How do you feed a growing population, protect the planet from climate change, and transition a sputtering economy?
These are some of the hardest questions facing world leaders in the decades ahead. And a new startup based in Appalachia in the United States is taking an early crack at them.
AppHarvest is an agriculture company that wants to revolutionize how food is produced and do it in a way that both empowers local communities and promotes ecological integrity.
“By 2050, the world will need to feed more than 9 billion people,” Jonathan Webb, the CEO and founder of AppHarvest, told Global Citizen. “Between now and 2050, we need 50% to 70% more food production to feed the global population.”
“The way we currently produce food, we would need two planets for all the water and resources,” he added.
AppHarvest uses the United Nations’ Global Goals, which are a blueprint for ending poverty, combating climate change, and empowering marginalized communities, as a corporate lodestar, a guide to follow when it comes to sustainable and ethical decision-making, Webb said.
The company employs local people who have a deep connection to the region, setting a foundation for long-term economic stability.
“These are people who are connected to nature, to the environment, they have ideas on how to build resilient communities,” Webb said. “How do we lift up voices inside these communities and help them figure out what their path forward is?”
AppHarvest is focused on being an environmental leader in the agricultural space.
Our facility will utilize technology developed by The Netherlands, the world leader in horticulture. pic.twitter.com/8igmUOIr5f— AppHarvest (@AppHarvest) November 19, 2019
The company plans to use 90% less water than traditional agriculture, release substantially less greenhouse gas emissions, avoid harmful chemicals, and grow crops 365 days a year.
The United Nations warns that the world could face major food shortages in the decades ahead as the population grows and climate change makes it harder to grow crops in historically fertile agricultural zones.
Countries have to begin investing in climate-resilient crops and technological solutions that maximize yield, minimize land use, and reduce food waste, according to the World Resources Institute.
AppHarvest has yet to grow crops, but it already has plans to sell produce to the top 25 food retailers in the US. The company is in the process of building a 2.7 million square foot greenhouse in Morehead, Kentucky.
Progress 🇺🇸 #FarmingNowpic.twitter.com/JsPVYUKc0D— AppHarvest (@AppHarvest) November 26, 2019
In many ways, the company is a rural cousin to urban vertical farming in its embrace of technology and efficiency.
An irrigation system will allow the facility to collect rainwater on its roof and funnel it to a 10-acre retention pond, which allows the operators to significantly cut down on water use.
Unlike most urban vertical farms in warehouses, the AppHarvest facility will have glass walls that allow sunlight to stream in, reducing the need for outside sources of energy. A $15-million LED light system will provide the rest of the energy.
The company plans to reduce the carbon footprint of produce consumed across the US, which generally has to travel far distances after being grown in California, Mexico, or elsewhere. By growing vegetables in Kentucky, AppHarvest trucks can ship to 70% of the US population within a day.
Webb said that AppHarvest is filling an economic void in Appalachia created when the coal industry collapsed. Tens of thousands of workers were suddenly out of work when mines closed, and many of the legislative proposals designed to help them transition into new fields were largely spiked by Republican lawmakers.
Coal mines have a long history of union organizing — of workers building solidarity to counter the exploitative maneuvers of mine owners and to demand better working conditions and pay.
As coal use declined because of its horrific environmental consequences, unions fell apart in the region, depriving people of a source of community and economic stability.
AppHarvest is a part of a wave of companies seeking to revitalize the region, transforming it from a hub of dirty energy into a model of sustainability, and returning it to its roots in labor rights.
“We’re in a region so heavily impacted by the decline of coal, people are so excited by the prospect of leading an industry,” Webb said. “We have the opportunity to go from a region that powered the country to a region that sustainable feeds the country.”