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."
On the morning of April 12, 1955, newsrooms across the United States inked headlines onto newsprint: the Salk Polio vaccine was "safe, effective, and potent." This was long-awaited news. Americans had limped through decades of fear, unaware of what caused polio or how to cure it, faced with the disease's terrifying, visible power to paralyze and kill, particularly children.
The announcement of the polio vaccine was celebrated with noisy jubilation: church bells rang, factory whistles sounded, people wept in the streets. Within weeks, mass inoculation began as the nation put its faith in a vaccine that would end polio.
Today, most of us are blissfully ignorant of child polio deaths, making it easier to believe that we have not personally benefited from the development of vaccines. According to Dr. Steven Pinker, cognitive psychologist and author of the bestselling book Enlightenment Now, we've become blasé to the gifts of science. "The default expectation is not that disease is part of life and science is a godsend, but that health is the default, and any disease is some outrage," he says.
The Rise and Fall of Public Trust<p>When the polio vaccine was released in 1955, "we were nearing an all-time high point in public trust," says Matt Baum, Harvard Kennedy School professor and lead author of <a href="http://www.kateto.net/covid19/COVID19%20CONSORTIUM%20REPORT%2013%20TRUST%20SEP%202020.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><u>several</u></a> <a href="https://shorensteincenter.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/09/COVID19-CONSORTIUM-REPORT-14-MISINFO-SEP-2020.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><u>reports</u></a> measuring public trust and vaccine confidence. Baum explains that the U.S. was experiencing a post-war boom following the Allied triumph in WWII, a popular Roosevelt presidency, and the rapid innovation that elevated the country to an international superpower.</p><p> The 1950s witnessed the emergence of nuclear technology, a space program, and unprecedented medical breakthroughs, adds Emily Brunson, Texas State University anthropologist and co-chair of the Working Group on Readying Populations for COVID-19 Vaccine. "Antibiotics were a game changer," she states. While before, people got sick with pneumonia for a month, suddenly they had access to pills that accelerated recovery. </p><p>During this period, science seemed to hold all the answers; people embraced the idea that we could "come to know the world with an absolute truth," Brunson explains. Doctors were portrayed as unquestioned gods, so Americans were primed to trust experts who told them the polio vaccine was safe. </p>
The Shift in How We Consume Information<p>In the 1950s, the media created an informational consensus. The fundamental ideas the public consumed about the state of the world were unified. "People argued about the best solutions, but didn't fundamentally disagree on the factual baseline," says Baum. Indeed, the messaging around the polio vaccine was centralized and consistent, led by President Roosevelt's successful <a href="https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ978264.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><u>March of Dimes crusade</u></a>. People of lower socioeconomic status with limited access to this information were <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1551508/?page=3" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><u>less likely to have confidence</u></a> in the vaccine, but most people consumed <a href="https://www.c-span.org/video/?506891-1/a-special-report-polio" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><u>media that assured them</u></a> of the vaccine's safety and <a href="https://www.cbsnews.com/news/the-salk-polio-vaccine-greatest-public-health-experiment-in-history/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><u>mobilized them</u></a> to receive it. </p><p>Today, the information we consume is no longer centralized—in fact, just the opposite. "When you take that away, it's hard for people to know what to trust and what not to trust," Baum explains. We've witnessed an increase in polarization and the technology that makes it easier to give people what they want to hear, reinforcing the human tendencies to vilify the other side and reinforce our preexisting ideas. When information is engineered to further an agenda, each choice and risk calculation made while navigating the COVID-19 pandemic <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2020/12/19/opinion/sunday/coronavirus-science.html?referringSource=articleShare" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><u>is deeply politicized</u></a>. </p><p>This polarization maps onto a rise in socioeconomic inequality and economic uncertainty. These factors, associated with a sense of lost control, prime people to embrace misinformation, explains Baum, especially when the situation is difficult to comprehend. "The beauty of conspiratorial thinking is that it provides answers to all these questions," he says. Today's insidious fragmentation of news media accelerates the circulation of mis- and disinformation, reaching more people faster, regardless of veracity or motivation. In the case of vaccines, skepticism around their origin, safety, and motivation is intensified. </p><p>Alongside the rise in polarization, Pinker says "the emotional tone of the news has gone downward since the 1940s, and journalists consider it a professional responsibility to cover the negative." Relentless focus on everything that goes wrong further erodes public trust and paints a picture of the world getting worse. "Life saved is not a news story," says Pinker, but perhaps it should be, he continues. "If people were more aware of how much better life was generally, they might be more receptive to improvements that will continue to make life better. These improvements don't happen by themselves."</p>
The Future Depends on Vaccine Confidence<p>So far, the U.S. has been unable to mitigate the catastrophic effects of the pandemic through social distancing, testing, and contact tracing. President Trump has <a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/bob-woodward-rage-book-trump/2020/09/09/0368fe3c-efd2-11ea-b4bc-3a2098fc73d4_story.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><u>downplayed the effects and threat of the virus</u></a>, <a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/2020/07/14/cdc-directors-trump-politics/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><u>censored experts and scientists</u></a>, <a href="https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2020/06/america-giving-up-on-pandemic/612796/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><u>given up on containing the spread</u></a>, and <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2020/09/16/world/covid-coronavirus.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><u>mobilized his base to protest masks</u></a>. The Trump Administration failed to devise a national plan, so our national plan has defaulted to hoping for the <a href="https://www.politico.com/news/2020/08/26/nation-of-miracles-pence-coronavirus-vaccine-rnc-402949" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><u>"miracle" of a vaccine</u></a>. And they are "something of a miracle," Pinker says, describing vaccines as "the most benevolent invention in the history of our species." In record-breaking time, three vaccines have arrived. But their impact will be weakened unless we achieve mass vaccination. As Brunson notes, "The technology isn't the fix; it's people taking the technology."</p><p> Significant challenges remain, including facilitating widespread access and supporting on-the-ground efforts to allay concerns and build trust with <a href="https://www.newyorker.com/news/daily-comment/african-american-resistance-to-the-covid-19-vaccine-reflects-a-broader-problem" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><u>specific populations with historic reasons for distrust</u></a>, says Brunson. Baum predicts continuing delays as well as deaths from other causes that will be linked to the vaccine. </p><p> Still, there's every reason for hope. The new administration "has its eyes wide open to these challenges. These are the kind of problems that are amenable to policy solutions if we have the will," Baum says. He forecasts widespread vaccination by late summer and a bounce back from the economic damage, a "Good News Story" that will bolster vaccine acceptance in the future. And Pinker reminds us that science, medicine, and public health have greatly extended our lives in the last few decades, a trend that can only continue if we're willing to roll up our sleeves. </p>
Imagine this scenario: you get an annoying cough and a bit of a fever. When you wake up the next morning you lose your sense of taste and smell. That sounds familiar, so you head to a doctor's office for a Covid test, which comes back positive.
Your next step? An anti-Covid nasal spray of course, a "trickster drug" that will clear the once-dangerous and deadly virus out of the body. The drug works by tricking the coronavirus with decoy receptors that appear to be just like those on the surface of our own cells. The virus latches onto the drug's molecules "thinking" it is breaking into human cells, but instead it flushes out of your system before it can cause any serious damage.
This may sounds like science fiction, but several research groups are already working on such trickster coronavirus drugs, with some candidates close to clinical trials and possibly even becoming available late this year. The teams began working on them when the pandemic arrived, and continued in lockdown.
Biochemist David Baker, pictured in his lab at the University of Washington.