At the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, disruptions to food systems revealed glaring vulnerabilities in supply chains and food production. For consumers, the early days of panic buying and empty store shelves was shocking, even though it turned out to be a somewhat short-term problem.
Although stores are relatively well-stocked now, a simple trip to the grocery store can be stressful and unpleasant, even with protective measures such as wearing masks, using hand sanitizer, and practicing social distancing. So many people are considering different options to get food to their homes, such as from local farmers’ markets, home delivery services, or growing their own. With these shifts, food science and technology start-ups occupy a unique position to help.
“Communities want to be more self-sufficient, resilient, and not rely on truck- or plane-loads of food,” says Kevin Jakiela, co-founder of Just Vertical, a hydroponic farming start-up and former resident at the Autodesk Technology Center in Toronto. “We’re going to see an increased trend in indoor growing, with COVID-19 exacerbating that interest.”
While industries shuttered due to the coronavirus during spring 2020, Just Vertical saw a triple-digit increase in sales of its indoor hydroponic growing system, the AEVA. The 37-inch-wide tower—designed and fabricated using Autodesk Fusion 360, SketchBook, and generative design during its residency in 2019—can continuously grow up to 10 pounds of nutritionally rich produce per month. Outside of a home, the company’s transferable pod systems integrate into warehouses and greenhouses to grow food on a larger scale using hydroponics.
Launching Just Vertical was a way for Jakiela to help communities affected by food insecurity, something he experienced while working as a teacher to indigenous students in Nunavut, a remote Canadian arctic region with a 70% documented rate of food insecurity. A recent UN report predicts the coronavirus will push hundreds of millions of already vulnerable people into famines of “biblical proportions.”
In the United States and Canada, the rapid reorganization of the supply chain, upended by the shuttering of restaurants and a shift in consumer habits, resulted in spiking prices and increased food waste. A survey from the Agri-Food Analytics Lab in May 2020 found 50 million liters of milk were poured out, and hundreds of thousands of pigs and chickens were euthanized and disposed of instead of being processed for sale in supermarkets.
“People have become more conscious about food security, supply-chain security, and clean food,” says Hooman Koliji, founder and CEO of CREO Design, a California-based green-tech company. “Taking charge of growing our own food is the most natural response to all these concerns.”
CREO, a resident at the Autodesk Technology Center in San Francisco, creates solutions that use alternative growing to sustain plant life with minimal intervention. Since joining the residency program in 2018, the team has been working on developing smart, modular, autonomous green-living systems for homes and buildings. CREO’s Bio-Bulb all-in-one hardware/software platform allows plants to grow in new contexts and environments with scarce resources using direct sensing, infusion, and artificial intelligence (AI) to learn the optimum growth for a plant within its environment. Sensors monitor a plant’s vitals, and the unit directly infuses it with nutrients and water when needed.
“CREO makes it possible for nature to grow anywhere,” Koliji says. “Imagine buildings that have an integrated green-living infrastructure as a system.”
Koliji adds that, in California: “We have seen farmers with ripe crops on their field that had to be recycled. We don’t have a localized distributed food system and still rely on central agricultural zones to supply food.”
Another former resident from the technology center in Toronto, Growratio, creates solutions for controlled-environment agriculture (CEA) such as a light-delivery system, Internet of Things (IoT) sensor/control networks, and a cloud orchestration system that automatically optimizes growing environments. “We are experiencing a paradigm shift in controlled-environment agriculture,” says Paolo Pincente, founder and CEO of Growratio. As part of the residency in 2019, Pincente and his team used generative design to explore horticultural lighting and growing systems. “The writing is on the wall: Climate change, overpopulation, and a host of other factors threaten our food supply, and the current COVID-19 crisis shows us just how fragile our supply networks are,” Pincente says.
COVID-19 also caused a huge hiccup within production lines, and Evan Fraser, director at the Arrell Food Institute, says there is a real opportunity to bring food systems into the 21st century. “One of the big ironies COVID-19 has revealed is that some of the people we depend on most to keep systems operating—people who stock grocery stores, cut up meat, and drive trucks—are the most vulnerable to the effects of COVID-19,” he says.
Across the globe, meat-processing facilities and farms have become hotbeds for COVID-19 infections, often due to cramped working conditions, crowded transportation to work sites, and workers living in dorm-style housing. In May 2020, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported nearly 5,000 cases of COVID-19 among 130,000 workers at meatpacking plants across 19 states. That resulted in 20 deaths.
“There will be a strong call for technologies such as cellular agriculture, controlled-environment agriculture, and vertical farms,” Fraser says. However, he says that to deploy these technologies successfully, policy makers and companies need to think about creative public-private partnerships. They need to develop innovation strategies that will apply these technologies—and do so in a way that leaves farmers and rural communities with a dignified livelihood.
“These technologies can really help these communities in the future, when mass adoption with very low prices is available to all, especially when future health and climate crises hit,” Koliji says. “We are looking at bringing our initial costs so low in the first four years that middle-low income people can adopt it in mass scales.”
Jakiela also acknowledges the challenges of bringing these technologies to those most affected by food insecurity. When the coronavirus halted the production of its hydroponic growing system, Just Vertical pivoted to a more grassroots project by developing a home-gardening program. The company mailed out hundreds of free seed packets to communities with tips on how to garden at home. “There’s a heavy interest in gardening, not just for people living in condos in urban centers,” Jakiela says. “It can be someone in a retirement home, a teacher at school—it really opened up our target market. We’re using this information to optimize our product so that anyone can be able to use it.”
Just Vertical aims to work with multiple community leaders, private companies, and charities that can cater to each community’s specific needs for fresh produce and/or job creation. “A stepwise and interorganizational approach would provide the most direct impact, rather than simply putting our existing gardens in someone’s home,” Jakiela says. “Tackling food insecurity as a whole and complementing the overall solution of providing food with an appropriate price point, abundance, and quality is the overall goal.”
“There is an agricultural renaissance coming that is based around the application of digital technologies,” Fraser says. “Ultimately, it will result in a food system that is more nutritious, has a smaller environmental footprint, and is probably more resilient than the current system.”