Farming needs a reboot. According to a 2019 IPCC report on climate change and land, agriculture is to blame for about 8.5% of all greenhouse gas emissions. The biggest sources are nitrous oxide from soils, and methane from livestock and manure.
To tackle soil setbacks, companies large and small are turning to regenerative farming, a growing movement rooted in Indigenous practices, which encourages cultivating food in harmony with nature—crucially, strengthening and regenerating soil. Other companies are setting up urban farms, allowing them to farm without soil, right in the middle of metropolises like New York City.
On today’s episode of the World Changing Ideas podcast, we looked at an example of each.
For one organic dairy farm in Channing, Texas, everything starts with manure. “It’s a great byproduct that we need for farming,” says Natural Prairie Dairy CEO and coowner Donald De Jong. “But it’s always been cumbersome, expensive, and messy.” He found a way to simultaneously use the manure more efficiently and cut carbon emissions in the process.
De Jong partners with Sedron Technologies, whose Varcor system breaks down the farm’s manure into three components: water and nutrients, which help nourish the crops; and carbon, which is captured by the soil instead of ending up in the environment as methane. This all eliminates the need for manure lagoons—and even for tilling the soil, which are major sources of emissions.
In an added benefit, the process also produces a renewable, dry-powder nitrogen fertilizer—typically, when farmers apply liquid fertilizer from the manure lagoons, they often end up applying too much phosphorus, which causes runoff and algae growth. The nitrogen tends to evaporate.
De Jong said they didn’t set out to be pioneers in this field. “That wasn’t the quest,” he said. “The quest was to find solutions.”
In a 60,000-square foot indoor farm in Queens, New York, growers took the opposite approach: They got rid of soil completely. It’s one of Gotham Greens’ climate-controlled farms, which can grow crops year-round, regardless of outdoor conditions. There’s a misconception that crops need soil to grow, says CEO and cofounder, Viraj Puri. “This proves that you can really grow food anywhere, regardless of the geography.”
Instead, the company uses a method of farming called hydroponics, which encourages greens to grow in substrate materials like peat moss or Rockwool. Those hold the roots in place and allow for healthy germination, packed with nutrients. The farm produces fresh greens and herbs like romaine, butter lettuce, and basil. Puri explains that the most important element for plant growth is light, which is abundant in the greenhouse, reducing the need for artificial lights. When they do need those, they use LED lighting, to keep energy consumption lower.
The company’s vision is to create a decentralized network of farms, allowing them to grow the produce more locally. Cultivating the food in such close proximity to the market, it can cut down on diesel from long-distance shipping of fresh produce, which has to be refrigerated during long journeys, all contributing to emissions. Carrying out this mission, Gotham Greens has branched out beyond its flagship facility in New York City, opening in Illinois, Colorado, and California, and recently announcing new facilities in Texas and Georgia.