Focusing in on the details of the food revolution that is on its way

It’s not agriculture the way most of us think of it: A farmer on a tractor plowing up the soil or a crew of farmworkers harvesting a crop. How could it be? Karim Giscombe, founder and CEO of PLANT-AG, sees the food system as so broken that the only way to fix it is to start all over again.

That’s why he wants to develop the first fully transparent source-to-plate supply chain that has everyone in that chain, including the consumer, in mind. For example, a buyer will be able to track a vegetable or fruit’s journey from where it sprouted as a seed to your grocery store shelf, or restaurant. And although a lot of produce now bears labels saying what area it comes from, information about how it grew and how it got there is still unknown to most people and not verifiable.

In Giscombe’s mind, this is not the way things should be. He blames this lack of knowledge for allowing foodborne illnesses to become such a serious health crisis. The numbers say it all. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, foodborne illness is a preventable public health challenge that causes an estimated 48 million illnesses and 3,000 deaths each year in the United States.

Not that this dismaying situation happened overnight. It wasn’t all that long ago that people did know where their food came from. Family farms that supplied local stores dotted the landscape. Giscombe believes that the change started with industrialization and the resulting “busier” lives people live.

“Convenience and immediacy, that’s the consumer dynamic,” he said. “If a consumer wants something, and it’s not there, he or she will go go somewhere else to buy it. When it comes to agriculture, stores have to keep enough food on their shelves to satisfy consumer demand. And that means there has to be a system in place that can supply it even if it means getting the food from distant places.”

The problem is that a lot of produce grown conventionally is in most cases coming from thousands of miles away, “and that means it has lost 50 percent or more of its nutrition by the time the consumer buys it,” he said. 

As a result, most consumers don’t even remember how good food used to taste — food that’s been grown in their own area. And their level of expectations have fallen. 

“We can’t expect reality to change until consumers change,” said Giscombe. “The average consumers — they’re the ones who have to demand quality food. Until they do that, the industry won’t change. That’s why it’s so imperative to educate the consumer.”

Giscombe believes that “we’re on the brink of a generational change,” and he refers to technological breakthroughs that can be used for innovations and improvements across the agricultural chain.

“We have a generation of consumers who want to know what they’re getting and where it’s coming from. This is a demand issue, not a supply issue,” he said. 

One fell swoop

While there are companies hacking away at fixing parts of the farm-to-table journey, Giscombe believes it will take what he refers to as one fell swoop to fix what he sees as the “broken system.” 

This comes in the form of what he calls Agriculture as a Service (AaaS), a novel and unique combination of cutting-edge breakthroughs, among them high-tech greenhouse farming, blockchain to track products across the supply chain, and environmental monitoring systems that can collect and analyze billions of gigabytes of data points around the clock. 

Giscombe said that if all this sounds familiar, it’s because this is very much “big data.” But unlike what we’ve come to expect from the tech titans, the PLANT-AG platform is being built on an open source framework. In other words, it’s accessible for free to anyone engaged in any area of fruit and vegetable development and production.

In the coming months, consumers will be able to access verifiable information on the DNA of a produce item, the cultivation (planting, growing and harvesting), see inside the actual facilities where their lettuce, tomatoes, strawberries and more are being produced and even transported, all in real-time on their smartphone. When you talk about last-mile visibility across the fresh produce supply chain, PLANT-AG is looking to set the standard.

“If ever there was a time to ask society ‘what do you want to know about food’, this is it,” he said.

A lot of this comes down to what he would call the “front end” of the system. In the case of food safety, for example, instead of figuring out how a foodborne pathogen contaminated a crop, it will use all the gigabytes of information being collected to prevent it from happening in the first place.

Giscombe says that taking a preventive stand means making the process before shipment safer instead of reacting to outbreaks after they happen.

Taking care of the environment is also part of this. In contrast to outdoor farms, the greenhouse facilities are designed to optimize regenerative power sources that allow for the best environmental alignment based on availability by location. This includes, solar, and wind to  power expansive hydroponic systems. Hydroponics, which relies on using water instead of soil to grow crops, uses 15 times less water than conventional farming.

Meanwhile, the produce grown inside these greenhouses is protected not only from harmful weather but also many pesticides. Not to mention wild animal intrusions, many pests, and the dangers of agricultural run-off, and even the humans interacting with the produce who can bring contaminants in with them.

“Food safety is paramount to what we’re doing,” he said, pointing out that there are many overlaps with the Food Safety Modernization Act and PLANT-AG, especially when it comes to traceability. 

Go here (https://www.foodsafetynews.com/2020/02/safety-aspects-of-indoor-farming-signal-a-change-in-agriculture/#more-192514) for more information about food safety and greenhouse growing.

Go here (http://ceafoodsafety.org/) for information about the Controlled Environment Agriculture Food Safety Coalition (http://ceafoodsafety.org/). 

Fresh food year-round

There are advantages in all of this to be sure, but Giscombe said there’s another important one: “This sort of farming gives broader and more equitable access to communities and allows for year-round access to fresh produce grown in their area. And it’s this access, alongside the kind of efficiency you’d expect from Amazon, that will ensure your food is not only fresh, but with stipulations such as hold time for distributors being not not more than 72 hours, PLANT-AG products will be the freshest you can get. And that can translate into an important food-safety advantage compared to food that’s been trucked across the country under all sorts of weather and storage conditions. 

“No one can do it faster,” he said, referring to getting food delivered quickly.

More nutritious food is also part of this. 

Michael Barron, of AeroFarms, sums it up this way: “With the increased control you can produce more, and you can also have it be higher quality. You can change the nutrition of it. There is a lot more you can do. It gives you a lot more control over the crop and the production of the crop.”

The dreamer

Who is this dreamer who wants to transform the current agricultural system by launching a $9 billion infrastructure project that will close the knowledge gap about where our food comes from?

 A former investment banker at Merrill Lynch, Giscombe, 45, is the founder and CEO of PlANT-AG, whose first facility is a sprawling 700 acres of greenhouse production capacity that looks more like a Silicon Valley complex than a farm. There are plans to deliver a total 3,000 acres for the next five years. When asked for comment on dates, the only response given was that produce units will be available for the markets served by the first site by the fall of 2022.

Along the way in his former career in investment banking, Giscombe gained the rare ability to see how businesses are nurtured. With that, he decided it was time to step aside and make a change.

“I had a greater appreciation for market dynamics than in years past,” he said. 

Giscombe has put more than six years of his life into this and is currently raising $9 billion to make it happen. What’s driving him is the belief that more and more consumers want to know where what the food they’re buying comes from. 

To fund it, Giscombe said, “the capital marketplace wasn’t ready for a project like this,” which necessitated alternative thinking on capital structuring. Phase one of the massive infrastructure project totals just more than $9 billion, with less than $800 million being offered to investors outside of the green-bonds, brought to market by the over 100-year-old Chicago-based investment bank B.C. Ziegler and the sizable J.P. Morgan, whose commitment to sustainable finance and specifically green bonds leads the industry.

Institutional investors in this financing will be betting on Giscombe’s vision, the high powered team assembled around him, including former Victoria’s Secret PINK COO Richard Dent and former Pepsi CMO Cie Nicholson, that this network of high-tech greenhouses is in fact “The Future of Food.” 

The first site, a greenhouse complex just outside Jacksonville, FL, was originally slated to begin construction this month, but has been pushed back to allow for the expansion of the site which was originally 400 acres, but grew based on demand across the series area and to allow for the incorporation of technology, which Giscombe says was worth the wait. By fall 2022, the PLANT-AG expects to be supplying produce such as lettuce, tomatoes, eggplants, blueberries, strawberries, kale and sweet peppers to markets across the southeastern U.S. 

The USDA refers to greenhouses and controlled-environment agriculture, or CEA.

According to a report from Fast. MR, Marketing and Consulting, in 2019, 55 percent of the world’s population lived in urban areas, a proportion that is expected to increase to 68 percent by 2050. Yet, the population living in urban areas are demanding locally grown foods such as fruits, vegetables and meat.

CEA producers across the globe are setting up their production centers near urban consumers to take advantage of this trend because of their close proximity to urban centers.

It is estimated that the global controlled environment agriculture market will be worth more than USD $1,42,222.6 million by 2024. 

One thing we can say about indoor farming in 2020: it grew, both in market size and investment, says an article in “The Spoon.”

Into the future

Giscombe points out that there are many cities 500 miles or closer to the north Florida site. That translates into faster shipping and fresher food. More than that, it will taste better because the process by which it is grown was designed for quality and flavor and not to withstand the rigors of thousands of miles of travel. And it will be more nutritious for the same reason.

But that’s just the beginning. From there, the company has already secured contracts in more than nine other key markets to supply the south-central U.S. and the broader Eastern Seaboard by 2025. The goal is to fully decentralize production of “high-risk produce items” — lettuce, tomatoes, eggplants, blueberries,

Photo illustration

strawberries, kale and sweet peppers, for example — via a widespread network that will allow food produced in the protected environments to be shipped to customers in the same region where the production sites are located. That, in turn, will help tackle the consolidation of the produce industry, which often leads to produce being shipped across the country instead of to markets close to where it was grown. 

Within four years, the company predicts it will be able to feed one-third of the United States with fresh produce that was growing a scant 72 hours earlier. Not only that, it expects to be able to do that with “consumer-friendly” prices. “No more $6-head-of-lettuce.” 

“If this isn’t accessible to everybody we (the industry) have failed in our responsibility to the consumer and society at large,” said Giscombe. 

Markedly reduced shipping costs are part of the cost savings achieved. 

The company has brought in other industry leaders such as VB Greenhouses Projects, a top Dutch builder, to build its mega sites, and Green Automation for leafy green production systems, among many others.  

Giscombe said that the goal is to optimize automation and human labor.

“It takes more than just operational knowledge to accomplish that,” he said. “It takes innovation and the humility to acknowledge the critical importance of experience, which is why we chose partners like these. Green Automation already had the premier lettuce system in which the seeding is done with an automated machine, and cutting the lettuce leaves is also automated, eliminating the need for human hands touching the item.”

Photo illustration

All technicians which is what farmworkers are called, must adhere to stringent protocols before entering the production areas, all of are part of the safety-first approach to working in the protected environment.

Should a pathogen get into a greenhouse, that specific zone will be locked off, thus keeping one area separate from others. In addition, workers in one zone can’t intermingle with workers in other zones. And tools are also row-specific.

All of these precautions, and more, are based on the goal of keeping food safe for consumers, who are becoming increasingly aware of how important food safety is. 

Another advantage to controlled environment agriculture is reducing food waste. According to the USDA, moving production to controlled environments, such as greenhouses or vertical farming concepts, has the potential to reduce food waste by minimizing environmental exposure that can create cosmetic imperfections. 

“These production systems also allow production schedules to synchronize to the timing of typical consumer demand patterns rather than to favorable weather patterns, which may also reduce waste through closer alignment of the timing of the demand and supply of perishable produce,” the USDA researchers conclude.

How will consumers know

“Oh, trust me, they’ll know,” Giscombe said with regards to how PLANT-AG will set itself apart from the competition. “We don’t believe that the current agricultural system is sustainable nor even meeting the true needs of the consumer, and we aren’t going to pretend. No meaningful change has ever occurred in any industry without challenging the status quo, and we fully appreciate that fact.”

He said that’s reflected in the brand identity and “we’re excited about it.”

When looking at consumer demographics, he said that Gen Z (people born between 1995 and 2010)  is tomorrow’s consumer, and has a right to be heard.

“We’ve listened, and now we’re responding,” he said.

 In addition, PLANT-AG will be launching a nationwide billboard campaign in the end of May to educate consumers about their food to empower them to choose. And it will be launching its website this month also. 

“To be clear, this in not advertising,” he said. “If you buy our product, it will be because you made an educated choice, not because you were sold on a story. It (the approach taken in PLANT-AG’s educational campaign) might rattle people’s cages just a little.”

Another unique component of the company and its approach is it’s not-for-profit research and development arm, PLANT-4TMRW which plans to continue its work in education through partnerships across K-12, and advanced research initiatives with distinguished entities like the University of Florida – IFAS (Institute for Food and Agricultural Sciences).

The solution is here

Giscobme believes the solution to transforming the current agricultural system is already here.

“Hidden in the technological advancements of our time and the given ability to source both qualitative and quantitative data in ways previously unavailable to us, is a ‘solution set’ that can  — if used objectively and made accessible to all — reconstitute the dynamic, which is the global food supply system,” he said. “The question that must be answered is how that is developed with the consumer and their needs at the center.”

“The world has changed,” he said, “and large corporations are looking to evolve because consumers are expecting more.”

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