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Zombie Lettuce and Desert Blueberries

Henry Gordon-Smith wants to feed you – and the world.  

“The sad truth,” says agri-tech expert Henry Gordon-Smith, speaking from the Persian Gulf, “is that agriculture is under a huge threat right now. Which means our food supply is under a huge threat. Which means our very lives are endangered.”

Gordon-Smith, the Founder and CEO of Agritecture, the world's leading urban agriculture consultancy and farm planning SaaS, rattles off the many causes of the growing global food crisis. Depleted soil. Water shortages. Toxic pesticides. One sprawling, concrete megalopolis after another with little access to local food.

Henry_Smith_MMDHenry Gordon-Smith at YASAI in Switzerland. 

“And,” he warns, “there are more shocks to the system coming. Droughts, floods, hurricanes. The countries and the regions like the US and Canada that produce most of our food are going to start to retract and export less. As these losses happen, it's crucial that every country starts to invest in localization of agriculture. We need to reinvent the globalized food system – which has had its benefits of course. We have gained mass-industrialized foods, but we have lost quality, transparency and resilience.”

CUSTOMIZED LOCAL-CENTRIC AGRICULTURAL ARCHITECTING

The path forward, he says, toward more, fresher, and healthier food requires flexibility; thus the need for customized, local-centric agricultural architecting. And there is no one-size-fits-all solution.  

MMD_Henry_Gordon_Smith_IMG1 

“I look at everything,” says Gordon Smith, with his customary enthusiasm. “Local power utilities, available land, climate, local labor supplies. We ask what does this market need here? What are they willing to pay? What capital is available? What are the systems we can apply? What’s the tech that we can apply and that might be appropriate?

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"So, for example, African farmers are small farmers with little money. They can’t refrigerate, and have to sell to local brokers. By contrast, in the Middle East, there's a high level of liquidity to both buy and pay for expensive produce – but there’s little arable land and extreme climate conditions. This,” says Gordon Smith, “makes my job really fun – looking at all the factors and creating local solutions that work.”

THIS IS WHAT CLIMATE CHANGE LOOKS LIKE

Looking out his window at the gleaming towers of Dubai, he says, “let’s start right here with the Middle East. Twelve of the fifteen most water-insecure countries in the world are here. This is what climate change looks like. They need high-quality food and we need to bring agriculture closer to the cities where there is massive and growing demand.”

Henry_Smith_IMG2MMDA vision of urban agriculture in NYC.

Fortunately, an abundance of oil money there gives him options.

“We can bring low-tech solutions like shade structures.  Or we can put up medium-tech greenhouses. Or, we can construct completely enclosed greenhouses and replicate the mediterranean climate. This way we can also totally eliminate the need for pesticides. Here, we can facilitate ultimate control, just at a higher cost.”

The UAE, he says, is a leader in creating resilient food systems.

“There's been massive demand over the last decade in this region, and that continues to fuel more high-tech farms producing year-round production. Just this week I got to visit 5 hectares of blueberry production, and 30 hectares of raspberry production just a few miles out of Dubai. It's really quite impressive what they're doing.” 

Despite his efforts, modernizing agriculture around the globe is far more difficult than the glittering poster children of tech – AI, robotics, nano-technology, etc.

Henry_Gordon_Smith_MMDIMG4There is a Regen-Tech Revolution Brewing in Agriculture.

“Agriculture is the least-digitized industry in the world, yet it requires so much innovation. Farmers are aging, they tend to operate from intuition, and margins are razor thin. But more and more people want clean, quality food and they want consistency. Of course I favor regenerative agriculture, and it can create abundance, but the result is abundance that’s variable. So my job is to look at all the local factors and figure out how to make consistent food abundance happen right here.”

Making food grow “right here” is a top priority for Gordon-Smith and his company.

A WASTE OF TIME EATING LEAFY GREENS?

“It's not just that you need refrigeration and the right packaging to get food to all these different locations around the world. But there's actually nutritional loss. A lot of data and research shows that you lose nutrition, especially with a lot of the leafy greens. It's almost like a waste of your time to eat leafy greens that are coming to say, New York from California or Arizona, because as soon as the plant is harvested, it’s dying. It’s a race against time.”

Henry_smith_mmd_img3Can agrivoltaics be a win - win?

The solution? 

“What we try to do,” he says, “is try to develop farms that are within one day of the consumer. To produce fresh local produce – that makes a big difference, not just for flavor, but also for nutrition. That's what more consumers are clamoring for. The question is, how do we actually develop those technologies to do that? It’s like a puzzle, and one that I get to try to figure out every day when I head to work.”

Gordon-Smith pauses and adds another thought about his sense of mission.

RESTORATION OF FOOD PRINCIPLES

“Food is more than just about filling our bellies. When we moved from rural environments into cities and started to value real estate and dollars over resources, we lost so much of the human journey. We've turned food into commodities, into brands as opposed to the real resources they are, the flavor they can give us and our very relationship with the Earth. We have a generation that has lost their connection with agriculture, with the land. So my work is about more than producing quantity or consistency, it’s about a restoration of original principles. It’s about taking care of ourselves, but it’s also about taking care of the Earth.”

Written by Adam Gilad


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