the American farm as a high-tech, urban, factory-like operation.

If Square Roots and its contemporaries succeed, the country will be awash in locally grown lettuce, kale, and herbs. But the question is, how much locally grown lettuce, kale, and herbs do we need beyond what is already being produced? Is growing greens and herbs in shipping containers or old factories better—in terms of resources, emissions, and the environment—than growing them on farms in the Southwest? A container-farm entrepreneur can grow lettuce with less space and water than a farmer in California and Arizona, where the bulk of American lettuce is grown. But the question of sustainability isn’t answered quite so easily—and a greens revolution in agriculture can only do so much to address the problems the industry faces.

“I don’t think these big sweeping urban agriculture ideas are going to happen anytime soon,” Raychel Santo, a program coordinator at the Johns Hopkins’ Center for a Livable Future and a coauthor of a report on the potential of urban agriculture, told TakePart in May. Instead of supplanting traditional, rural agriculture, she sees urban farming’s potential in education, conservation, and as a means of fostering a connection between city residents and the food they eat—even if only on a small scale.

Start-ups like Square Roots tout the nearby nature of container farms: Produce can be grown on the outskirts of town instead of in the Arizona desert or California’s Central Valley. That’s part of the sustainability pitch: Container farming cuts down on emissions from transportation. But the great white lie of the local food movement is that the carbon emissions from trucking foods from there to here represent a small slice of agriculture’s overall climate footprint. The Environmental Protection Agency put ag at 9 percent of the nation’s overall emissions in 2014, with livestock and farmland management two of the major contributors.

With their highly efficient use of space, container gardens can do the work of a lot of farmland in exceptionally few square feet. According to Musk’s announcement, one shipping container can produce the same amount of greens or herbs as two acres of farmland—land that, if taken out of production, could be used to capture carbon rather than emitting it.

While container farms are highly efficient when it comes to space, the same cannot be said for their energy use. A 2015 study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health sought to determine whether hydroponics were “a suitable and more sustainable alternative” to conventional lettuce farming in Yuma, Arizona, which today is better known for romaine than for train robberies. While the researchers found that hydroponics outperformed traditional field-grown lettuce production in terms of land and water use, the same could not be said for energy use. Between cooling in the summer, heating in the winter, and the energy required for 24-hour lighting, hydroponic operations have high electricity demands. As the authors of the paper concluded, “Due to the high energy demands, at this time, commercial hydroponics is not a suitable alternative to conventional lettuce production in Yuma, Arizona.”

The Johns Hopkins report on urban farming, which reviewed prior research on various types of city-based ag, found similar evidence, and the authors wrote that “producing food in urban settings may increase GHG emissions and water use if plants are grown in energy- and resource-intensive operations, such as indoor/vertical farming, greenhouses, hydroponics (soilless crop production), or aquaculture (the cultivation of aquatic animals or plants for food) facilities in cold or water-scarce regions.”

Both geography and technology could mitigate the energy problem of indoor ag, as the authors noted. Renewable energy could help to offset the energy demand for heating and cooling. Building hydroponics infrastructure in a milder climate could limit the amount of cooling and heating needed throughout the year. Even if the energy issue presents a problem with indoor farming as it exists today, the researchers pointed out that the technology “provides promising concepts that could lead to more sustainable food production.”

Technology could also help to make conventional lettuce farms more efficient from a water-use standpoint. The paper noted that hydroponics are able to use less water than field-grown lettuce not because each plant needs less water when grown indoors but because highly controlled indoor farms can outperform inefficient irrigation technology. Lettuce has shallow roots “but is primarily irrigated through flood furrow irrigation in southwestern Arizona,” the authors wrote, which is also the case in California. “Water not quickly absorbed by the roots is lost to percolation. Increases in the use of low-flow and more-targeted irrigation techniques could lower the overall water use of conventional farming.”

Would a venture capitalist plow money into improving existing ag technologies? It seems unlikely during an era when the tech industry fetishizes so-called disruptive companies. Why make a better irrigation system—or invest in one—when there are more innovative ideas like shrinking down the outmoded American farm, stuffing it in a repurposed shipping container, and dropping it in an old factory in gentrified Brooklyn? CNBC does not write about irrigation companies as a “hot new area for investors,” that’s for sure.

There’s the question of what can be grown in container farms too. AeroFarms grows greens and herbs; FarmedHere grows greens and herbs. Square Roots will grow greens and herbs. Spread, a Japanese indoor-farming company that promises to go fully robotic next year, will increase its daily yield to 50,000 heads of lettuce a day, thanks to its robot workforce.

Square Roots is working with two indoor-farming start-ups, Freight Farms and ZipGrow, for the incubator farms. Freight Farms will supply the shipping containers; ZipGrow will provide the vertical-farming towers. Freight Farms calls its farm-in-a-box containers Leafy Green Machines and recommends growing lettuces, herbs, and brassicas such as kale, chard, and arugula. ZipGrow’s “recommended go-to-market crops” are greens, herbs, and flowers.

That’s a lot of lettuce, kale, and herbs. Matt Matros, the CEO of FarmedHere, which is the largest indoor farm in the country, hopes to someday grow avocados, as he told The Guardian last year, but we aren’t there yet.

The indoor-farming start-ups all offer non-GMO crops, yes—but there are also no commercially produced genetically modified greens or herbs. Any given head of lettuce grown in California or Arizona is non-GMO.

Entrepreneurs have to start somewhere. Remember when Amazon only sold books? Even if container farms can’t move past herbs and greens, if Musk and Peggs’ incubator floods the market with kale-and-lettuce-growing start-ups, those local greens will become that much more affordable.

This article originally appeared on Takepart.



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