AeroFarms Sustainability Case Study

Revolutionizing Water Management for a Sustainable Future

Water scarcity and contamination are real and ongoing problems with farming leafy greens in the traditional way. Through ever-growing technology and ingenuity, AeroFarms has leveraged its expertise and partnerships to optimize its sustainability efforts and maximize its outputs to provide local fresh leafy greens.

In 2004, with a focus on environmental stewardship and doing more with less, co-founders David Rosenberg, Dr. Ed Harwood and Marc Oshima started AeroFarms with a mission to grow flavorful, high-quality leafy greens through circular economy farming. They now grow over 550 different varieties of plants, including leafy greens, berries, tomatoes and more.

UN Goals:
2 Zero Hunger
3 Good Health and Well-Being
6 Clean Water and Sanitization
9 Industry Innovation and Infrastructure
12 Responsible Consumption and Production
15 Life on Land
17 Partnerships for the Goals

In 2021, AeroFarms was the first vertical farm to obtain B-Corporation Certification by upholding a rigorous social and environmental evaluation and public scorecard. As a Certified B Corporation, the company goes above and beyond its triple bottom line — people, planet and purpose — to include responsible practices in governance, employee welfare, community, environment and customers. That same year, it was named one of the World’s Most Innovative Companies and Brands That Matter by Fast Company and recognized by TIME for Best Inventions in Food in 2019 as well as by Fortune’s prestigious 2022 Change the World list among many other awards.

The challenge: Water management and waste

According to World Bank, in most regions of the world, over 70 percent of freshwater is used for agriculture. By 2050, feeding a planet of 9 billion people will require an estimated 50 percent increase in agricultural production and a 15 percent increase in water withdrawals.

Water efficiency in agriculture can vary widely, depending on practices and technology. As the global population continues to grow and climate change increases the frequency of extreme weather events, there is a growing need for sustainable water management. Water scarcity in some regions may necessitate more efficient and responsible water use to ensure food security and environmental protection.

Rainfed agriculture, which relies on natural rainfall, is practiced in many parts of the world. It uses significantly less water than irrigated agriculture but is subject to climate variability and may experience water shortages during times of drought. Traditional flood irrigation tends to be less efficient compared to modern irrigation methods like drip irrigation and sprinkler systems. Excessive water use in agriculture, particularly in the form of over-irrigation, can lead to waterlogging, soil salinization and environmental degradation.

Many governments and organizations are promoting water-efficient agricultural practices and technologies to reduce water use in farming. Desalination, wastewater recycling and the development of drought-resistant crop varieties are several ways water scarcity issues are being addressed.

While there are many programs and technologies being implemented to mitigate these factors and effects, AeroFarms decided to take a unique approach from its inception.

The solution: CEA and leading-edge technology

Sustainable and efficient water use in agriculture is crucial to address water scarcity challenges, ensure food security and reduce environmental impacts.

For AeroFarms, sustainability was not just an initiative, it was the basis upon which the company was founded.

“We have built our legacy around growing the most flavorful greens that are better for [people] and better for the planet,” says Emily Gee, AeroFarms Marketing Director.

Vertical, indoor farming, also called Controlled Environment Agriculture (CEA), was AeroFarms’ answer to myriad challenges facing traditional farming. Growing vertically allowed for production upward rather than outward, alleviating the need for acres of land upon which to grow (and water) crops (1 CEA acre = 130 field acres).

The company, in fact, built its farms in and around major cities and close to major distribution routes, enabling fresh food production and local distribution at scale year round. Its unique indoor growing method is not reliant on weather conditions or water availability for optimal crop growth nor subject to outside contaminants such as wildlife waste or pesticides, herbicides and fungicides, which means it doesn’t need to be triple washed (once to remove dirt and debris, then two additional times to remove chemicals and cross-contamination). CEA also offers greater control over the growing process, allowing targeted water, nutrient and oxygen application.

In its closed-loop growing system, AeroFarms uses a method called aeroponics—a form of hydroponics — where the plants are propagated and grown on a substrate rather than in soil. While these growing methods are similar, in hydroponics, the roots of the plant that grow beneath the substrate are submerged in a water solution, whereas in aeroponics, the roots are misted. This provides natural access to oxygen and eliminates the need to continually aerate the water solution, resulting in reduced energy consumption.

AeroFarms’ scalable modular growing platform resembles a shelving unit and can be configured to accommodate any sized space, allowing the company to grow in diverse locations, including those that may be water insecure. The shelves are lined with trays that serve as a water solution chamber. The chambers are lined with hoses through which the water solution flows, misting the seeds, and later, the plant roots at selected intervals. The cloth medium, or substrate, is laid over top of the trays, where the seeds are propagated through harvest. A proprietary LED lighting system is positioned above the substrate where the leaves are exposed.

These advanced lighting arrays create a custom light algorithm for each plant, giving them exactly the spectrum, intensity and frequency they need for photosynthesis in the most energy-efficient way possible. This allows them to optimize the size, shape, texture, color, flavor and nutrition of the plants with exact precision and increased productivity. Fans are installed beneath the lights at precise distances to facilitate circulation.

Prior to flowing the solution through the solution chamber, the water undergoes an extensive filtration process, first passing through an ultraviolet filter, after which it is normalized through reverse osmosis, where it passes through a semi-permeable membrane to filter out unwanted particles. Precise amounts of macro and micronutrients are then added to provide maximum nutrition to plants as the roots are misted. Any water solution that is not taken up by the roots is then refreshed and reused, resulting in immense water savings.

The takeaway: Technology guiding agriculture

Using aeroponics and vertical farming technologies, AeroFarms has made significant strides in addressing critical sustainability challenges related to traditional farming.

Not only has aeroponic technology made it possible to farm in environments that have never before been considered (e.g., arid regions, densely-populated cities, etc.), autonomous technology builds optimal indoor environments that deliver consistent quality — regardless of the landscape or climate outside the facility.

AeroFarms vertical, stacked approach allows the company to achieve up to 390 times the yield per square foot, using approximately 99% less land than traditional farming. The proprietary technology the company uses not only reduces land requirements but water consumption as well, conserving approximately 95% more water than field farming. In addition, the aeroponic method reduces inputs and required resources.

AeroFarms’ plant scientists monitor data points every harvest, which are continuously reviewed and tested to improve its growing system through analytics, creating superior and consistent results. The company has developed and implemented cutting-edge approaches to machine learning and IoT integration. Its digital controls include an integrated algorithm for every stage of growth as well as proprietary agSTACK software with integrated PLC and SCADA systems, yielding a fully connected and integrated farm.

AeroFarms has demonstrated environmental stewardship across a large scale and proved that there are profitable sustainable alternatives to traditional farming, but these changes are only the beginning of what will be required of global food systems to sustain the population in the future.

According to Gee, “Sometimes sustainability can be nice to have, but I hope what comes across is the true urgency and urgent nature of the work. While we produce flavorful and fresh greens, ultimately [sustainability] is an issue we should all be thinking about right now.”

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