By the time you reach for that head of lettuce at the grocery store, it's already probably traveled hundreds of miles and spent almost two weeks sitting in a truck.
"Food is no longer grown for human beings, it's grown for a truck to support a supply chain," says the president of Metropolis Farms in Philadelphia.
But everyone likes fresh produce, so the closer your veggies are grown to your favorite supermarket or restaurant, the better. With the recent outbreak of E.coli contaminating romaine lettuce across the United States, it's especially appealing to know that your produce has been grown nearby in a safe environment. How about a farm right on top of a grocery store in Philadelphia? Or one underground in the heart of Manhattan? Or one inside an iconic restaurant in Australia?
Hyper-local urban farming is providing some consumers with instant access to seriously fresh produce. It's also a way for restaurants and food suppliers to save on costs, eliminating the need for expensive packaging and shipping, experts say. Tour five of the world's coolest vertical farms in pictures below.
Farm.One's vision is to build small indoor farms in cities around the country that provide rare herbs and produce to high-end restaurants. Their farm in the heart of Manhattan occupies 1200 square feet in a basement beneath the two-Michelin-starred restaurant Atera, which is conveniently one of their customers. All of the 20 to 25 restaurants they supply to are within a three-mile radius, making delivery possible by subway or bike.
"We have a direct connection with the chefs," says the CEO and founder Robert Laing. "For very perishable produce like herbs and leafy greens, hyper-local vertical farming works really well. It's literally dying the moment you cut it, and this is designed to be fresh."
"Restaurants are important," says Jack Griffin, the president of the indoor vertical Metropolis Farms in Philadelphia. "But not the most important, because they don't feed the majority of people."
Griffin is on a mission to standardize the indoor farming industry so supermarkets and communities around the world can benefit from the technology in a cost-effective and accessible way. Right now, Metropolis Farms supplies to a local grocer, Di Brunos Bros, that is less than two miles from their facility. In the future, they have plans to build a rooftop greenhouse atop a new supermarket in Philadelphia, plus indoor farms in Baltimore, Oklahoma, and as far away as India.
One advantage of their farms, says Griffin, is their proprietary technology. An adaptive lighting system allows them to grow almost any size crop, including tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, strawberries, and even giant sunflowers.
"It's bigger than just food," he explains. "We are working on growing specialty crops like wine, chocolate, and coffee. All these plants are within reach, and we can cut the cord between supply chains that are difficult to deal with. Can you imagine if you grew Napa wines in Camden, New Jersey?"
GOOD BANK, in Berlin, bills itself as the world's first farm-to-table vertical restaurant. They grow their many of their own vegetables and salads onsite using farming system technology from another German company called INFARM. The latter's co-founder and CEO, Erez Galonska, cites a decline in traditional farming, an increase in urban populations, and the inefficiency of the current food system as motivation for turning to vertical farming to produce food where people actually eat and live.
"INFARM is pioneering on-demand farming services to help cities become self-sufficient in their food production, while eliminating waste and reducing their environmental impact," Galonska says.
Melbourne-based Farmwall leases indoor vertical farms the size of small bookshelves to restaurants and cafes. The farms are designed to be visually appealing, with fish tanks at the bottom supplying nutrient-rich water to the hemp media in which herbs and microgreens grow under LED lights. As part of the subscription model, urban farmers come once a week to check water levels, bring new trays of greens, and maintain the system. So far, two restaurants have signed up -- Top Paddock, in the suburb of Richmond, and Higher Ground, an internationally recognized restaurant in Melbourne.
"It's worth it to the restaurants because they get fresh produce at their fingertips and it has all the benefits of having a garden out back without any of the work," says Serena Lee, Farmwall's co-founder and chief communications officer.
The sky's the limit for future venue possibilities: nursing homes, schools, hotel lobbies, businesses, homes.
"Urban farming is never going to feed the world," Lee acknowledges. "We understand that and we're not saying it will, but when people are able to watch their food grow onsite, it triggers an awareness of local food production. It teaches people about how technology and science can work in coherence with nature to create something super-efficient, sustainable, and beautiful."
At the restaurant Otium in Los Angeles, a peaceful rooftop garden sits atop a structure of concrete and steel that overlooks the hustle and bustle of downtown LA. Vegetables and herbs grown on the roof include Red Ribbon Sorrel, fennel fronds, borage blossoms, nasturtium, bush basil, mustard frills, mustard greens, kale, arugula, petit leaf lettuce, and mizuna. Chef Timothy Hollingsworth delights in Otium's ability to grow herbs that local purveyors don't offer, like the wild Middle Eastern Za'atar he uses on grilled steak with onions and sumac.
"I don't think this growing trend [of urban farming] is something that will be limited to a handful of restaurants," says Hollingsworth. "Every business should be concerned with sustainability and strive to protect the environment, so I think we will be seeing more and more gardening efforts throughout the country."
Whether a garden is vertical or horizontal, indoors or outdoors, on a roof or in a basement, tending to one provides not only fresh food, but intangible benefits as well.
"When you put your time and love into something," says Hollingsworth, "it really makes you respect and appreciate the produce from every stage of its life."
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Stacey Khoury felt more fatigued and out of breath than she was used to from just walking up the steps to her job in retail jewelry sales in Nashville, Tennessee. By the time she got home, she was more exhausted than usual, too.
"I just thought I was working too hard and needed more exercise," recalls the native Nashvillian about those days in December 2010. "All of the usual excuses you make when you're not feeling 100%."
As a professional gemologist, being hospitalized during peak holiday sales season wasn't particularly convenient. There was no way around it though when her primary care physician advised Khoury to see a blood disorder oncologist because of her disturbing blood count numbers. As part of a routine medical exam, a complete blood count screens for a variety of diseases and conditions that affect blood cells, such as anemia, infection, inflammation, bleeding disorders and cancer.
"If approved, it will allow more patients to potentially receive a transplant than would have gotten one before."
While she was in the hospital, a bone marrow biopsy revealed that Khoury had acute myeloid leukemia, or AML, a high-risk blood cancer. After Khoury completed an intense first round of chemotherapy, her oncologist recommended a bone marrow transplant. The potentially curative treatment for blood-cancer patients requires them to first receive a high dose of chemotherapy. Next, an infusion of stem cells from a healthy donor's bone marrow helps form new blood cells to fight off the cancer long-term.
Each year, approximately 8,000 patients in the U.S. with AML and other blood cancers receive a bone marrow transplant from a donor, according to the Center for International Blood and Marrow Transplant Research. But Khoury wasn't so lucky. She ended up being among the estimated 40% of patients eligible for bone marrow transplants who don't receive one, usually because there's no matched donor available.
Khoury's oncologist told her about another option. She could enter a clinical trial for an investigational cell therapy called omidubicel, which is being developed by Israeli biotech company Gamida Cell. The company's cell therapy, which is still experimental, could up a new avenue of treatment for cancer patients who can't get a bone marrow transplant.
Omidubicel consists of stem cells from cord blood that have been expanded using Gamida's technology to ensure there are enough cells for a therapeutic dose. The company's technology allows the immature cord blood cells to multiply quickly in the lab. Like a bone marrow transplant, the goal of the therapy is to make sure the donor cells make their way to the bone marrow and begin producing healthy new cells — a process called engraftment.
"If approved, it will allow more patients to potentially receive a transplant than would have gotten one before, so there's something very novel and exciting about that," says Ronit Simantov, Gamida Cell's chief medical officer.
Khoury and her husband Rick packed up their car and headed to the closest trial site, the Duke University School of Medicine, roughly 500 miles away. There they met with Mitchell Horowitz, a stem cell transplant specialist at Duke and principal investigator for Gamida's omidubicel study in the U.S.
He told Khoury she was a perfect candidate for the trial, and she enrolled immediately. "When you have one of two decisions, and it's either do this or you're probably not going to be around, it was a pretty easy decision to make, and I am truly thankful for that," she says.
Khoury's treatment started at the end of March 2011, and she was home by July 4 that year. She say the therapy "worked the way the doctors wanted it to work." Khoury's blood counts were rising quicker than the people who had bone marrow matches, and she was discharged from Duke earlier than other patients were.
By expanding the number of cord blood cells — which are typically too few to treat an adult — omidubicel allows doctors to use cord blood for patients who require a transplant but don't have a donor match for bone marrow.
Patients receiving omidubicel first get a blood test to determine their human leukocyte antigen, or HLA, type. This protein is found on most cells in the body and is an important regulator of the immune system. HLA typing is used to match patients to bone marrow and cord blood donors, but cord blood doesn't require as close of a match.
Like bone marrow transplants, one potential complication of omidubicel is graft-versus-host disease, when the donated bone marrow or stem cells register the recipient's body as foreign and attack the body. Depending on the severity of the response, according to the Mayo Clinic, treatment includes medication to suppress the immune system, such as steroids. In clinical trials, the occurrence of graft-versus-host disease with omidubicel was comparable with traditional bone marrow transplants.
"Transplant doctors are working on improving that," Simantov says. "A number of new therapies that specifically address graft-versus-host disease will be making some headway in the coming months and years."
Gamida released the results of the Phase 3 study in February and continues to follow Khoury and the other study patients for their long-term outcomes. The large randomized trial evaluated the safety and efficacy of omidubicel compared to standard umbilical cord blood transplants in patients with blood cancer who didn't have a suitable bone marrow donor. Around 120 patients aged 12 to 65 across the U.S., Europe and Asia were included in the trial. The study found that omidubicel resulted in faster recovery, fewer bacterial and viral infections and fewer days in the hospital.
The company plans to seek FDA approval this year. Simantov anticipates the therapy will receive FDA approval by 2022.
"Opening up cord blood transplants is very important, especially for people of diverse ethnic backgrounds," says oncologist Gary Schiller, principal investigator at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA for Gamida Cell's mid- and late-stage trials. "This expansion technology makes a big difference because it makes cord blood an available option for those who do not have another donor source."
As for Khoury, who proudly celebrated the anniversary of her first transplant in April—she remains cancer free and continues to work full-time as a gemologist. When she has a little free time, she enjoys gardening, sewing, or maybe traveling to national parks like Yellowstone or the Grand Canyon with her husband Rick.