Kalera AS, a vertical farming company based in Florida, recently acquired the German company &ever, creating one of the largest global companies of its kind. According to its website, its mission is using technology “to ensure more people across the globe have access to the freshest, most nutritious and cleanest produce possible.”
It continues: “Kalera has spent several years optimizing chemical nutrient formulas and has developed an advanced automation and data collection system with Internet of Things, Cloud, Big Data Analytics and Artificial Intelligence," writes Rick Hood on www.richmond.com.
In stark contrast, many Richmond-area farms grow produce using traditional methods, including one whose mission “is to be good stewards of the land that sustains us and to provide people with a delicious, healthy and beautiful product.”
While both companies grow food, one is a high-tech company whose product just happens to be food, leaving soil entirely out of the equation — and the other is a traditional farm that focuses on taste, nutritional quality and soil health. Which one would you rather buy your food from: one consumed with profit and global expansion, or one concerned with taste and health?
The concept of terroir — derived from the French word “terre,” meaning earth — hinges on the idea that the specific characteristics of a place (soil, sunlight, elevation, etc.) imbue produce with certain tastes and qualities that are unique to that place — and virtually impossible to re-create in sterile hydroponic labs. Often associated with wine and coffee, terroir defines our venerated Hanover tomatoes, Georgia peaches and Hog Island figs. If you ever have appreciated any of these iconic products, and many others like them in every region, you understand the inherent value of growing in the ground.
Certainly, there is a place for vertical and nontraditional farming, and such operations can be a model of efficiency and productivity, especially in areas where farmland is unavailable or unarable. Ultimately, though, it’s food grown in a lab without soil and without the natural energy of the sun. At the very least, consumers deserve to understand how their food has been grown, yet most produce packaging and labeling does not disclose those details.
Another major issue that clouds the hydroponic landscape is its organic certification, which many feel is undeserved. In the 1990s, when the standards for organic farming were being established by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Organic Standards Board, they defined organic agriculture in part as “an ecological production management system that promotes and enhances biodiversity, biological cycles and soil biological activity.” In 2017, however, the board, swayed by hydroponics lobbyists, voted against efforts to prevent hydroponically grown crops as being certified organic. In a short 25 years, soil — arguably the foundation of organic farming — was removed from the organic equation.
Debate also swirls around nutritional comparisons between soil-grown and hydroponic food. Dave Chapman is owner of Long Wind Farm in Vermont and the executive director of the Real Organic Project, as well as board member of the USDA Hydroponic Task Force. He is unconvinced by test results. “I don’t know. There have been a bunch of tests, but they always disagree with each other or are inconclusive. It depends on what they’re testing for.”.
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