Vertical Farming Mitigates Food Safety Concerns

With the rising popularity of urban agriculture and hydroponics, more people recognize the clear benefits of controlled-environment agriculture, which include water savings, year-round production, and reductions of pesticide use. This month I researched another benefit that consumers often take for granted: food safety.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, each year, “roughly 48 million people (1 in 6) get sick from food eaten in the United States,” and “among all types of foods, produce accounted for nearly half of illnesses.” There have also been cases of foodborne illnesses from improper use or manufacturing of manure, either from sewer sludge or contaminated Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs). While foodborne illnesses are notoriously difficult to trace, produce grown by outdoor farms carries a higher risk of foodborne illness than a greenhouse or vertical farm.

The CDC’s list of food borne illnesses, sources, and symptoms. Image via CDC.

Milan Kluko of Green Spirit Farms, a vertical farm near Buffalo, Michigan, agrees. He says, “Food safety should be inherent in vertical farms.” Here are his reasons:

1. Growing indoors eliminates variables of wildlife, weather, and cross-contamination.

2. Traceability is much easier through indoor farming.

3. Technologies like floor cleaners, dosing systems, and water quality sensors help keep the systems clean.

Green Spirit Farms is committed to food safety and delivering the best product to its customers. Kluko is ISO 14000 certified and runs a tight ship to keep his staff from contaminating any of the produce grown in their huge, indoor vertical farming warehouses. Staff must change out of their street clothes and shoes before working on the farm. Hand washing stations and signage demanding cleanliness are spread throughout the operation. Milan says that his whole team participates; “everyone takes part in cleaning on the farm, and it’s an integral part of our staff training.” Everything in the farm operation is tracked for traceability, including substrates and the non-GMO seeds used.

Paul Hardej of FarmedHere, another vertical farm near Chicago, stated that FarmedHere spent over $100,000 on its food safety pursuits. FarmedHere also plans to make its strategy publicly available for free to make the work easier for other indoor farmers.

As the founder of Agritecture.com, my focus has always been on collaboration in the industry, so I asked Kluko what he thought about those costs and how collaboration between vertical farmers could help. He responded that the best practices are “already out there,” and “there is nothing really to share publicly.” According to Kluko, vertical farms and greenhouses should look to hospitals as guides for cleanliness and best practices.

Green Spirit Farms’ Food Safety Tips for Greenhouses or Vertical Farms

1. Prioritize sanitation – use common sense. Look closely at how your farm is maintained. Hand washing is step one.

2. Focus less on technology – look at a hospital; cleanliness there is more about operations and procedures than technology.

3. Learn from existing programs – stay up to date with public auditing standards like USDA Good Agricultural Practices (GAP)and the International Organization for Standardization (ISO).

4. Analyze your inputs and outputs – know your traceability!

5. Communicate effectively – display clear graphics to illustrate clean practices to your staff

Inside Green Spirit Farms’ controlled vertical farming operation. Image via Green Spirit Farms.

Kluko isn’t the only person who thinks that food safety concerns are mitigated in controlled environments. This Scranton Times article explains how food safety and the local food movement are interconnected. The traceability of products makes consumers feel safer as local farmers build their business around serving local customers.

“Thousands of consumers have been sickened by E.coli and salmonella contaminations of spinach, scallions, chilies, cantaloupes, and other fresh produce in recent years. The outbreaks have helped boost demand for local produce.” – James Haggerty, Staff Writer, Scranton Times

It’s exciting that farmers of Green Spirit and FarmedHere have joined the movement of bringing food indoors to provide healthier, local produce. Others have taken part in helping to navigate the challenges of food safety. Be sure to check out this guide for serving food grown on-site in school cafeterias by ChangeLab Solutions, a law and policy innovation group.

Despite the progress in food safety, work remains to be done. USDA Good Agricultural Practices certification is still prohibitively expensive for small-scale farmers, and many of the safest indoor farms in the country start relatively small. Reducing the cost of USDA GAP certification could be another step toward providing healthier, local produce.

Do you run a greenhouse or vertical farm? Share your strategies for mitigating food safety concerns.

Feature Image: Farm manager, Michael Suter inspects lettuce at Stone Bridge Farm’s USDA GAP certified hydroponic greenhouse. Image via Stone Bridge Farm.

Copyediting by Scott Lindquist

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