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Leveraging Stranded Assets and Soilless Farming to Transform St. Louis

Revitalize St. Louis’ food system, improve diets, and boost the economy by leveraging stranded assets and community investments

Photo of Julia Kurnik
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Written by

Lead Applicant Organization Name

World Wildlife Fund - US

Lead Applicant Organization Type

  • Large NGO (over 50 employees)

If part of a multi-stakeholder entity (i.e. team), provide the names of other organizations and types of stakeholders collaborating with you.

Yield Lab Institute (4. Small NGO) Agritecture (2. Small Company) Bayer Crop Science (3. Large Company) St. Louis Economic Development Partnership (8. Government) Ameren (3. Large Company) Midwest BankCentre (9. Investment-based Organization) Danforth Plant Science Center (7. Researcher Institution) Schnucks (3. Large Company) Costco (3. Large Company) Fyffes (3. Large Company) St. Louis Community Development Fund (9. Investment-based Organization)

Website of Legally Registered Entity

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

  • 1-3 years

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

Washington, District of Columbia

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?

Greater St. Louis, Missouri area

What country is your selected Place located in?

United States of America

Describe your relationship to the place you’ve selected.

WWF has spent the past two years studying indoor soilless farming (controlled environment agriculture or CEA) and the past year digging into St. Louis. We found that CEA faces significant hurdles around energy and labor. While CEA farms can grow nearly anything, it doesn’t make sense to do so from an energy or cost perspective. Farms focus on leafy greens and herbs since fruiting crops require significant inputs of energy and have large percentages of inedible biomass. However, CEA also offers unique opportunities around local food, safe food, and supply chain resilience.

As we learned more about CEA, we began to narrow the list of target cities. We wanted seasonality (warm summers and cold winters) and therefore a limited outdoor growing season, a population of a million or more, and a variety of stranded assets (e.g. power plants, postal hubs) that could be used to tackle the hurdles facing the industry. St. Louis came out on top. It has an MSA of 2.8M people, strong seasonality, and a mix of different types of stranded/under-utilized assets such as power plants, USPS distribution hubs, brownfield sites, caves, and more. It also has a strong agricultural culture, is at the forefront of agricultural innovation with large companies like Bayer and Benson Hill, start-ups, and agtech accelerators, is home to world class universities, and has more plant scientists than any other area in the world. Finally, it is a city with significant poverty and extensive food deserts that could benefit from an innovative approach to urban farming.

 WWF convened a Stakeholder Working Group in St. Louis of indoor soilless farmers, researchers, local entrepreneurs, community banks, community foundations, grocery stores and other potential markets, agricultural and biotech companies, and economic development experts. This group will work together to inform and assist in bringing together a consortium of indoor farming practitioners and designing a pilot farm in St. Louis.

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.

St. Louis has a long and storied history. Situated on the banks of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers it was the gateway to the West and a hub for river commerce. Settlers originally came for its central location and connection to river commerce. They established trading posts, warehouses, transport companies, and banks. It incorporated in 1809 and in 1818 the first steamboat arrived, facilitating transportation upstream. This led to a boom in trading and increases in population, businesses, and schools.

The city’s population grew rapidly throughout the 19th century. It also expanded geographically to accommodate more people and added street cars, parks, and finally the St. Louis Fair which cemented its international reputation, drawing hundreds of thousands of visitors each year at a time when distant travel was arduous. This eventually became the World’s Fair in 1904, covering 1,272 acres and leading to construction of new hotels, offices, and homes as well as a booming population and a world stage. St. Louis continued to focus on agriculture, but also industry related to farming, such as processing and value-added products (e.g. it became the world’s largest producer of beer) and items farm families needed (e.g., shoes, stoves, wagons, and other products).

The Great Depression hit St. Louis, as it did all other cities, but WWII allowed production to ramp up, especially by the McDonnell Aircraft Corporation (eventually McDonnell Douglas) and the city emerged prosperous and popular after the war, with population peaking in 1950.

At that point, St. Louis soon began a slow but steady decline. Some of the largest companies were purchased and greatly reduced their local employment while others left. Jobs disappeared, people moved to the suburbs or fled the area altogether. Race riots, which continue to this day, decimated parts of downtown and sped up flight from the city.

 Today, the city remains proud of its “Gateway to the West” heritage but faces significant hurdles. The population continues to shrink, the poverty rate remains high (25%), and it is ranked as one of the most dangerous cities in the country, with a violent crime rate of 2,082 per 100,000 people in 2017. Yet at the same time, the city retains significant assets. It is home to a world class university (Washington University), boasts a thriving and top-ranked medical sector, and has a strong agricultural industry, the Missouri Botanical Gardens, the Danforth Plant Science Center, and US headquarters of Bayer (formerly Monsanto). It also enjoys a low unemployment rate, a highly recognizable arch which is the tallest monument in the US, and a diverse economy. Its population remains civic-minded and its leaders are eager to capitalize on that enthusiasm and restore St. Louis to its world status, but it is an uphill struggle that will be hard without additional outside partners and an agreed strategy. We think food is at the core of any strategy to revitalize the city.

What is the approximate size of your Place, in square kilometers? (New question, not required)


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


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

Of all human activities, agriculture has the largest global environmental impact. Food production accounts for 70% of biodiversity loss, 70% of freshwater use, and 24% of GHG emissions. Meanwhile, the economic cost of soil erosion in the US is estimated to be $44 billion annually, nutrient pollution is degrading water quality, and pesticide residue in surface water systems is damaging fisheries and posing a risk to human health.

Current farming methods are not sustainable. This is likely to worsen as the global population is expected to reach 10 billion people by 2050.

At the same time, 40% of all food is wasted (52% of fresh produce), and food rotting in landfills emits significant quantities of methane, increasing GHG emissions. Meanwhile, just 1 in 10 US adults in the US eat enough fresh produce according to the CDC.

St. Louis is no exception. Sixty-one percent of adults (16+) in the city are overweight or obese and access to fruits and vegetables remain low, especially for lower income residents. While Missouri has an average number of farmers markets, just .4% of them accept WIC or SNAP, one of the lowest rates in the country. And, while Missouri has a state farm to school program (only 3 states do not), school rates of participation are some of the lowest in the country.

The lack of access to fruits and vegetables is exacerbated by poverty and income disparity. Nearly a quarter of St. Louis residents live below the poverty line, and St. Louis has one of the nation’s worst rates of childhood poverty, at nearly 40%. This is especially true for minority residents. The population of the city is nearly evenly split between black and white residents. However, black residents are three times as likely to be poor as white ones. Neighborhoods are segregated and the lower-income, often heavily black, areas lack access to fresh food.

Emissions from coal permeate the city. Missouri burns more coal than any other state except Texas. Many of the coal-fired power plants are located along the Mississippi River, which also includes some of the lowest income neighborhoods and highest densities of African Americans, exacerbating racial health disparities.

At the same time, St. Louis is home to world class plant science and research institutions. Bayer Crop Science (formerly Monsanto) is headquartered here, the Danforth Plant Science Center is here, and the city is home to several universities, including Washington University. The city has great resources and is a hub for innovation, but the innovation is not being captured by the city or local community. St. Louis’ reputation has declined steadily from a century ago when it was renowned worldwide.

 Untreated, these problems will all worsen. Segregation will deepen and, with it, more health and economic disparities. St. Louis will continue to drift away from the once great city it was – and could be again.

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

CEA is generating excitement as it aims to reduce many of the harmful effects of conventional agriculture and to solve community problems. At scale, CEA could reduce pressures on land, biodiversity, natural habitat, and climate change while producing food closer to consumers. However, farms face common challenges related to energy and labor. They need to learn faster by sharing information. A consortium-created pilot farm in St. Louis, connected to the city’s research capacity, could be a hub that allow similar facilities from the US and other countries to share lessons and tackle industry challenges together while bringing fresh, local food and jobs to the city.

WWF is exploring how to overcome the high energy demands of these farms by leveraging stranded assets—large infrastructure investments such as power plants and postal hubs that have depreciated in value but will continue to function and be used for decades to come—and by working with our robust Stakeholder Working Group to attract a consortium of indoor farmers to St. Louis to design and build a pilot farming system. This would be a chance to take existing power plants but green their offering through co-location and symbiotic systems, allowing farms to flourish while decreasing net emissions.

These farms will also offer fresh fruits and vegetables to residents. St. Louis, like many cities, is an amalgam of wealthy areas where consumers prize local food and would like to see more of it and lower-income food deserts where quality fresh produce is hard to find. Yet, some of these lower income areas are also excellent sites for vertical farms. The US defines them as “Opportunity Zones,” low-income areas with tax benefits for investing capital. Brownfields also come with tax incentives and are good options since vertical or greenhouse farms do not need arable soil yet benefit from these sites’ connection to infrastructure (e.g. electricity grid, transportation routes, etc.) With our local stakeholders, we will continue to explore whether these farms could provide access to fresh food in places that currently lack it while making farms more financially effective and connecting them through food and jobs to local populations.

 CEA farms will bring jobs to the city. The multiplier effect goes well beyond direct employment. It also includes processing, distribution, input suppliers and openings in retail and the food industry locally. We will work with community and economic development groups to discuss different business models. For example, we will discuss options for equity to vest with workers or to the community. Our vision is to create a replicable food system that is not only environmentally sustainable, but one that is financially viable and benefits the local community. We will explore the role of Community Funds as impact investors in such work as a model not just for St. Louis but for other communities as well.

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.

St. Louis will reclaim its place as an innovative, thriving city with lessons to offer the world. It will host a consortium of vertical farms and be home to a series of innovative, symbiotic vertical farms funded and planned as a community, located on brownfields, and linked to power plants, CO2 emissions, and other systems. The pilot in St. Louis will become the center of activity for this growing industry and a chance to test and demonstrate unique business and ownership models and unusual collaborations. Lessons learned will be replicated worldwide.

Reverberations will be felt citywide. There will be more jobs and the production of healthy, fresh produce year-round will mean more fresh food for residents who did not have access to it before. Health will improve as low income and minority residents improve their diets and their livelihoods not just due to access but to education from their neighborhood vertical farms. Nutrition will improve and malnutrition and obesity rates will drop as fewer people live in food deserts. Hospitals will partner with these vertical farms to promote healthier diets for their patients. Schools will purchase food from these farms and grow their own food through small, demo farms that are integrated into lesson plans. And, agricultural classes in schools will focus on 21st century, urban farming that students relate to and see as a future for themselves and their community.

Since these farms will be built on brownfields, in caves, and in Opportunity Zones, previously disenfranchised neighborhoods will be revitalized and offered as examples to other cities as ways to boost the local economy while creating profitable businesses. Jobs are created at farms and in associated industries. A network will be built that will attract more agritech and agricultural innovation to the region. The city’s population is growing again and neighborhoods are restored. St. Louis is on its way to its proper place as a quintessential American city.

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

WWF envisions a chance to revitalize St. Louis by convening a unique coalition of diverse partners to tackle some of the hurdles facing CEA. Innovation in this space (including not just the technology and genetics associated with vertical ag, but also the business models and sources of finance) would reverberate throughout the city, addressing environmental concerns, bringing technological prowess, improving health, and re-creating a positive sense of community.

An innovative approach to CEA could bring huge environmental advantages. Indoor soilless agriculture uses a fraction (often less than 5%) of the water used in conventional agriculture, eliminates soil erosion and pesticide use, drastically reduces transportation and distribution, and reduces food waste. And, while it is currently energy-intensive, by partnering with and making use of stranded or underutilized assets, such as power plants, this innovative form of farming has a chance to green current energy sources in and around St. Louis. There are endless opportunities for symbiotic systems. Excess heat from these farms could be captured and used to produce energy – or captured and used to heat a local school or office building. Plant residuals could be fed into biomass filters and used to create energy. Carbon dioxide currently emitted from power plants (or breweries) could be captured, scrubbed, and utilized by soilless farms to speed up plant growth and take emissions out of the atmosphere.

These same opportunities bring technological advances, too. St. Louis has a long history and connection to agriculture and remains at the forefront of agricultural innovation through Bayer and the Danforth Plant Science Center, among others. However, it has lost its place on the world stage and many of the advances done here do not benefit the community beyond the employment impacts of the companies. By not only building state-of-the-art vertical farms that bring together unique coalitions but also establishing a Center for Excellence in this industry and entirely new strains of crops that perform better in vertical systems, St. Louis has a chance to invest directly in these farms as a community. Gains would come not just through ownership but community involvement, the ability to market technical innovation, and recognition of the city as the place to visit, replicate, and learn from as these farms proliferate worldwide.

This innovation doesn’t need to be limited to technology, either. St. Louis can pioneer and pilot policies that boost the CEA industry while directly affecting its residents. For example, low postal rates could be offered for CSA (community supported agriculture) in the same way nonprofits receive postal discounts today. While this might be hard to immediately pass on a federal level, St. Louis could pilot the program by subsidizing postal rates at a city or state level and serve as a living test lab to positively affect national policy. Discounted rates would make use of an existing yet underutilized asset, the postal system, while allowing individual, local farmers to deliver food to homes rather than ceding the market to national distribution companies. It means bigger markets for fresh produce, and therefore more farmers producing fresh food, while also providing a means to get produce to areas that might not otherwise have access to them. This access could mean improved nutrition, lower obesity rates, and better long-term health while decreasing food deserts through several forms of innovation.

While innovative transportation and delivery could democratize farming for growers and consumers, locating vertical farms in the city and at least some of them specifically in low-income food deserts demonstrates the effect of such farms on the diets of local citizens. Accessibility to fresh produce is an important concern, but studies have shown that simply offering fruits and vegetables is not enough. Farming in the community makes fresh, highly nutritious fruits and vegetables available year-round. This would create not only excitement but local ownership. Children could see farms and the produce growing – something that is usually not possible in a city. Small, demo farms could be situated in schools, equivalent to a high-tech vegetable garden, but with built-in chemistry, science, and engineering lessons. Policies could require more nutritious school lunches and pave the way for partnerships between schools and farms.

In a city that has struggled with racial strife and segregation, these farms will bring all parts of the community together. By designing these systems from scratch, we have the chance to put them in previously disenfranchised locations and vest equity in groups who have been marginalized. This could be done through direct investments to ensure that ownership, jobs, and benefits accrue to groups that could benefit the most, such as youth, minorities, and women. And, the jobs that are created are not simply farm laborer positions, but also ones that require higher skills and yield more benefits and higher wages. This includes jobs at farms as well as at associated industries that develop technology for the farms, new seeds, processing of produce, and more. Partnerships could be developed with high schools, technical training programs, or universities to offer skills training or certificates outside of current educations.

These would be true community farms. St. Louis could invest in them as a community. The Stakeholder Working Group brings together a diverse coalition not only to build successful farms but to do it as a group of local partners that can address different aspects of life in St. Louis.  The farms’ fresh fruit and vegetables would help address some of the existing racial and income gaps with regard to access to local, healthy food and obesity and democratize access to and knowledge of healthy food. People who might not otherwise get a chance to work together or even meet would be able to do so through these farms.

 We envision a system which will test new and innovative ideas that can be adapted and replicated worldwide, making food production more environmentally sustainable and shrinking urban food deserts globally. St. Louis can be the center of excellence in vertical farming and reinvigorating pride and self-respect in the community.

How did you hear about the Food System Vision Prize?

  • colleague


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