St. Louis Region Emerging as a Global Hub for Innovation in Indoor Agriculture

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The St. Louis region is positioned to become the global center for innovation in indoor soilless agriculture thanks to a cooperative effort from dozens of experts over the past two years. This work, which aims to realize the full potential of a burgeoning industry while benefiting the local community, is detailed in a new report released from World Wildlife Fund’s (WWF) Markets Institute.


Indoor soilless farming has great potential to supplement the U.S. food system and help alleviate supply chain instability, food deserts, and the massive environmental impact of traditional farming. But to fulfill this potential and grow at an accelerated pace, the industry must address several challenges including high energy footprints, affordability, and expanding beyond leafy greens. To that end, a St. Louis-based coalition of more than 70 professionals from varying industries has worked to establish a centralized base of knowledge and best practices and lay the groundwork for a new indoor farm where innovative ideas can be put to the test.


“These past few years we’re seeing in the U.S. just how fragile our current food system really is,” said Julia Kurnik, director of innovation startups at WWF’s Markets Institute. “We need new food solutions that don’t put additional pressure on nature and climate, and indoor agriculture is one with enormous potential. We’ve dedicated a lot of effort into figuring out how to accelerate the indoor farming industry in a sustainable way, and it’s so gratifying to see that research come to life in the St. Louis region.”


The St. Louis region was identified as the ideal base for these endeavors in a 2020 WWF analysis due to its unrivaled relevant science expertise in plant science, agtech, and bioscience, along with strong potential partners including universities, foundations, and grocery chains. There is plenty of unused or underutilized infrastructure and capital assets that could be repurposed for or integrated with indoor farms to lower the environmental impact of the facilities. There is also an opportunity to benefit local communities by producing healthy food year-round in urban settings while also creating job opportunities requiring little or no previous experience.


The new WWF report explains steps taken in the past two years to build up the indoor agriculture industry in the St. Louis area, including:

  • An analysis of innovative energy systems utilizing various un- or under-utilized buildings, facilities, and other assets
    1. To address the energy footprint and associated impacts of indoor vertical farms, WWF studied novel solutions such as river cooling, underwater turbines, solar panels, food waste-to-energy systems, the use of underground locations like caves and abandoned mineshafts, and more.

  • The formation of the St. Louis Controlled Environment Agriculture Coalition (STLCEA)
    1. This Coalition of more than 70 members includes both local stakeholders and national experts from a myriad of fields including plant science, banking and finance, academia, farming, grocery chains, private industry, and more.

  • Progress toward the creation of a Center of Excellence on indoor farming in the St. Louis region
    1. The Center of Excellence will have a dual focus on knowledge sharing and best practices for indoor agriculture along with ensuring food equity and access. The Yield Lab Institute is leading the creation of the center, which will eventually be permanently located on the University of Missouri – St. Louis campus.

There has also been significant progress toward the development of a new commercial farm in the region. The STLCEA solicited and evaluated proposals and selected AeroFarms, a leading vertical farming company with experience managing both large indoor vertical farms and small farms geared toward community development and support. AeroFarm’s next commercial indoor vertical farm will be built in the St. Louis region and explore the real-life feasibility of new and innovative solutions while making lessons learned available to the wider soilless agriculture community. The site will be announced in 2023 and it is expected to be operational in 2024.


About World Wildlife Fund (WWF)


WWF is one of the world’s leading conservation organizations, working in nearly 100 countries for over half a century to help people and nature thrive. With the support of more than 5 million members worldwide, WWF is dedicated to delivering science-based solutions to preserve the diversity and abundance of life on Earth, halt the degradation of the environment and combat the climate crisis. Visit http://www.worldwildlife.org to learn more and keep up with the latest conservation news by following @WWFNews on Twitter and signing up for our newsletter and news alerts here.


SUPPORTING QUOTES


Brandon Day, Chief Operating Officer, The Yield Lab Institute


“During our only in-person meeting in January 2020, the STLCEA Coalition made it clear that a Center of Excellence should be a key priority for St. Louis,” said Brandon Day, Chief Operating Officer at The Yield Lab Institute. “This Center of Excellence offers a unique opportunity for St. Louis to plant the flag as a leader and hub of innovation for indoor, soilless, CEA and modern agriculture production. The physical location can be an anchor for startups, strategics, NGOs, community organizations and entrepreneurs to collaborate, pilot, validate and accelerate the next generation of agriculture production technologies and businesses. We are excited to begin formulating and constructing what the Center will be and do.”


Karl Guenther, Assistant Vice Chancellor of Economic and Community Development at the University of Missouri-St. Louis


“The University of Missouri-St. Louis is excited to partner with the Yield Lab Institute, community organizations, and industry to form and locate the Center of Excellence on our campus,” shared Karl Guenther, Assistant Vice Chancellor of Economic and Community Development at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. “We are committed to connecting our assets and academic expertise with community and industry to increase innovation and growth of the indoor and modern agriculture sector. Innovation, business development, and workforce development in this area of agriculture production is central to addressing food access and sustainability issues as well as wealth building for farmers in our region and beyond.”


Jason Hall, CEO, Greater St. Louis, Inc.


“With our growing strength in urban farming, the development of the Center of Excellence on indoor farming, and the development of our region as a national leader in agtech and biosciences, St. Louis is emerging as a new global center to address critical issues like food equity and access,” said Jason Hall, CEO of Greater St. Louis, Inc., who noted that with the addition of soilless agriculture as a way to meet increasing global demand, “the convergence of these factors will simultaneously increase food security around the globe and drive inclusive growth and economic opportunity here in St. Louis.”


Dennis Lower, President, Innovation Community Strategies


“It has been exciting for me to participate in a round table of professionals over the last three years to work on solutions to a number of pressing global needs. These needs were only made more urgent by the pandemic in which the food supply-chain was stretched to its limit, along with climate change impacts exacting a further toll on food security. Indoor agriculture is clearly part of the human survival kit in these challenging times. The greater St. Louis region has been in the center of the U.S. agriculture belt for over a century, and now we have the opportunity to leverage our unique agtech innovation assets to solve food production challenges for the next century,” said Dennis Lower, a member of the STLCEA Coalition.


John McDonnell, Chairman, BioSTL


“When WWF presented a proposal to me almost five years ago to study the possibility of St. Louis becoming an innovator in CEA, I was intrigued by their expertise and approach of including a broad coalition of the community members. In the ensuing years, they have delivered beyond the statement of work and expectations. In addition a number of regional entrepreneur/leaders have taken ownership in making it happen. St. Louis is now on the threshold of becoming a leader in the promising field of CEA.”


David Rosenberg, Co-Founder and CEO, AeroFarms


“AeroFarms is extremely excited to collaborate with the St. Louis Region and WWF as we scale our farms in the Midwest to continue to serve our growing national and local retail partners and their customer base,” said David Rosenberg, Co-Founder and CEO of AeroFarms. “As a Certified B Corporation with shared values to do more with less natural resources, this new farm will allow us to further our mission of growing the best plants possible for the betterment of humanity.”


Mike Tipton, Vice President of Produce & Floral, Schnuck Markets, Inc.


“We’re excited that St. Louis is on the map as an up and coming region for indoor agriculture and technology. Expanded indoor soilless farming has huge potential, as the development of these new hydroponic agriculture systems can help us alleviate some of the environmental and supply chain challenges we face in the U.S. food system.”

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