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  • Ali Tadlaoui

Indoor farming - tasty tomatoes with no soil...really?

My grandmother, my mother's mother, lived in a small, corner apartment on the north side of Copenhagen. She relished fresh cucumbers, so she managed to coax them to climb up a fragile trellis in the pale, Nordic light, on a north-facing bay window sill. Unfortunately, we didn't visit Mormor in Denmark very often so I don't recall seeing more than a few of her cucumbers. For a small city boy like me this plant was a bit magical. The whole process of growing an edible fruit inside, especially in that smoky, musty, formally but sparsely furnished apartment was mysterious.


The memory of these home-grown, finger-length cukes on the vine had been tucked away until I read a brief article in Fast Company last week about a massive indoor farm in Kentucky. My grandmother didn't need more than a summer harvest of a pound or two. She lived alone. I think growing them was as much a precious hobby as a craving for the freshest possible cucumber. AppHarvest, on the other hand, is producing tomatoes to ship all over the country. They say this one facility will be able to grow up to 45 million pounds of tomatoes annually.


It would seem that we need a range of food production systems, including indoor farming given the environmental challenges we face like soil degradation and more severe flooding and drought cycles. AppHarvest's model uses no soil and counts on mostly filtered rainwater and natural light. They claim too that because the farm is centrally located the facility has a smaller carbon footprint than operations that import produce from Mexico or ship exclusively from California or Florida.


Where AppHarvest is taking advantage of relatively affordable land in Appalachia to spread growing containers over almost 3 million square feet, AeroFarms, promotes vertical farming, stacking growing containers up to the rafters. AeroFarms' flagship vertical farm in Newark, NJ can produce up to 2 million pounds on 70,000 square feet with a closed system of carefully monitored and metered artificial light, water, oxygen, and nutrients. Again, no soil. And in this case, no natural sunlight.


What does an AppHarvest tomato taste like? How might an AeroFarms cucumber compare with cucumbers grown in soil, out in the elements? I'm finishing up a Talk to Me About Food podcast about regenerative agriculture. Regenerative agriculture is all about the soil. Rainfall and natural light photosynthesis are the same critical inputs as AppHarvest relies on...the difference is soil. What are we missing if we skip the soil, and the particular piece of land the soil covers?


Well, it's the interaction between the organisms in the soil and the plants growing in that soil that most determines both the taste and nutritive density of the stuff grown. Minerals make a cucumber or tomato taste better and minerals get into the plants through vigorous microbial activity in the soil.


The quality of a vegetable growing in the earth, outside, is also impacted by its interaction with the quantity and quality of light, the wind, humidity, as well as other natural variables and how these factors are variable on any given day or across a growing season. These disruptions build resilience but also add a unique taste profile to what's growing on the land. Carrots and beets benefit from the first touches of cold in the fall. They get sweeter as carbohydrates are released. Growth slows down when the frosts arrive which makes these root vegetables more nutrient-dense too. The cold gets more flavor out of things than summer's heat.


What about the pollinators? They too impact the flavor of what you bite into. I've had melon that tastes of floral lavender and I've sunk my teeth into melon that is almost mushroom earthy.


The symbiotic relationship between root and soil organisms. The climate. The solar and lunar cycles at a given latitude and longitude. The interaction between plant and animal, whether it's a bird or a bee or foraging mammal. This can't all be simulated indoors. I can't help but believe that a tomato grown on a vegetable patch will taste better than one grown indoors. Certainly different.


But I think too there is more to consider here than the taste benefits of a cucumber or tomato grown outdoors in fertile soil - and, by the way, there is evidence that food grown using regenerative agriculture is much more nutrient-dense too. The traditional approach also offers a vital symbol of our connection to nature. A reminder to most of us who are food consumers, not producers, that we are part of this living ecosystem not apart from it. A reminder that we need not envision ourselves forever more sequestered in a bubble where human activities, like food production, are uniform, prescribed, and controlled. LED lights, misters, fans, fertilizers metered out by algorithm-driven timers.


Food grown indoors might taste different, in a good way, or be better in some other way. But it should complement land-grown food, I think. AppHarvest's CEO says that most big scale fruit and vegetable production will end up being done in controlled environments like AppHarvest's. But I hope we can maintain a balance between food grown in the lab or lab-like environments and food grown in the wild of eco-mimicry on land teeming with the full range of flora and fauna above ground and the same, deep biodiversity below ground too. I think a balance is better for the collective physical and mental health of Homo Sapiens. We are still of this Earth.


Maybe my grandmother sought, in a small way, to strive for this balance; to nurture this attenuating connection to nature every spring when she tended to her bay window cucumbers.


Let's not assume that We will allow soils to continue to degrade so that we must rely on soil-free indoor farming, and meat grown in a lab (cell-cultured chicken was approved for sale in Singapore just a few weeks ago).



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