Right around noon, I step outside the office and make my way through the busy rush-hour foot traffic to Whole Foods, where I brush arms with everyone else in Foggy Bottom who found themselves hungry at lunch time. I make my way over to salad bar, having learned to be the right amount of aggressive in order to navigate these crowds, pick up one of their compostable cardboard containers, and start filling it with various items from their bountiful salad bar.
They have everything at Whole Foods, so much so that I cannot stop myself from buying much more than I need. Of course I need my kale salad, walnuts, and stuffed grape leaves, but what about those coconut covered dates for dessert, and a synergy kombucha to top it all off; don’t I need a smoothie from their café in case I’m still hungry when I’m done with all this? The answer is always yes, yet even with all these exotic products at the slightest whim, I hardly stop to wonder where they’ve all come from.
Beautiful marketing, organic labeling, and a seemingly local vibes at this national chain function the way they are supposed to, to sell a particular story. The bag of coffee I bought for $12.99 is fair trade, organic, and features a nicely painted picture of a dark-skinned woman with a woven basket on her head; I feel glad that my dollars are going to the local people in a less developed country who picked these coffee beans.
In her book, “From Modern Production to Imagined Primitive,” Paige West outlines the truth behind this pretty picture. That bag of coffee might have beans from at least five different countries: maybe some from Papua New Guinea or Brazil, or Vietnam, Columbia, Indonesia, perhaps Ethiopia. And these workers? They are getting paid 16 cents an hour. A wage, which, according to West makes one bag of coffee worth about $1.40 in Papua New Guinea. So where does that extra $11.59 cost come from?
Of course there’s the impact of the distances these beans have traveled. The umbrella figure for this fact is that our food travels, on average, between 1,500 and 2,500 miles before reaching our plate. While this figure is an oversimplification, being an exaggeration for some foods yet an underestimate for others, it rightly displays the incredible distances that our food travels in order to reach our plates. The carbon footprint is immense. Moreover, according to waterfootprint.org, the water footprint is for global coffee consumption is 1.5 times the annual runoff of the Rhine River – 110 billion cubic meters of water per year.
Why has our food system developed this way if it is unsustainable, inequitable, and economically only profitable to large monopoly organizations? The answer is that it has developed organically according to the capitalist, colonialist model to which it belongs.
But just because something develops organically does not mean it is the best model, and it especially does not mean that it cannot be changed to work within the same system.
In fact, changing the model has the capacity to change the flawed system. That makes it our responsibility to change both.
The company Freight Farms is doing just that: by providing a scalable, local agricultural solution in the form of the Leafy Green Machine. The Leafy Green Machine features a series of vertical panels that hold hydroponic peat moss growing pods in which lettuce, hearty greens, herbs, flowers, and root vegetables will thrive.
These panels find their home in a re-used shipping container, insulated in order to complement the container’s advanced climate control system, and equipped with blue and red LED light strips, using only the light frequencies that the plants need. Accordingly, each container uses only about 125 kilowatt-hours per day. It also is highly conservative in its water use: due to the vertical nature of the hydroponic operation, the pods use only about 5 gallons of water per day — 90% less water than traditional farming techniques.
Each Leafy Green Machine is capable of producing between 60 and 100 pounds of greens per week and between 35 and 85 pounds of herbs for only 15 to 20 hours of labor per week. This yield is the rough equivalent of one acre’s worth of lettuce in traditional agriculture, according to the company. All of the systems controls are directly available through an app at all hours of the day and from all locations. The enclosed environment of the system protects it from pests and disease, so it produces a nearly perfect yield without the use of pesticides or herbicides.
The containers can be situated in a backyard, on a rooftop, or in a parking lot, offering an “acre in a box” that is accessible to anyone in any location, providing the freshest, most local produce possible.
The containers are in use in 30 different states and nine countries, supplying food to universities, restaurants, and local farmers’ markets.
In fact, Nick Pagan from Clark University said, “on harvest days I deliver the lettuce around 10:30, lunch service starts at 11, so students are getting produce that was harvested just a half an hour ago.”
Imagine regularly eating food that had been harvested 30 minutes before you ate it, as opposed to the average of 5-14 days during which your food is transported and stored post harvest. Imagine having the choice to eat produce that did not travel 1,500 miles and contribute massive amounts of greenhouse gases in order to reach your plate. Image supporting your local economy instead of exporting that extra $11.59 to large, inequitable corporations.
The Leafy Green Machine provides a market solution to our flawed food system, and its success can inspire similar creative thinking and new businesses that will open up this market space and begin shifting the entire system in this sustainable, equitable, and economically beneficial direction.