Good Morning America visited FarmBox Foods’ headquarters to explain how businesses and nonprofits are using technology to sustainably grow food near the consumer year-round.Continue reading
“The world is at a critical juncture.”
That’s the headline of an article about the state of food security and nutrition in the world. In painstaking detail, the Food and Agriculture Organization at the United Nations uses the article to describe how the number of people affected by hunger globally increased in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
It estimates that between 720 million and 811 million people faced hunger. If you go with the middle of the projected range — around 768 million — 118 million more people faced hunger in 2020 than in 2019. How does this happen and what’s being done about it?
The Food and Agriculture Organization at the United Nations says that unless bold actions are taken to accelerate progress, especially actions to address major drivers of food insecurity and malnutrition and inequalities affecting access to food, hunger will not be eradicated by 2030, as the U.N. had hoped.
After remaining virtually unchanged from 2014 to 2019, the prevalence of undernourishment climbed to around 9.9 percent in 2020, from 8.4 percent a year earlier, the article says.
According to FoodBankNews.org, all of this activity is happening against a backdrop of heightened emphasis on nutrition from the USDA, which in mid-March released a report outlining its commitment to nutrition security (in addition to food security). The USDA noted the importance of nutrition in fighting diet-related disease, which is a leading cause of illness in the U.S., accounting for more than 600,000 deaths each year, or more than 40,000 each month.
Sadly, the pandemic continues to expose weaknesses in our food systems, especially when it comes to access. New farming practices, including controlled-environment agriculture, are increasingly being recognized as a potential solution to fill the gaps and avoid supply chain delays entirely.
Strategically placing container farms in and around population centers could have a dramatic effect on providing a sustainable and secure source of nutrient-rich food. These farms can produce 200-300 pounds of fresh food weekly and help feed people in marginalized communities. They can also be used to help train the next generation of urban farmers and create jobs, providing ancillary benefits that can reverberate for years to come.
Farming Solutions are needed – It seems every day you come across a news story that paints a very bleak future for traditional farming and the consumers who benefit from it.
We’ll briefly explore the many challenges facing the agricultural industry, but we’ll also posit some potential ways for farming operations large and small to adapt to changing times and conditions.
Shifting climate patterns are making it vastly more difficult to predict whether a crop will make it to harvest. Heat waves, hail storms, cold snaps and floods have become more pervasive and intense in recent years. Even crops that may not be directly affected by catastrophes, like the severe drought currently gripping the western portion of the U.S., are being indirectly impacted by residual factors, like smoke from wildfires.
We’re also facing other crippling issues without a foreseeable fix. Supply chains that support agriculture have been stretched to their limit since the beginning of the pandemic for a variety of reasons, including transportation availability, labor shortages, and associated delays affecting raw material sourcing. And the skyrocketing cost of fertilizer is further complicating matters for traditional farming operations and having an outsized impact on already-thin profit margins.
But what if there was a way to circumvent these issues using innovations in agtech? It sounds impossible, and while it comes with its own set of challenges, indoor growing, especially in urban areas, could be a big part of the answer going forward.
Science and tech have come a long way in the last decade (hello, sensor technology!), allowing growers to do much more with much less in a smaller footprint. And hyperlocal farming means produce grows near the consumer, eliminating supply chain-related woes. Instead of spending the first half of its shelf life in transit, veggies get to the end user much quicker, resulting in less food waste. Local growing also reduces the need to burn fossil fuels to get food to its destination, and empowers communities to gain more control over their own food supply.
It’s hard to put a value on security and reliability, and we certainly won’t attempt to, but controlled-environment agriculture allows people to harvest large yields year-round without external variables getting in the way. There’s also no need for fertilizers or pesticides, which takes possible contamination of drinking water out of the equation.
The practice is gaining momentum worldwide and already having an impact on sourcing for grocery chains, hotels, hospitals, restaurants and food banks. Likewise, farmers are embracing the technology because it provides a security blanket in uncertain times.
It’s a mix of professional experience and personal values that brought Joseph Cammack to FarmBox Foods.
As a teen, Joseph took a job on a farm in eastern Washington and quickly learned the value of hard work while growing and harvesting wheat, barley and garbanzo beans. His interest in farming and the impact of nutritious food on the overall quality of life for people worldwide is in lockstep with FarmBox Foods’ mission of providing a secure source of food to all, regardless of their circumstances.
Joseph’s strong entrepreneurial spirit manifested itself early in life; he earned money running lemonade stands and mowing lawns as a kid. Later, while pursuing a degree in business management with a double emphasis in entrepreneurship and supply chain management at Brigham Young University-Idaho, he launched his own startup and helped grow it into the successful company it is today. Joseph even created a program that supports up-and-coming entrepreneurs and gives them the ability to test the efficacy of their business model before investing significant time and money.
His experience at small, large and medium-sized businesses has provided valuable insight into what drives a company’s success. It also helped him determine where to aim his skills while helping to implement Centura Health’s food security initiatives in Colorado. Joseph came to the FarmBox Foods team in March 2022 as executive vice president, and is helping further expand the reach of the tools that provide farm-fresh food to communities in need.
“It’s mission-driven, and that’s what really drove me to pursue the opportunity to join the team,” he said. “I’m always looking for a purpose greater than myself.”
When he’s not at work, the married father of two children plays basketball, hunts and goes on family hikes. He is also an avid reader and a movie buff with an affinity for action and sci-fi flicks.
Drought, flood impacts create uncertainty for food producers
An alarming pattern has emerged in the farming industry over the last two decades, and experts believe the impact on food production won’t relent anytime soon.
A recent analysis of data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture shows that payouts to U.S. farmers for crops destroyed by droughts and flooding climbed by more than 340% between 1995 and 2020. During that time period, farmers received over $143.5 billion in federal crop insurance payments, according to the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit that analyzes research data and spotlights breakthrough findings to inform decisions that govern everyday life.
While the conditions threaten the current livelihoods of farmers across the country, there are also intangible, permanent effects that can’t be ignored, such as the exodus of families who have been farming for decades and, in some cases, centuries. They’re simply giving up due to variables that are beyond their control.
The EWG points out that while crop insurance provides a crucial safety net for farmers, the program is doing little to mitigate climate-related risks. Taxpayers pick up about 60% of premiums, which means farmers cover the other 40% to get a crop insurance policy. EWG says the “costs are expected to go up even more, as climate change causes even more unpredictable weather conditions,” according to an article on CommonDreams.org.
This inevitability has decision-makers at the federal and state level considering drastic alternative measures, especially ones that help farmers adapt to changing conditions, enabling them to produce crops regularly without external factors.
One of those solutions is farming in controlled environments that eliminate outside impacts and promise reliable yields. Shipping containers are being repurposed and outfitted with a network of sensors and high-tech systems that regulate temperature, humidity, nutrient concentrations, watering and lighting. They enable farmers to grow food year-round — regardless of weather or climate — and drastically reduce the amount of water needed to grow crops, because the water is recycled and filtered and not lost to evaporation or transpiration.
“We see ourselves not as a replacement for traditional farming, but rather a tool that allows farmers to have that steady source of income throughout the year, without the stress,” said Rusty Walker, CEO of a Colorado-based company called FarmBox Foods, which designs, manufactures and sells enclosed hydroponic farms.
The containerized farms are also a critical element for crop production on islands, which currently import the vast majority of their food. The automated farms essentially add acreage to an island for the purpose of food production, cutting out potential supply chain issues and shipping costs that inflate food prices.
As Congress develops a new farm bill in 2023, the EWG is calling on lawmakers to consider focusing on “how to effectively fund farm programs so that farmers can adapt to and fight the climate crisis.”
FarmBox Foods is developing a hydroponic fodder farm that will be sold beginning this year. It will produce roughly 1,000 pounds of fodder per day.Continue reading
With a foundation in technology and science, there’s greater interest in container farming among students of all ages. Controlled-climate farming enables people to grow food almost anywhere in the world, helping to eliminate food deserts.Continue reading