Brooklyn urban farm We Are The New Farmers sees great potential in its signature spirulina product to help both the planet and public health.
By Janet Early
Most people want to eat food that is nutritious, tastes good, and comes from safe places. When you live in a city, far away from the lush farmlands where fresh food is grown, this goal carries its challenges. Today’s concerns about climate change and deteriorating public health add fire to an already complicated situation.
Urban farmers, especially those in New York City, are reacting with innovation. Many have developed creative approaches and new technologies to maximize the nutritional integrity and environmental responsibility of their products. The Brooklyn-based business We Are The New Farmers is an example. It was formed from a curiosity about the way in which people consume food today.
The three founders behind the New Farmers created a business growing sustainable, nutrient-rich crops on their urban farm inside the Brooklyn Army Terminal. Once a place for ships to re-stock artillery during WWII, the terminal is now home to various start-ups, some of which focus on food manufacturing or health sciences. And it’s where the team behind the New Farmers grows their trademark product: fresh spirulina.
We Are The New Farmers is the first completely indoor fresh spirulina farm.
Before he was one of the founders and engineers of the New Farmers, Jonas Günther questioned whether there was a way to grow food in a more sustainable and nutritious way than the current industrialized approach. This curiosity led him to use a grant from NYU, where he mastered in Management of Technology, to radically rethink the technology behind urban farming. And this led him and his team to algae.
In early experiments, they found that the plants they grew didn’t utilize all of the energy available in their growing systems. Wanting to make use of all their inputs, the team hypothesized adjustments they could make.
“The idea was… let’s come up with a way of actually harvesting the lost energy in the system. And algae are extremely efficient in doing that.”
- Jonas Günther
Can algae be a viable food source?
That was the question that the New Farmers set out to answer. When their experiments proved successful, the team abandoned their growth of other produce and doubled down on algae. From there, the company was born. Led by Jonas, Michael Udovich, and Daniel Bernstein, it became a strictly spirulina business.
You’ve likely heard of spirulina, the greens product touted as a superfood in your local health foods store. The blue-green algae is possibly one of the oldest life forms on earth.
During the past decade, it has gained popularity among health and wellness circles in the western world. For good reason. An excellent source of B vitamins, calcium and zinc, spirulina is also a powerful source of protein. And it’s one of the few plant-based foods that contains all essential amino acids, which are protein compounds the human body needs but can’t generate on its own.
Typically, spirulina comes in the form of dry powder, which can be off-putting because of its “fishy” taste. Jonas notes that the powder also often comes from abroad under questionable conditions where it’s susceptible to contamination.
That’s where the signature product from the New Farmers differs. Their spirulina is fresh and comes in a mild-tasting paste form. Compared to dry spirulina, this version tastes better and is more versatile.
Jonas recommends that buyers start with smoothies, but the fresh spirulina is also a favorite in soups, dips, desserts, and ice creams. Some people dissolve the substance in a bit of water when they wake up to get a morning dose of nutrients.
Because it’s fresh, the algae still contain all the enzymes that support mineral absorption. This makes fresh spirulina a more potent source of iron than a powder, which is basically a dead product. The freshness increases the bioavailability of the nutrients.
The other advantage of fresh spirulina is its impressive degree of sustainability. To produce it, you need significantly less CO2 compared to production of a meat or vegetable protein.
Fresh spirulina requires 7x less CO2 compared to tofu and 19x less compared to beef. That’s to produce the same amount of protein.
“And from a water perspective,” Jonas says. “It’s also incredibly sustainable. Even though you grow algae in water, we can recycle the water all the time.”
During its life cycle — or as it goes from fresh water to packaged good — spirulina emits no or very small amounts of pollutants. The result could actually be a carbon negative protein source.
Jonas says, “The overall balance could potentially be a homerun… That’s really our mission.”
With scale, access to a low carbon protein source could make a dent in the amount of climate gases currently used in industrialized food production. Unlike meat and even certain vegetables, production of the fresh spirulina has virtually no harmful impact on the environment. At a time of pervasive climate change evidence, this level of sustainability is coveted.
Urban farming offers an alternative, not a replacement, to the way we get our food.
In the past two decades, sustainable urban ecosystems have popularized as means to provide sustainable, high-quality nutrition to people in cities. New York City, especially, has welcomed the movement, with advocates taking to unused rooftops or factories to build their own gardens or farms. Previously gray rooftops have turned green as more city-dwellers see the value in local, responsibly-sourced produce.
“The only way to achieve major impact is through changing the way we eat and where we source our food,” Jonas says.
More than half of all people live in cities. This percentage is expected to increase to two-thirds by 2050. Finding new ways to grow food with high nutrient content and low environmental impact, close to where most people live, is crucial. The success of these types of endeavors could mean dramatic improvement for the state of the environment, as well as in working conditions for farmers across the globe.
Many people working in the fields are exposed to dangerous pesticides every day, putting their health at risk. Food production that enables safe conditions for farm workers is imperative.
Urban farming also has substantial potential to improve public health. Food-related health problems such as obesity and hypertension have risen along with the scale of the industrialized food system, especially in the United States.
“We need to find ways to lower macronutrient intake and increase micronutrient intake.”
- Jonas Günther
According to Jonas, you should ask yourself three questions about the food you eat:
- Where does it come from?
- How does it impact my health?
- Do I enjoy eating it?
Most foods in our grocery stores today fail in at least one of these areas. Either the food is detrimental to the environment, causes harm to your body, or simply doesn’t taste good.
For positive change to occur, we need to have sustainable, micronutrient-dense, and enjoyable foods. Increased availability of quality foods like fresh spirulina could translate to practical solutions for the future of our food industry.
Where should we go from here?
Views on sustainability have been nearly as polarizing as the current US political climate. On one extreme, supporters insist that veganism, fully organic diets, and composting are moral obligations of every person. On the other end, people deny climate change entirely or assert that industrialized food has no effect on human health.
Then you have everyone in the middle. These folks make up the majority of people, but also make the least noise. These are people who want to lead reasonably healthy lives without harming the planet or spending a fortune on groceries. As Jonas says, the solution lies in “a coexistence of all systems.”
Jonas suggests a rational approach for improving the public’s relationship with alternative food suppliers. “I think you need to find a way to fit into the habits of people… rather than [try] to change people’s habits.”
The world still needs to be fed, so industrialized farming does have a place in the future. And favorite foods like fried chicken do not need to be taken off the menu. A sustainable future is not a limited future. Instead, it’s a balanced one.
The concept of eating like our ancestors needs to be intertwined with the acknowledgement of modern technology and contemporary challenges. More food options should simply mean more potential for joyful eating.
If you want to support sustainable, nutrient-rich farming, what can you do?
First, you can increase the amount of plant-based proteins in your diet. It’s no secret that meat production has devastating effects on the environment, so reducing your meat consumption can really make a positive impact. This is true even if you cut just one meat-based meal from your diet each week.
Second, you can buy locally and seasonally. If it doesn’t naturally grow in your region, you can bet that food has traveled hundreds or thousands of miles to get to you. Imagine the pollutants that travel exposed your food to, as well as the added preservatives it must have taken to keep it from rotting during the journey.
Third, you can become more informed. Read up on sustainability. Watch some videos about urban farming. However you decide to get your food, make sure it comes from an educated perspective. Your health and body are too important to expose them to anything of poor quality.
But… isn’t buying locally expensive?
A common deterrent to buying local or organic foods is the belief that they’re more expensive than the alternatives. Often, they do cost more money than the foods at your local supermarket. But think about it this way: it’s not that high-quality, local food is expensive. Rather, the true inequality lies in the artificial cheapness of low-quality, industrialized food, resulting from government subsidies.
Today, farms that mass produce products such as corn, meat and soy are heavily subsidized. This means the government provides significant financial support to industrialized agriculture. It makes sense, since the world needs to eat and people need jobs.
However, picture what would happen if urban farms received more subsidization. People would still eat, jobs would still be created, but also nutritious, clean foods would become more affordable and convenient. Imagine the benefits those changes would have on your family’s health and the health of the planet.
It’s also important to note that local does not always equal high quality. In fact, some local farmers may utilize production methods that are as harmful as those executed by industrialized farms. For example, some products marked “local” may be grown nearby, but also may have been exposed to pesticides to maximize crop yield. If the product is meat, perhaps the animals were raised under inhumane conditions. Wherever you decide to do your food shopping, it’s important to be informed about the circumstances in which your food was grown.
Notwithstanding the subsidization disparities, the government has actively recognized the need for change to our food system. For example, the United States Department of Agriculture launched the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI) in 2008 to address the need for funding for research, education and extension projects in the food and agricultural sciences.
- “The goal of this program is to invest in agricultural production research, education, and extension projects for more sustainable, productive and economically viable plant and animal production systems.”
With the world’s population projected to increase to 9 billion by 2050, entrepreneurs such as the founders of We Are The New Farmers, are making important strides in the sustainable food industry.
What’s next for We Are The New Farmers?
Over the next few years, the New Farmers plan to continue to explore the potential of fresh spirulina as a viable protein source. The team is also working to patent their proprietary technology that enables the efficient creation of their spirulina. It’s a process that results in a high nutrient content with low environmental impact.
As more and more people support change to our food system, the continued ingenuity of urban farmers can make a real difference in our quality of life. Ultimately, The New Farmer’s fresh spirulina is shaping up to be a product that is good for the future of the food system, good for the planet, and good for you.
To try out We Are The New Farmers’ fresh spirulina for yourself or to learn more about their mission, go to www.new-farmers.com.