The indoor farming industry has seen a huge influx of investment over the past year and therefore has become a popular solution for growers. As I wrote before, AppHarvest has attracted top investors such as Martha Stewart and venture capitalists, and in September 2020 went public through a combination with special purpose acquisition company Novus Capital. Corp.
I recently had the chance to speak to Paul Lightfoot, founder of another indoor farming company, BrightFarms, which is the first indoor farming company to be acquired by a blue chip investor, Cox. Enterprises. The company has also experienced rapid growth, recently outnumbering its products in 4,000 stores, including Food Lion, Kroger, Ahold-Delhaize, Marianos and Walmart.
Paul also focused on education and developing ideas on how the food industry can work to reverse climate change through his negative foods newsletter. So, as part of my research on goal-driven companies, I was interested in learning more about the founding of BrightFarms and Paul’s take on carbon footprints, carbon labeling and how agriculture can shift to a more regenerative model. Below is a slightly edited excerpt from our online conversation.
Chris Marquis: Can you tell me why you founded BrightFarms and what is the company’s mission?
Paul lightfoot: I created BrightFarms to replace a long, complex supply chain with a short, simple supply chain. Previously, almost all salads in the United States were grown on the West Coast. The duration of complexity was worse for the products and consumed resources unnecessarily. Today, the fast growing segment of the salad industry are local salads grown indoors.
BrightFarms’ mission is to make people healthier with food and reduce the environmental impact of food.
Marquis: One area that you focus on in your writing is foods that are carbon neutral or negative. Can you provide details on how consumers can make better climate-focused food choices?
Light foot: In the (hopefully not too distant) future, effective carbon labels will make it easy for consumers to select climate-friendly foods. Until this becomes widespread practice, what can we do?
- Eat at home. Typically, you’ll eat at home with a lighter carbon footprint. In my edition of the What Foods Should You Buy newsletter, I created the Negative Foods List to get you started. Stock your fridge, chest freezer, and pantry with the items on this list. Also, include lots of fruits and vegetables.
- When you eat out. It can be difficult, but in table service restaurants I try to stick to vegetarian or seafood options to be on the safe side. In a chain of restaurants with tough menu choices, a salad bar can save the day.
- Eat meat selectively. Processed meat is the most climate-damaging food, but regeneratively produced meat can sequester carbon on a net basis. For more useful information on this, listen to the Audible version of We are the Weather to find out why we should avoid meat before dinner.
Marquis: What is your opinion on the potential of carbon labeling? I see this phenomenon more and more in everything from shoes to salads. Do you think it really makes a difference?
Light foot: I believe it will make a difference. The growing demand for negative foods will help reverse climate change. The current problem is that unlike organic farming (governed by the USDA), there are no standard or widely accepted certifications for the carbon footprint of foods. We need to empower consumers to make informed carbon footprint choices and for that they need carbon labeling for negative foods in order to capture market share. In past efforts, cost and effort was a big factor in the failure of carbon labels, but now, fortunately, the tools to measure footprints are easier and cheaper. Peter Dering of Peak Design co-founded the nonprofit Climate Neutral to help other companies measure their carbon footprint with less cost and effort. In order to predict the potential success of carbon labeling, we only have to look at organic. Consumers are willing to pay more for food they believe is better for their health and better for the earth. I am confident the same could work for carbon labeling with a uniform standard that is well known and easy for consumers to follow.
Marquis: Do you have any idea of the importance of regenerative agriculture compared to the much better known organic standard?
Light foot: Although I buy a lot of organic food, it is not enough. Certified organic farms are prohibited from using most chemical and synthetic pesticides and fertilizers. But he does not have improved the environment because nearly zero percent of our farmland is certified organic. And organic farms can still release a lot of carbon.
In fact, during the long and steady increase in organic food, the use of pesticides and chemical fertilizers has also increased in the United States. These and animal waste are the main sources of carbon emissions in agriculture and our food system is responsible for more than a quarter of carbon emissions.
But regenerative agriculture makes the difference. If you look at the beef industry, for example, the worst climate player in our food system. But when produced regeneratively, it’s good for the climate, by pulling carbon from the atmosphere on a net basis.
A word of warning, however. Definition of regeneration needs. If the meaning of “regenerative agriculture” is not standardized, there is a risk that it will become watered down (like the way we use “natural” today).