In August 2013, Whole Foods opened a 45,000-square-foot store in Lynnfield Mass. with a green roof for organic produce. Months later, in alignment with its philosophy of sustainability, it launched its flagship Gowanus, Brooklyn store in December.
With an urban rooftop farm constructed by Gotham Greens, a New York City based urban farming company that grows quality greenhouse vegetables and culinary herbs for local retailers and restaurants, the Gowanus store holds a greater promise.
The partnership between Whole Foods and Gotham Greens marks the nation’s first commercial scale rooftop farm in a retail grocery. The goal is to produce pesticide-free crops year round, sustainably and abundantly, providing a significant portion of all of the vegetables sold from that location.
Greens such as bok choy, Swiss chard, and arugula are Gotham Greens staple foods. They hope to produce 150 tons of produce per year at the Gowanus store’s Nexus Atrium greenhouse.
Limited quantities may also be supplied to other local retailers who are trying to satisfy the growing demands of consumers who want to eat locally and sustainably produced fruits and vegetables that are neither genetically modified nor doused with harmful pesticides.
However, being a soil-free, hydroponic system, the Gowanus rooftop garden does not meet the “organic” standard.
According to the USDA 2002 definition, certified organic “is a labeling term that indicates that the food or other agricultural product has been produced through approved methods that integrate cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity. Synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation, and genetic engineering may not be used.”
Assuming Whole Foods can spark more interest in urban farming and hydroponics in particular to grow nutritious crops, the definition of “organic” will need to be reconsidered. The conundrum of an “organic” label is that by excluding new methods of farming that also reject genetic engineering and pesticides, it inadvertently lumps conventional practices (and produce) with new and less popular methods that are in fact sustainable and beneficial, and are not at all conventional. For example, according to Yale environment 360, “Advanced irrigation systems will enable the greenhouse to use 20 times less water than conventional farming.”
With the long-standing drought in California, this is a vital statistic.
Likewise, with the existing labeling, the rooftop crops may be actively avoided by conscientious shoppers who purchase organic produce only.
Replicating the Gotham Greens-Whole Foods Market model, however, will depend on its success.
As reported in Edible Brooklyn, “If it’s successful, there’s potential to roll out this model to other urban areas,” says Gotham Greens’ co-founder and CEO Viraj Puri. And if it’s successful, a whole new crop of urbanites can help define the shift in food production from the monolithic commercial industry to local environmentalists with enterprising ideas on how to produce healthy foods that support our communities.
The Whole Foods Market-led venture into hydroponics is significant, as the chain plans to expand to 1,200 stores throughout the U.S., tripling its operations worldwide.