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Urban Farming: The New Ingredients

Sonia Lo thinks about lettuce every single day. She is an urban farmer who grows all of her produce in temperature controlled ‘FreshBoxes’. As the CEO of Crop One Holdings, Sonia and her team are leading the transformation of the $8 billion leafy greens market through a unique method of high-intensity vertical farming, a method which could ultimately revolutionize and transform our current food industry.

Sonia is not your typical farmer. A mother and Harvard MBA who has lived in 16 countries and speaks seven different languages, she came to the vertical farming industry as an investor and soon learned that the modern food market is problematic in several ways. She says, “I think all of us like to believe that having clean, fresh food is important. We like to believe that our food supply is exactly that…With the industrialization of our food distribution system and the concentration thereof…it’s actually less and less true every day.”

This observation is spot on. Our global food supply is becoming less clean and less fresh each and every day due to the industrialization of the food distribution space. The produce industry is huge, yet it is controlled by only five large corporations that have a monopoly on the market and must ship produce across the country, delaying the time it reaches your table and encouraging the deterioration of the product. As a result, the food that we have access to continues to decrease in quality. We are also facing a serious water crisis. Most of today’s water is used for agriculture, and even so farmers don’t have enough. In fact, some farmers reuse water that isn’t clean to wash their vegetables, such as produced water from fracking sites. As a result, raw produce is now the leading cause of E.coli in the United States.

Most vegetables grow out west in California or Arizona. By the time they reach the East coast supermarkets they are between 12 and 15 days old. Shipping food across the country also creates significant pollution from carbon emissions.

Forty percent of the land on Earth is used for agriculture. On a daily basis, we destroy our fragile ecosystems in order to grow more food. If we don’t densify our farming system, as Crop One has shown, over time there will be no wild animals or land left.

Sonia Lo’s FreshBox Farms may be the solution to many of the problems that currently face the modern food industry. In her TEDx Beacon talk from 2015, Sonia explains how her farms can save enormous amounts of water – they use 18,000 gallons to grow the same amount of food that traditional farms need 46 million gallons to grow – keep vegetables clean and fresh, reduce carbon emissions, and compress resources. Using these farming techniques could dramatically improve our environment.

Since Lo’s TED Talk, Crop One Holdings has continued to expand its operations and is the only major vertical farm operator running at positive gross margins. Most recently, Lo and Crop One Holdings established a $40 million joint venture with Emirates Flight Catering, one of the world’s largest airline catering operations, to build a 13,000 square foot-controlled facility that will produce over three tons of food per day. The food produced will then be served on Emirates Airline flights. According to the Boston Globe, the company will build the “largest ‘vertical farm’ in the world in Dubai: rows of lettuce and other greens growing in hydroponic containers stacked 50 feet high.” Check out the article.

Lo and her FreshBox Farms brands continue to make inroads in changing the way we grow and consume leafy greens. As she notes at the end of her TED talk, Crop One Holdings would like to “change the way we eat, live and take care of this earth.”

Lo is not the only TEDx Beacon Street speaker to talk about box farming. Watch Jon Friedman and Caleb Harper for more on this topic