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Ending Food Insecurity in Virginia - A scalable model with global potential

Changing the paradigm of traditional agricultural practices using vertical hydroponic farming.

Photo of Alexander  Olesen
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Written by

Lead Applicant Organization Name

Babylon Micro-Farms, Inc.

Lead Applicant Organization Type

  • Small company (under 50 employees)

Website of Legally Registered Entity

www.babylonmicrofarms.com

How long have you / your team been working on this Vision?

  • 1-3 years

Lead Applicant: In what city or town are you located?

Charlottesville

Lead Applicant: In what country are you located?

United States of America

Your Selected Place: what’s the name of the Place you’re developing a Vision for?

Virginia

What country is your selected Place located in?

United States of America

Describe your relationship to the place you’ve selected.

Virginia is where Babylon Micro-Farms grew out of a vision developed by co-founders Alexander Olesen and Graham Smith while studying at the University of Virginia (UVa). The initial iteration for our current model of urban agricultural farming was incubated and developed at ILab at UVa. The company was founded and is based in Charlottesville, the geographic center of Virginia. Generally considered to be a diverse community because of the University presence, Charlottesville reflects Babylon’s core values of inclusion and diversity and focuses on a broad cross-section of talent to solve the ongoing problem of the presence of food deserts in even the most seemingly economically secure communities. The University provides a myriad of resources for connecting our work to other organizations, creating a collaborative base for furthering research and development because it is a state university and our target area is the entire state, which we plan to use as a proving ground for a food system that is intended to be a global solution for food insecurity. As the birthplace of Babylon and our home we care deeply about Virginia’s future and how we can help effect change in an increasingly economically challenging environment that threatens people’s access to healthy food sources. Charlottesville is an excellent option to initially test both our farms and our mission as we develop a state-wide system to support expansion and make fresh produce available to people that would not otherwise be able to afford it. Virginia’s economy has historically been agrarian-based and the shift from traditional agricultural practices to a 21st-century approach is a natural progression. An ongoing movement away from conventional farming to a model which encompasses changing technological capabilities and allows for the next generations to embrace a food system structure that is not weather and season dependent will remove a large portion of the vulnerability of food production.

Describe the People and Place: Provide information that would be helpful for an outsider who has never been there and may have no context about this Place to better understand the area.

Virginia is one of the oldest agrarian environments on the North American continent. Pre-dating colonization the First Peoples had grown and harvested crops and hunted their food for millennia. Initial encounters between colonists and indigenous people were around food according to the history books. Because Virginia stretches from the Atlantic across the Chesapeake Bay to the Blue Ridge mountains, access to a variety of food sources was plentiful and ranged from fish, shellfish and game to corn, squash and berries, to name just a few. Colonists began farming in a more structured manner, based on the markets that shipping trade routes allowed them to engage in. As cities were established the populations began to expand with the nearby local farming communities providing food to them. The temperate climate and fertile soils were ideal for crop production and the original economy was dominantly agrarian, a trend that is still true today. The original cash crops were cotton and tobacco, both relied on a slave driven economy, now the number one crop is soybeans, which rely heavily on export trade. Aquaculture, once a thriving industry, has been hard hit by overfishing, loss of habitat and non-point pollution that has affected water quality and the resulting die-off of 90% of the shellfish populations. In the 20th century, growth of urban areas resulted in a reduction of the percentage of rural area populations as jobs and housing became more plentiful around new industries – Virginia’s population breakdown according to the Cooper Center for Public Service as of January 2019 is 7,399,579 residing in metropolitan areas and 1,118,106 in rural areas. Metropolitan areas also include suburbs and there is a clear connection between suburban growth and loss of farmland as well as the distance food has to travel (food miles) to reach the point of consumer consumption. Urban growth encouraged the advent of larger numbers of immigrants, allowing for a far more diverse ethnic population. For example, the metropolitan Washington area is a melting pot of peoples from all over the globe and smaller cities like Richmond, Norfolk and Charlottesville have benefitted from the influx of new cultural influences. While Virginia began as one of the original colonies predominantly populated by white Europeans it is now home to a wide cross-section of ethnicities, the effect has been to broaden and permanently change the cultural traditions practiced here. The holidays now observed and celebrated with traditional foods encompass everything from Eastern Orthodox Christmas to Ramadan. The once solidly Southern fare permanently changed as the arrival of new citizens has broadened Virginia’s standard fare to traditional dishes served the world over. This has skewed food consumption away from a diet that relied heavily on fried and fat and starch-heavy foods, which have contributed to the health crisis facing our culture today that include heart disease, diabetes, and cancer.

What is the estimated population (current 2020) in your Place?

8517685

Challenges: Describe the current (2020) and the future (2050) challenges that your food system faces.

Across the state, consistent access to fresh food remains a challenge for many residents. The negative environmental impact of the current model of importing foods from thousands of miles away is significant. The average out of season blueberry has a huge carbon footprint when imported from Colombia. Given that the growing season is five months long there is a definite need for a more environmentally sensitive and practical approach to farming. Arable land is a finite resource and is being consistently used up by the expanding housing needs and commercial development required for Virginia’s rapidly growing population. Farmland is being developed daily, exacerbating the inability to source food locally for most population centers. The existence of schoolyard garden programs resulted from children not having any idea where and how their food came from. Modern transportation and a global economy have resulted in the movement away from eating what was seasonally available and preserving and canning local foods. Modern packaging in and chemical preservation technologies developed over the last eight decades have resulted in a widespread and fundamental change in dietary habits. The trend that has prevailed has been the consumption of processed foods that are both unhealthy and has contributed to the current obesity crisis, leading to a wide variety of other health problems. Seventy-five years ago a Virginia child reaching for a snack in the winter would have had limited choices, peanuts, dried or canned fruit or the equivalent, now the grocery stores offer unlimited options, very few of them either local or healthy. In a culture that places convenience over nutritional value, the impact on public health has been enormous. Engineering food is not going to solve all the problems we face, the cost of food waste alone is in the billions annually. Hydroponics allows you to plan yield based on usage and eliminates a large percentage of food waste. By 2050 the challenge of a drastically increased population will mean more demand and pressure on food systems which are already inadequate as evidenced by the existing food deserts. Importing food, with all the aforementioned consequences, will become even more costly, both environmentally and financially. Urban centers already experience high traffic volume and larger population density will multiply access issues and given an already overburdened transportation infrastructure the problems surrounding food access will multiply. None of this bodes well for having sufficient food supplies based on current agricultural practices and transportation models. If Virginia keeps pace with the global population increase a conservative population estimate will be 21 million people. The amount of land lost is incalculable and given the reality of the past thirty years, we will still be behind a very large curve in terms of being able to supply food for that entire population unless a new model is implemented.

Address the Challenges: Describe how your Vision will address the challenges described in the previous question.

Ultimately Babylon’s goal is to create a disruptive indoor farming platform that changes the supply chain for fresh produce. Having a technology-based platform that through a patent-pending doser system that controls the scalable farming systems through an IoT app incorporating AI and machine-based learning allows anyone to effectively farm and removes the technical expertise required for standard hydroponic farming units. Vertical farming can be done in almost any indoor space and removes the requirement of vast acres of land and back-breaking labor and overhead expenses required by conventional farming methods. It has the added benefit of providing immediate access to the food being grown, in Babylon’s farm environments the produce grown is harvested and eaten on the same day. To realize the full potential of our vision, a network of partnerships will be developed and vertical farming will become a standard system for making fresh foods available to not only people living in food-insecure areas but also the average consumer that shops in grocery stores, eats at work, belongs to a CSA or purchases farms to have in their homes. The ability to farm anywhere from local grocery stores to corporate campuses to retirement communities enables people to eat year-round in a way that has not been available to them in Virginia’s history. Our Proposed Partners Cooperative (detailed below) covers a broad range from local and state school systems, state and federal agencies, locally founded organizations directly involved in promoting farm to fork agricultural enterprises and non-profits connected to the underserved populations we seek to serve and employ. 1) Virginia Department of Agricultural and Consumer Services 2) USDA 3) Central District and Henrico Offices, Virginia Cooperative Extension 4) Virginia Tech 5) University of Virginia 6) Hatch Kitchen, Richmond 7) The Local Food Hub, Charlottesville 8) Blue Ridge Food Bank 9) The Haven, Charlottesville 10) Bellair CSA 11) Albemarle County Public Schools 12) Henrico Public Schools 13) Virginia Beach Public Schools 14) Chefs Brigaid Vertical hydroponic farming on a large scale can meet the demands of future population numbers by taking up less space per pound of yield, offering healthier alternatives and enabling a major reduction in the environmental impact of food production and transportation. As Babylon’s technology and designs advance, the opportunity to grow a broader selection of crops including berries and root vegetables will provide higher caloric values and the contributions to a fully realized dietary menu will be a meaningful addition to the current crop availability. Incorporating foods grown hydroponically into daily diets for the average citizen will have far-reaching consequences across the board in terms of individual impact and public health. The drop in consumption of fresh, non-processed foods has been a trend since modern packaging and preservation began.

High Level Vision: With these challenges addressed, now provide a high level description of how the Place and the lives of its People will be different than they are now.

Babylon’s vision is to create an environmentally responsible, easily accessible food system in Virginia to change the paradigm of produce production as it exists today. Creating a series of urban food hubs around the state that farm hydroponically is the first step. Featuring year-round locally grown fresh fruits and produce will serve the burgeoning population and reduce waste and address the current reality of industrially sourced foods and enable people to eat healthier diets. Additionally, having end-users that are high volume daily consumers such as school systems, corporate campuses, retirement communities, hospitals, prisons, and military bases will have an exponential impact on how food is sourced and consumed. As available farmland shrinks and the number of people farming falls we must design sustainable systems that adequately address the exponential population growth we face. Virginia is an excellent canvas to begin drawing a map for our collective future. It has the potential to be the first state to adopt a food system that embraces and plans for the future, rather than subsidizing an archaic model that no longer has the ability to feed people in a healthy way. The prevailing cultural norm in Virginia is a high fat, high starch, high sodium diet, predominantly highly processed and imported, that has a serious impact on public health and creates huge, unnecessary healthcare costs. Traditional agricultural methods are not sufficient to feed our future population estimates. In vertical hydroponic farming, the average yield is 200% higher per square foot and uses 90% less water, an increasingly precious, finite resource. Urban residents, a population predicted to increase globally by 64% by 2050, will need alternatives to the current unsustainable practice of agriculture and we need to put those systems in place now before food scarcity compounds our already widespread problems of food insecurity.

Full Vision: How do you describe your Vision for a regenerative and nourishing food future for your Place and People for 2050?

Our vision is to effect long term change in how Virginia’s food supply system can be improved, become economically and environmentally sustainable and more efficient in connecting people to their food sources. The model is designed to translate into global applications in the long term. A variety of venues have a growing need for fresh food – for example, the public school systems, which would access the most vulnerable populations directly. The National School Lunch Program could directly benefit from food being grown in schools, providing fresh, healthy food and allowing teachable moments where children could be exposed not just to how their food is grown but could also envision careers in farming, STEM fields and food service. Nationally, school systems are the largest food service providers, serving over 5 billion meals every year. Imagine if those meals were partially locally sourced year-round, consisting of the freshest possible foods. The establishment of schoolyard garden programs across the country is evidence that the myriad of problems associated with eating an unhealthy diet are clearly recognized. Our solution specifically addresses the need for easier access to healthy options. Food banks, now hampered by growing seasons and the waste and perishable nature of produce, could grow a variety of crops on-site and move away from the far less nutritious canned and frozen options. Given that they serve the most food insecure demographic, it would be remarkable progress for food banks to be able to have an ample supply of healthy, fresh food. Establishing local urban food hubs could assist existing CSA’s (Community Supported Agriculture) programs to supply their customers with a full year of product, changing the economic reality and disadvantage of farming as a seasonal business. Farmers would have a year-round revenue stream. The hubs could offer a subscription service to local restaurants and grocery stores, removing the necessity for retail space being taken up while simultaneously giving a variety of produce menu options tailored to their particular demographic. Herbs, greens, lettuces and berries could all be grown on demand. Using the vast amount of warehouse space left empty by the reduction in tobacco production and the overall economic hit taken by farming as a result of the globalization of our economy would revive local economies by establishing vertical farming centers that could grow thousands of tons of produce daily. Job creation would range on the front end from light manufacturing of the farms, technology manufacturing for dosers, sensors and cameras and technical support and on the back end the actual farming, packaging, wholesale and retail sales, providing a living wage for people currently living near or below the poverty line in depressed areas across the state. Approaching the problem from the perspective of improving people’s economic status and their food security simultaneously and the long term health benefits that result from eating a healthier diet is a winning combination. Babylon is placing farms in stores, restaurants, hospitals and retirement homes and is poised to expand on our identified addressable markets. This initial growth created jobs as well as access to healthier food. The growing demand for alternatives to GMO enhanced foods and locally sourced options will drive our expansion and impact as we further develop and implement a food system we believe is the answer to the complex problems facing our world today in terms of both dietary health and responsible alternatives to the current agricultural realities. The advantages of vertical hydroponics farming are not just limited to food availability - consider the following statistics: 1)The yield from a 15 sf vertical farm requires the equivalent of 2005 sf of farmland (3788 plants per year) which equals a 99.3% reduction in space usage 2) No dependence on weather or availability of healthy soils 3) On-site farming requires 99.9% less transportation 4) Hydroponics uses 94% less fertilizer and zero pesticides 5) There is 95% less food waste 6) Packaging is essentially eliminated resulting in 99% less plastic waste 7) More nutrients are retained – leafy greens bought in stores have 75% less vitamin C, 49% less iron, 25 % less calcium, 24% less potassium 8) The average farm to fork time in traditional farming is 12 to 24 days with 47% weight lost to dehydration. The ramifications of adopting an environmentally responsible agriculture model are far-reaching not only in terms of being able to feed people more efficiently but also in the ancillary effects – not using pesticides and the large reduction of fertilizer will have a huge impact on non-point runoff pollution for the Chesapeake Bay watershed, most of which is located in Virginia. The effect on drinking water, aquaculture and contaminants reaching the ocean cannot be underestimated. To realize full access for everyone living in Virginia to local foods the reality is that it needs to remain affordable and profitable all the way down the supply chain. Most farmers deal with outlets that only wholesale their product, resulting in a much lower price per pound and cutting into their profits by using a middle man. Very few small farmers have the capacity to store and ship to individual retail outlets, most of whom buy wholesale. A scheduled weekly or bi-weekly delivery to a nearby food hub is a realistic tactic, the food hub would have the necessary storage space and consumers could shop directly, receiving all the benefits of local food. Ultimately the success of establishing urban food hubs around the state will only transform the current food system if they offer a wider selection of foods that are locally sourced, not just greens and berries. The ideal model would be a subscription service that is app-controlled and offers a broad range of products selections that are ordered in advance. This model already exists with CSA’s, the major difference is the limited selection offered. The highest possible use of the food hub concept is to make it available to all local farmers and consumers, making it a cost-effective, efficient system of getting fresh local foods from farm to plate. While many grocery stores offer local foods, currently there is no single source outlet for foods only sourced locally. Pre-ordering groceries is already standard practice at chain grocery stores. Imagine being able to purchase everything from your salad, your salad dressing, your potatoes, green beans and meat choice from a single outlet, all locally grown, from your phone, the current way our culture sources almost everything now. The largest challenge facing the disruption of the current food system model is the entrenched ways that food is grown, sourced and consumed. The time for change is now, in the face of the coming population explosion and the resulting scarcity of food, particularly for people that are already living in or on the edge of poverty. Early exposure to healthier choices through providing school children with from scratch, locally sourced meals needs to be a priority if we are going to effectively change the present dietary habits of the majority of the population which eats an increasingly unhealthy diet, impacting public health. Increasing consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables from early ages will significantly impact that reality as we inform and encourage our children to make better choices about what they put in their bodies. Our eating habits are directly responsible for many of the already astronomical healthcare costs we face as a nation. Lobbying public officials to mandate percentages of foods sold to schools being locally sourced and creating awareness campaigns that are incorporated into curriculum are two simple ways to alter how children eat. New public policy needs to reflect the growing awareness of the connection between diet and health, just as anti-smoking and pro-exercise campaigns have been adopted and become part of the influence wielded by our elected officials. Our Proposed Partners Cooperative covers a broad range from local and state school systems, state and federal agencies, locally founded organizations directly involved in promoting farm to fork agricultural enterprises and non-profits connected to the underserved populations we seek to serve and employ. The ideal place for pilot urban food hub programs would be urban centers, starting with Richmond and expanding to Virginia Beach, the largest city in Virginia. The existence of food banks, food security networks, elected officials and state and federal agencies will be used to establish an advocacy network that engenders success by designing programs that can be replicated across the state. The entry of fresh foods into the K – 12 public school systems would be the first policy initiative, beginning with vertical farms in cafeterias, followed by the introduction of other locally sourced foods. Colleges and universities would be the next step in order to in order to continue the influence toward healthier eating in young adults as they will be the next generation to have children and can pass along better dietary habits to them. Further expansion into the private sector would be the second initiative, what if you could eat a salad harvested hours before at the local hospital, retirement home or at work? Making local foods available to everyone is simply a matter of being willing and determined to shift the paradigm so that the new norm becomes hydroponically-grown blueberries vs. those imported from four thousand miles away and beef raised responsibly in the same state you live in rather than in Kansas. As we incorporate a simpler supply option, people will embrace the chance to support their local economies, their neighbors and live healthier lives as a result. These changes will be transformative on many levels and need to happen now.

How did you hear about the Food System Vision Prize?

  • University of Virginia sent us an email detailing the prize and thought it aligned with our mission.
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Team (8)

Alexander 's profile
Graham's profile
Graham Smith

Role added on team:

"Chief Technology Officer and co-founder, Graham manages the team to advance the technological goals and is responsible for much of the existing unprecedented systems Babylon employs in our platforms. Prior to co-founding Babylon, he was the lead in developing machine learning algorithms to identify breast cancer biomarkers from mass spectrometry data. Graham will lead the team and will prototype the doser, develop the machine learning algorithms, and design the physical systems."

Amandeep's profile
Evan's profile
Evan Lesmez

Role added on team:

"For Babylon, Evan has developed a comprehensive mobile application, the databases that support our data and research, and the software that runs our computer vision data collection. He will be continuing to write the software as new versions are tested and implemented. He has written software for embedded systems and developed multiple web and mobile applications from concept to implementation for environmental devices."

Carmen's profile
Carmen McDonald

Role added on team:

"Carmen is our admin expert and without her, we would all be running in circles. She keeps the ship on course and makes sure team members have what they need to get their jobs done. Her support is as invaluable as it is often invisible and appears effortless. Her hard work maintaining our administrative and HR departments makes what we do possible."

Marc's profile
Marc Oosterhuis

Role added on team:

"As Chief Operating Officer Marc brings decades of expertise in global manufacturing to the table and assists in both realizing and expanding Babylon's mission."

Sam's profile
Sam Lewando

Role added on team:

"Before joining Babylon as a Mechanical Engineer, Sam worked in urban agriculture in Washington, D.C., first with Anacostia Aquaponics, then with Cultivate the City, designing and managing commercial urban farms in Southeast Washington. His talents are put to good use at Babylon, he is responsible for much of the current vertical farm design and it's progress to the sleek, sophisticated units available today."

David's profile
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Forbes Article - November 2019

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