Interview with Henry Gordon-Smith
Henry Gordon-Smith is an acknowledged global thought leader in urban agriculture. Henry’s breadth of experience ranges across the spectrum of the sector; from vertical farms and commercial greenhouses to soil-based farms and architectural design amenities. In 2011, Henry started Agritecture.com
, a leading media platform covering the news, business, and design of how agriculture integrates with the built environment. In 2014, Henry founded Agritecture Consulting and grew its consulting capabilities globally whilst expanding its services range to include Scenario Analysis for Local Food Systems consulting to cities, foundations, and governments. Whatever project Henry is working on, his primary motivations are the triple-bottom line: people, planet, profit.
Hey Henry! Would you tell us about specific consulting projects you are working on with Agritecture Consulting? To get a precise sense of what your work is.
At Agriculture Consulting were all about providing technology agnostic consulting services to entrepreneurs interested in developing commercial-scale urban agriculture. So what this means is that we're independent of any of the technology providers and we help guide and coach our clients through the feasibility of their ideas and connecting them with the right solutions no matter where they might be so that they can solve the problem at hand and achieve their business goal. So if we look at the case of Dream Harvest, our client in Houston Texas, they have a successful indoor vertical farm, that's hydroponic, and they're looking to scale now as they're pursuing more investment. So Agriculture Consulting has advised them on really expanding their economic model to understand how their farm will perform at a much larger scale. Another big question was what processing equipment should they use as their scale increases? And as they pursue new food safety certifications, packaging changes, labour changes, the need for automation at the scale changes. So our team our interdisciplinary team of engineers and designers and horticulturalists essentially provides a technology agnostic coaching experience to help our clients understand the tradeoff between various choices and plan for more feasible operations. Now Dream Harvest is just one example. We've also been working on projects in Saudi Arabia, this past year we've worked on projects in Sweden. We've worked on projects in Germany and we're essentially operating all around the world as a global technology agnostic urban agriculture consulting firm. Overall all of this connects to our mission which is about accelerating sustainable local and urban agriculture. And we feel that entrepreneurship is the best way to do that. So we essentially serve as these interdisciplinary team of consultants that's here to answer questions and to guide our entrepreneurs to the next steps they can raise money, they can operate successfully and they can really make a difference by growing local food sustainably.
You are on a number of advisory boards including Smallhold, Foodshed.io and Teens for Food Justice- what does this work consist of? Any exciting work coming out of these projects?
I'm so excited and honoured that I get to serve as an advisor to so many impactful organizations. Teens for Food Justice is a nonprofit that works with at risk youth to help educate them in science, technology, engineering and math through the development of indoor vertical farms and hydroponic systems. And this isn't just about the engineering either. They actually get to benefit from growing and distributing and consuming the fresh food that often these at-risk youth don't have access to in their communities. Teens for Food Justice is in New York right now but they're expanding to Miami and I believe other cities in the future. So my role there is kind of the typical board role where I have to attend board meetings and support budgets and advise in the direction of a company. But because I'm an urban agriculture consultant I get the opportunity to provide pro-bono consulting that really helps the organization planets farms better, operate them more effectively and also recruit the talent they need to operate them. Smallhold is a more recent advisory position and their CEO Andrew Carter is an incredible hydroponic grower and indoor farmer. He used to work for me at Agriculture before and so I'm really excited to be advising them on how they can expand their business globally, how they can optimize their marketing and how they can really extend their reach and they're doing something really cool which is growing mushrooms inside indoor farms that are distributed throughout the city. And so I really like the uniqueness of this project because often in my industry or my work I work a lot with lettuce and leafy greens and tomatoes and mushrooms or something I just know less about. So it's been really exciting to go to advise them and help them raise money. Foodshed is about connecting the local food system through blockchain technology and different algorithms to improve the last mile distribution. So you can see for me a lot of these roles are really for me to diversify my capabilities and also to contribute to the wider food system and not just focus on the operations alone. And I'm really excited because my responsibility is to help amplify these companies get them attention, help them raise money and just generally advise them on some of the lessons I've learned as an entrepreneur.
What changes need to be made to allow urban farming to flourish? In recent years the deep flaws in global food production have become apparent but what is holding us back from moving forward? Are these cultural decisions? Policy work?
I think it's really important to begin with by saying that urban agriculture is still flourishing in many parts of the world. We've got about 800 million people engaged in urban agriculture globally and the FAO estimates that produces about 15 to 20 per cent of our global food supply. So urban agriculture isn't some niche thing, it could actually be impactful in our food supply and the West what we've done is we've developed our cities and we started to push agriculture out of them. And you know that makes sense right? Because commercial and residential real estate is more valuable in the urban context. But there's a real cost to that. And the cost is that we've lost knowledge security on how to grow food which makes our cities less resilient to climate, change fluctuating food prices or any other issue that might affect our global food supply that we depend upon. And so I think it's really important that cities start to that there is a resiliency value in agriculture. And so some of the policy changes that would be needed is first of all recognizing agriculture as a use in cities. Secondly, encouraging agriculture education through various institutions and training programs. And I think also recognizing that the food that we're importing has a negative consequence on the global food supply through climate change. And so there's food waste along that system, there is carbon emissions along that system and there's some nutritional loss. And so cities need to take a leading role and simply first understand the value of urban agriculture and then they'll be able to incentivize it properly. So what's really holding us back is policy leadership and we've seen some leadership from cities like Atlanta which is the director of urban agriculture or the city of Paris which has a biannual urban agriculture competition, or the city of Singapore that definitely has an urgency and has encouraged subsidies and various new technologies for urban agriculture. So the really key gap is first of all just understanding that urban agriculture is part of a resilient and smart city. And the second piece is the leadership that actually implements the policies needed to do that. And consumers as well can help by voting with their dollars and buying local.
Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us, your work is so important for the future on this planet. Do you have any speaking gigs or conferences coming up? What does 2019 hold for you?
So much for listening and hearing my passion and interest in urban agriculture. 2019 is going to hold a lot more of us going around the world and sharing our message and helping entrepreneurs learn about the basics and the best practices of planning urban agriculture and also advising cities and helping them understand this. So starting in February, I'll be heading to Australia for the AgTech summit there to talk about how we work with cities and how various Australians can think about vertical farming for their businesses. Later on in March, I'm going to be heading over to South by Southwest to talk about the future of eating. Then I'm going to be going over to Dubai at AgraME conference to talk about urban agriculture and vertical farming in the Middle East and then moving into April I've got to be going back to Abu Dhabi and I'll be speaking there about a similar topic. In mid-April, we're gonna have the AgLanta conference. You can learn more about it at agtlanta.org and it's our annual conference that we actually produce and it's all about entrepreneurship, urban agriculture, growing food in cities, local food system planning, IO T and A.I. and big data and its relationship to urban agriculture. So we definitely want to see you there. I'm also gonna be speaking at the American Planning Association annual event and then moving into May have been confirmed to speak at the festival of media where I'll be talking about how you can take your hobby which was my blog and turn it into a global brand and viable business. So if you want to check out any of those events you can go to agritecture.com and you can go to the events page. We list a bunch of upcoming events. We also teach commercial urban farming classes in New York City. We do tours of farms. We do various events around the world that you can all learn about agritecture.com. If you haven't already started a business that's solving an environmental social problem I really invite you to do it. There's so much satisfaction out of both creating a profitable business but also solving a bigger problem in the world and invite you to really think about what you can do to make a difference while also making money along the way. So everybody keep growing. And thanks for listening.
You have been involved in Urban farming, agriculture in urban spaces and food politics for years now, tell us what sparked this passion. Are there any particular thinkers or teachers that influenced this path for you?
I first got interested in urban agriculture whilst I was attending the University of British Columbia in Vancouver Canada and I was a political science undergraduate degree. I had nothing involved with environmentalism or sustainability or agriculture but I was taking a class in environmental security and I started really thinking about how resource scarcity actually affects the political landscape more actively than I typically knew about before or most people know about. So I started really looking at water security and food security and came up with this idea of what if cities weren't just consumers of energy and produced waste but what if they actually produced the resources that city dwellers needed. Now there's been some work already done in energy and food and water but I really wanted to think about how architectural thinking, Agritecture, would really bring buildings and agriculture together in a synergistic way. And I really believed that the best kinds of urban farms really thought about the urban context, the people around them, the built environment around them, the regulations, the opportunities, the market and I saw that a lot of the farms that were being developed weren't considering this in the way that I believed was possible. So I created a blog called Agritecture to talk about these issues and feature the stories of the urban farms that I thought were doing this the best way and the whole landscape of technology. And so my passion really stemmed from sharing these ideas and studying all these different models from a very analytical lens. What that ended up doing was really formulating a methodology for me to think about how do you design a successful urban farm that really considers context and achieves the goals of agritecture? And so I built a team around that as I thought about what's the dream team to kind of execute that? I'd need growers, and engineers, and designers, I'd need to work with architects. And we've brought that all together and it's been really exciting to both share that for free through our blog agritecture.com and also for those who are looking for really professional advice through agriculture consulting platform.