Brad McNamara, CEO and co-founder of Freight Farms, is speaking at the inaugural Boston Food Tank Summit, “Investing in Discovery,” which will be held in collaboration with Tufts University and Oxfam America on April 1, 2017.
Freight Farms is an agriculture technology company that provides physical and digital solutions for creating local produce ecosystems on a global scale. Brad and his co-founder, Jon Friedman, developed the company’s flagship product, the Leafy Green Machine, to allow any business to grow a high-volume of fresh produce in any environment regardless of the climate. His hope is for Freight Farms to be scattered across the globe making a dramatic impact on how food is produced.
Food Tank had the chance to speak to Brad about his work developing Freight Farms and his vision for the future of our food system.
Food Tank (FT): What originally inspired you to get involved in your work?
Brad McNamara (BM): It was a coming together of many different factors. My co-founder, Jon, and I had worked together in the past, and we were both intrigued by the food system and how we could make a difference. Around 2009, Jon was focused on food systems and system design, and I was passionate about the purity of food and the increasing trend towards food awareness. When the two of us first reconnected over a cup of coffee (and then a beer), we got to talking about the complexity of the food system and what we could do to combine our interests. With backgrounds in design and environmental science, our goal was to research methods to allow urban agriculture to emerge as a competitive industry in food production. We mainly focused on rooftop development, then determined the criteria for success and scale to be outside the realm of possibility with agricultural installations that were already in existence. When costs and logistics soared, we turned to shipping containers (there’s Jon’s design background coming into play), and the idea for Freight Farms took off with the goal to build farms in areas that couldn’t support more traditional methods.
FT: What makes you continue to want to be involved in this kind of work?
BM: Our world and our climate are changing, and it is so apparent that there is more work to be done. According to the U.N., food production needs to increase 70 percent by 2050, to feed an ever-urbanizing population. Land and water scarcity take on even more pressing importance, as does urban agriculture. The future is so much bigger and more complex than we could have ever imagined. Over the past few years, we’ve gotten to witness the emergence of a new industry of agriculture technology, and it’s poised to make a dramatic impact on the food system. One of the most amazing things we’ve been able to watch is how many are interested in joining the movement towards a better future. Our network of freight farmers are making dramatic impacts on their local food systems every day, drastically improving food security in their community. They inspire all of us to continue this work.
FT: Can you share a story about a food hero who has inspired you?
BM: My food hero is a customer of ours. His name is Ted Katsiroubas, and he runs Katsiroubas Bros. Fruit and Produce, a wholesale produce distribution company located in the heart of the city of Boston. The business is over 100 years old and was handed down from generations before. I admire how Ted has innovated in the face of a dramatically changing food landscape. As the demand for local, fresh produce has risen, the company expanded to begin working with local farms in the region to meet demand. For those familiar with wholesale distribution, sourcing locally can be a difficult task especially when you are restricted by the growing seasons and volume constraints of small local farmers. That’s why traditionally wholesale distributors rely on shipping produce long distances from warmer climates. But Ted brings a fresh approach to an old school industry. He continues to push the envelope and propel the industry to stay on top of the latest technology through collaboration with other distributors. If anyone were to fall into the category of my food hero, it would be Ted because of his willingness to look to the future and go against the conventional wisdom of how the food industry tells him to conform.
FT: What do you see as the biggest opportunity for fix the food system?
BM: I think the biggest opportunity to fix the food system is to bring it back into the hands of the people. By transitioning to a more decentralized food system, and minimizing the gap between consumers and producers, we will take a critical step towards an environmentally and economically sustainable food system. I think all the various types of technology, the hardware, the software, and the social awareness, all point in the direction to empower the individual. So the real opportunity to fix the system is to utilize what we know to be true—when you give opportunity and power to regular people from all walks of life, that’s when you can change a whole system.
FT: What would you say is the most pressing issue in food and agriculture that you would like to see solved?
BM: There are so many people advocating for a better food system, and we all must be better at communicating and cooperating if we want to make an organized effort to challenge the way things operate currently. From small farmers and producers to organizations and companies. What has become incredibly apparent in the past couple decades is that there is no one size fits all solution. Whether it’s urban or indoor agriculture, hydroponics, aeroponics, aquaponics, or traditional soil-based farming, we all play an important role. We need to have a more holistic view of the food system and how each method can contribute to a better future. If we don’t all work together, it’s going to be difficult to disrupt BigAg. I think taking a broader view is key. There has been so much progress made in agriculture, but we still have a long way to go to create a food system that will serve future generations. It is important to continue working with and connecting with each other to empower and support the next generation of farmers.
FT: What is one small change everyone can make in their daily lives to make a difference?
BM: Maybe it is a bit cliché, but the notion of voting with your dollars. I’m sure others have said it, but it is so important. If every consumer changed 5 percent of their food shopping habits by buying more seasonal and local produce, the impact would be enormous in changing the landscape of the local grocery store.
FT: What advice can you give to President Trump and the U.S. Congress on food and agriculture?
BM: My advice is to be conscious of all the complexities present within the food and agriculture system. There are so many moving pieces that small shifts in the workforce, water use, and the climate have a massive impact throughout the entire system. It is essential to keep a holistic understanding of the relationships between all the components in our food and agricultural system and to consider the ripple effect policy decisions will have on the smaller players involved.
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