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With Southern California’s drought reaching emergency levels, water restrictions are cropping up across the region. The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California is demanding that local agencies reduce consumption by 35% and limit outdoor watering to one day a week in parts of Los Angeles, San Bernardino, and Ventura counties. That adds to a recent executive order by Gov. Gavin Newsom, who declared that the state’s Water Board must consider a ban on the watering of decorative grasses around commercial, industrial, and institutional areas.
Simply put, Southern Californians must find a way to make due with 80 gallons of water per person per day (the average SoCal resident currently uses somewhere between 100 to 125 gallons of water per day). And if we can’t curb our water usage, stricter cuts—including a ban on all outdoor irrigation—could come down as early as September.
But while restrictions aimed at residential water use are important and will be vital to surviving the drought, the fact is that “urban” water usage is a drop in the bucket compared to agriculture, which consumes four times as much H2O in California.
Seeing how this is a tech website, maybe you can guess where I’m going with all this: Is there a technological solution for growing plants with less water? Yes, there is.
Vertical farming is picking up real steam in Southern California. As the name suggests, the technique revolves around growing crops vertically, often forgoing soil in favor of a hydroponic system where roots dangle in a mixture of water and nutrients. This reduces the geographic footprint of a farm substantially, and its water consumption, too. Because there’s no runoff, water waste is dramatically reduced compared to traditional farms—with some setups able to grow an equivalent amount of crops with up to 95% less of the wet stuff.
In Los Angeles, the big name in vertical farming is Plenty, which we’ve covered in the past. The San Francisco-based unicorn is currently growing a host of leafy greens in a building in the middle of Compton, and plans to further scale with the help of a $400 million Series E funding round it raised in January.
In addition to taking up less water and land, vertical farming also brings fresh produce closer to end consumers. Because vertical farms can be placed in dense urban areas and grow produce year-round in a climate-controlled environment, they significantly cut down on the carbon emissions required to ship fruits and vegetables to their end destinations.
Of course, there are limitations to what types of crops can be grown on a vertical farm. So far, the technology has only really been successfully applied at scale to leafy greens, herbs, and a few types of berries. That won’t do much to help California reduce the water needed to grow staple crops like grapes, almonds, oranges and walnuts—but then again, the technology is still relatively young.
There’s a strange logical fallacy that people often fall victim to when discussing environmental efforts. It goes something like: “This isn’t the biggest issue, so we shouldn’t focus our efforts here.” Is banning plastic straws going to clean up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch? No. Would eating less red meat eliminate global CO2 emissions? No. Is vertical farming going to solve Southern California’s drought? No.
But solving the climate crisis requires a million tiny victories like these, which help us progress to where we need to be. The gains from embracing vertical farming alone won’t mean anything if we don’t make a drastic shift toward renewable energy sources, zero-emission vehicles and other sustainable solutions—but that doesn’t mean they don’t matter. — David Shultz
The new Orange County venture firm is the brainchild of investor Neal Rickner, startup incubator Octane and Sustain SoCal, a network of professionals focused on clean-tech development. It will target seed-stage companies in SoCal, having already invested in two companies.
Some of New York City's largest pension funds have filed suit against the Santa Monica-based video game publisher, claiming that CEO Bobby Kotick is responsible for devaluing their investments by failing to address allegations of sexual harassment and discrimination at the company.
The fallout from Netflix’s disastrous first-quarter earnings continues with a new shareholder lawsuit that claims the streaming giant misled investors about its ability to sign up more subscribers.
The Culver City-based social media app is rolling out a new advertising program that promises to give marketers exposure through its top-performing videos while also providing creators with a cut of advertising revenues.
Come join the dot.LA team for a fun and enlightening evening convening top proptech founders, investors and operators to mingle and discuss how SoCal real estate startups are reshaping the world’s largest asset class. Interested in attending? Let us know!
What We’re Reading Elsewhere...
- Caltech breaks ground on its new sustainability center.
- L.A.-based Magnify Ventures debuts a $52 million fund aimed at digitizing health care.
- Immi, an app aimed at "democratizing" 3D animation for creators, launches with backing from some big celebrities.
- The L.A. Kings are celebrating their playoff berth with an NFT drop from Crypto.com.
- A new report looks at efficiencies that automation could bring to L.A.'s ports, just ahead of union contract negotiations.
- Future Acres Signs Deal to Bring Robots to More Farms - dot.LA ›
- California Has a Drought Problem. This Tech can Reverse It - dot.LA ›
- Plenty's Vertical Farm Will Soon Start Hiring in Compton - dot.LA ›
As part of its effort to “disrupt” the food industry supply chain, Santa-Monica based automation incubator Wavemaker Labs has added—and revived—a new piece of technology that promises to change the game for apple orchards.
In October, Wavemaker acquired the intellectual property behind agtech startup Abundant Robotics’ autonomous apple-picking technology. Wavemaker is now relaunching the technology under the name Abundant Robots and taking aim at a major segment of the agriculture industry—one that generates around $5 billion annually for American apple farmers, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Hayward, Calif.-based Abundant went under last year, citing difficulties “develop[ing] the market traction necessary to support its business during the pandemic.” Despite that failure, Wavemaker Labs founder and CEO Buck Jordan was convinced that the technology behind Abundant was solid, even if the startup’s execution ultimately failed.
“COVID essentially just killed their harvest season and killed the progress they needed to make in order to get the next round of financing,” Jordan told dot.LA. “[Abundant] kind of had to invent everything from scratch, and they’ve done a really great job. But there’s a lot of [technology] that’s cheaper off the shelf that can be used and swapped in.”
Abundant Robots’ automated apple-picking machine grabs an apple.Courtesy of Wavemaker Labs
Jordan, who is fond of statistics, notes that around 87 million metric tons of apples are produced globally each year—making it “far and away, in terms of tree fruit, the biggest category that there is.” He adds that harvesting labor accounts for roughly two-thirds of the cost that consumers pay for an apple at the grocery store, with farming costs only projected to grow in the coming years.
This is where Wavemaker sees the opportunity for Abundant Robots. The IP it acquired essentially constitutes a vacuum-suction apple-harvesting system that operates in tandem with AI-backed image recognition software. In other words, the robot can eye an apple tree and suck the ripe apples right off the branch.
The delicate nature of the suction technology was a key selling point for Wavemaker. “[With] apples, you’ve got to be really ginger with them,” Jordan said. “If you bruise an apple, the value of that particular apple goes down—and now it’s applesauce instead of being sold in Whole Foods.”
Abundant Robots is now looking to raise $20 million via crowdfunding to improve on its existing prototype. If it hits its goals, the next iteration of the machine should cost under $100,000 to produce and be able to pick an apple every one-to-1.5 seconds. That’s likely quicker than even the fastest human pickers, according to Jordan—and of course, the machine never gets tired.
Abundant’s technology may be good news if you’re an apple grower, but probably not if you’re an apple picker. Aviva Chomsky, a professor at Salem State University in Massachusetts who studies immigration and migrant labor in the U.S., believes that automation will likely exacerbate power imbalances between agricultural workers and their employers.
An aerial view of Abundant Robots’ apple-picking technology.Courtesy of Wavemaker Labs
“In an ideal socio-economic system, technologies could be used for the benefit of the many—but in our agricultural system, technologies are generally used for the benefit of the few and to the detriment of the many,” Chomsky told dot.LA.
While Wavemaker and others in the autonomous agriculture space are positioning their platforms as solutions to an ongoing labor shortage, labor advocates say their technologies could prove disastrous for America’s roughly 2.5 million farm workers and its rural farming communities.
“There is what I perceive to be a very insincere narrative—or perhaps more graciously, an incomplete narrative—about what’s really happening,” according to Erik Nicholson, a consultant and former national vice president of the United Farm Workers labor union. “That, to me, is about as sincere as saying Facebook is about connecting friends and family.”
Like Facebook, Nicholson thinks much of the actual value in technology like Abundant Robots’ machines will come from data collection. As tech companies are able to put more intelligent machinery on farms, they’ll be able to collect data on elements such as soil moisture, crop productivity and temperature.
About 87 million metric tons of apples are produced globally each year.Courtesy of Wavemaker Labs
How tech companies choose to leverage that data remains to be seen. They could provide farmers with insights into how to grow more crops in a more efficient and sustainable manner. Nicholson, however, expects that the trend toward automation will come at a cost to farmers.
“Whoever writes the algorithms and has access to the data has tremendous power,” he said. “Do we want to just hand that over to the VCs in Silicon Valley and say they’re going to make the determinations about what’s growing, how and when?”
Critics agree that there’s no easy solution that simultaneously keeps food prices low, saves growers from going bankrupt and pays farmworkers a living wage. Yet as automotion promises to upend the agriculture industry’s status quo, they argue that farm workers at least deserve a seat at the table as billions in investment capital pour into the industry.
Otherwise, Nicholson said he fears that “we’re going to see an ongoing extraction of wealth into the hands of investors—who largely do not live in [farming communities like] Mabton, Wash. or Delano, Calif.”
- Meet Carry, the Robot That Aims to Make Picking Produce Easier for ... ›
- WaveMaker Labs' Buck Jordan on Robotics and Restaurants - dot.LA ›
- Inside Wavemaker Labs' Push to Automate Restaurants - dot.LA ›