No E. Coli in This Lettuce: Tour the World’s Most Innovative Urban Farms

Farm.One's underground Tribeca location grows over 100 different varieties of edible flowers, herbs and microgreens at any one time.

(Courtesy)


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.

NEW YORK

(Courtesy)

Farm.One's underground Tribeca location grows over 100 different varieties of edible flowers, herbs and microgreens at any one time.

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."

PHILADELPHIA

(Courtesy)

Jack Griffin, president of Metropolis Farms, atop sunflowers grown at his indoor farm.

"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?"

BERLIN

(Courtesy)

GOOD BANK at lunch: the first vertical farm-to-table restaurant in the world.

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

(Photo credit: Matters Journal)

Geert Hendrix, founder and CEO, looking at the first Farmwall prototype.

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."

LOS ANGELES

(Otium)

Chef Timothy Hollingsworth at the Los Angeles restaurant Otium's rooftop garden.

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."

Kira Peikoff
Kira Peikoff is the editor-in-chief of Leaps.org. As a journalist, her work has appeared in The New York Times, Newsweek, Nautilus, Popular Mechanics, The New York Academy of Sciences, and other outlets. She is also the author of four suspense novels that explore controversial issues arising from scientific innovation: Living Proof, No Time to Die, Die Again Tomorrow, and Mother Knows Best. Peikoff holds a B.A. in Journalism from New York University and an M.S. in Bioethics from Columbia University. She lives in New Jersey with her husband and son.
Get our top stories twice a month
Follow us on

David Kurtz making DNA sequencing libraries in his lab.

Photo credit: Florian Scherer

When David M. Kurtz was doing his clinical fellowship at Stanford University Medical Center in 2009, specializing in lymphoma treatments, he found himself grappling with a question no one could answer. A typical regimen for these blood cancers prescribed six cycles of chemotherapy, but no one knew why. "The number seemed to be drawn out of a hat," Kurtz says. Some patients felt much better after just two doses, but had to endure the toxic effects of the entire course. For some elderly patients, the side effects of chemo are so harsh, they alone can kill. Others appeared to be cancer-free on the CT scans after the requisite six but then succumbed to it months later.

"Anecdotally, one patient decided to stop therapy after one dose because he felt it was so toxic that he opted for hospice instead," says Kurtz, now an oncologist at the center. "Five years down the road, he was alive and well. For him, just one dose was enough." Others would return for their one-year check up and find that their tumors grew back. Kurtz felt that while CT scans and MRIs were powerful tools, they weren't perfect ones. They couldn't tell him if there were any cancer cells left, stealthily waiting to germinate again. The scans only showed the tumor once it was back.

Blood cancers claim about 68,000 people a year, with a new diagnosis made about every three minutes, according to the Leukemia Research Foundation. For patients with B-cell lymphoma, which Kurtz focuses on, the survival chances are better than for some others. About 60 percent are cured, but the remaining 40 percent will relapse—possibly because they will have a negative CT scan, but still harbor malignant cells. "You can't see this on imaging," says Michael Green, who also treats blood cancers at University of Texas MD Anderson Medical Center.

Keep Reading Keep Reading
Lina Zeldovich
Lina Zeldovich has written about science, medicine and technology for Scientific American, Reader’s Digest, Mosaic Science and other publications. She’s an alumna of Columbia University School of Journalism and the author of the upcoming book, The Other Dark Matter: The Science and Business of Turning Waste into Wealth, from Chicago University Press. You can find her on http://linazeldovich.com/ and @linazeldovich.


Reporter Michaela Haas takes Aptera's Sol car out for a test drive in San Diego, Calif.

Courtesy Haas

The white two-seater car that rolls down the street in the Sorrento Valley of San Diego looks like a futuristic batmobile, with its long aerodynamic tail and curved underbelly. Called 'Sol' (Spanish for "sun"), it runs solely on solar and could be the future of green cars. Its maker, the California startup Aptera, has announced the production of Sol, the world's first mass-produced solar vehicle, by the end of this year. Aptera co-founder Chris Anthony points to the sky as he says, "On this sunny California day, there is ample fuel. You never need to charge the car."

If you live in a sunny state like California or Florida, you might never need to plug in the streamlined Sol because the solar panels recharge while driving and parked. Its 60-mile range is more than the average commuter needs. For cloudy weather, battery packs can be recharged electronically for a range of up to 1,000 miles. The ultra-aerodynamic shape made of lightweight materials such as carbon, Kevlar, and hemp makes the Sol four times more energy-efficient than a Tesla, according to Aptera. "The material is seven times stronger than steel and even survives hail or an angry ex-girlfriend," Anthony promises.

Keep Reading Keep Reading
Michaela Haas
Michaela Haas, PhD, is an award-winning reporter and author, most recently of Bouncing Forward: The Art and Science of Cultivating Resilience (Atria). Her work has been published in the New York Times, Mother Jones, the Huffington Post, and numerous other media. Find her at www.MichaelaHaas.com and Twitter @MichaelaHaas!