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Two Young Entrepreneurs Offer Way to Grow Food Even in the Dead of Winter

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As the Eastern U.S. deals with sub-freezing temperatures and lots of snow (looking at you Boston), two young entrepreneurs, Jon Friedman and Brad McNamara, who happen to live in Boston, have a solution to produce food locally even in the middle of winter. Freight Farms, which Friedman and McNamara started in 2010, sells insulated shipping containers, which they've nicknamed Leafy Green Machines, as part of what they call "the next generation of food supply."

Founders Jon Friedman, left, and Brad McNamara, right. Photo credit: Freight Farms

The converted shipping containers are "outfitted with vertical hydroponics, high efficiency LED lights and an automated climate control system," according to their website. The automated system allows users to easily produce "high volume, consistent harvests." Yesterday, Friedman and McNamara joined Jeremy Hobson of NPR's Here & Now to discuss their start up.

Friedman, McNamara and Hobson stood outside in sub-freezing temperatures next to four Leafy Green Machines. Inside these converted shipping containers are (you guessed it!) thousands of varieties of leafy greens including lettuces, herbs and brassicas.

"We can take this all over and to places that don't have access to food," says McNamara. Their idea has been met with skepticism from some, but everyone understands when you explain that "if you want lettuce in New England right now, it's coming from really far away," says Friedman.

Is this catching on? The two have sold 25 units so far, starting around $76,000 per unit. "Between 50 and 100 people a month come in and say I want to get involved with this," says McNamara. Growing food might be the world's oldest profession, but Friedman and McNamara are bringing food production into the 21st century.

"Each farm is a wifi-enabled hotspot, so your farm ... is immediately on the web and all of our farms are connected to our network," McNamara says. "All of our farmers use our farm hand mobile app to monitor their farms 24/7. They can set alerts. They can set alarms."

Sean and Connie Cooney are two happy Freight Farms customers. With their Leafy Green Machine, they can monitor temperature, nutrient and pH levels, and even watch live video of their plants from anywhere with the company's mobile app. "We like to think of it as farming by computer but we still get our hands in there," says Connie Cooney.

Sean Cooney said they chose to buy one because "it seemed like the only scalable way" to grow food in a city and make money doing it as opposed to needing "acres and acres of land further away from the city." They sell most of their greens, including cilantro, mustard green, wild mint, kale, purslane and sorrel, to restaurants. The plants grow more quickly and can grow all year long, and they taste as good or better than what you would buy from a "dirt farm," according to Sean Cooney.

Friedman and McNamara estimate the annual operating costs at $13,000 a year—for electricity, water, packaging and growing supplies—but with plans to incorporate renewable energy sources such as solar panels, that cost could drop significantly.

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Protestors marched outside the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey on Monday, August 26, during the MTV Video and Music Awards to bring attention to the water crisis currently gripping the city. Karla Ann Cote / NurPhoto / Getty Images

By Will Sarni

It is far too easy to view scarcity and poor quality of water as issues solely affecting emerging economies. While the images of women and children fetching water in Africa and a lack of access to water in India are deeply disturbing, this is not the complete picture.

The city of Flint, Michigan, where dangerous levels of pollutants contaminated the municipal water supply, is a case in point — as is, more recently, the city of Newark, New Jersey.

The Past is No Longer a Guide to the Future

We get ever closer to "day zeros" — the point at when municipal water supplies are switched off — and tragedies such as Flint. These are not isolated stories. Instead they are becoming routine, and the public sector and civil society are scrambling to address them. We are seeing "day zeros" in South Africa, India, Australia and elsewhere, and we are now detecting lead contamination in drinking water in cities across the U.S.

"Day zero" is the result of water planning by looking in the rear-view mirror. The past is no longer a guide to the future; water demand has outstripped supplies because we are tied to business-as-usual planning practices and water prices, and this goes hand-in-hand with the inability of the public sector to factor the impacts of climate change into long-term water planning. Lead in drinking water is the result of lead pipe service lines that have not been replaced and in many cases only recently identified by utilities, governments and customers. An estimated 22 million people in the US are potentially using lead water service lines. This aging infrastructure won't repair or replace itself.

One of the most troubling aspects of the global water crisis is that those least able to afford access to water are also the ones who pay a disproportionately high percentage of their income for it. A report by WaterAid revealed that a standard water bill in developed countries is as little as 0.1 percent of the income of someone earning the minimum wage, while in a country like Madagascar a person reliant on a tanker truck for their water supply would spend as much as 45 percent of their daily income on water to get just the recommended daily minimum supply. In Mozambique, families relying on black-market vendors will spend up to 100 times as much on water as those reached by government-subsidized water supplies.

Finally, we need to understand that the discussion of a projected gap between supply and demand is misleading. There is no gap, only poor choices around allocation. The wealthy will have access to water, and the poor will pay more for water of questionable quality. From Flint residents using bottled water and paying high water utility rates, to the poor in South Africa waiting in line for their allocation of water — inequity is everywhere.

Water Inequity Requires Global Action — Now.

These troubling scenarios beg the obvious question: What to do? We do know that ongoing reports on the 'water crisis' are not going to catalyze action to address water scarcity, poor quality, access and affordability. Ensuring the human right to water feels distant at times.

We need to mobilize an ecosystem of stakeholders to be fully engaged in developing and scaling solutions. The public sector, private sector, NGOs, entrepreneurs, investors, academics and civil society must all be engaged in solving water scarcity and quality problems. Each stakeholder brings unique skills, scale and speed of impact (for example, entrepreneurs are fast but lack scale, while conversely the public sector is slow but has scale).

We also urgently need to change how we talk about water. We consistently talk about droughts happening across the globe — but what we are really dealing with is an overallocation of water due to business-as-usual practices and the impacts of climate change.

We need to democratize access to water data and actionable information. Imagine providing anyone with a smartphone the ability to know, on a real-time basis, the quality of their drinking water and actions to secure safe water. Putting this information in the hands of civil society instead or solely relying on centralized regulatory agencies and utilities will change public policies.

Will Sarni is the founder and CEO of Water Foundry.

Note: This post also appears on the World Economic Forum.

Reposted with permission from our media associate Circle of Blue.

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