A Conversation with Henry Gordon-Smith

By Rebecca Lam

Wed, 3 Oct 2018

Henry Gordon-Smith, the Founder of Agritecture, will be speaking at Ag 4.0 in San Francisco this November. We recently interviewed Henry to discuss how he started off in the agriculture industry, the importance of sustainable profitability and the future of urban agriculture. 

Agritecture provides advisory services in the design, planning, implementation and operation of urban agriculture projects. They consult globally and are based in Brooklyn, NYC. Their experience includes hydroponic greenhouses, vertical farms, and sustainability learning labs. 

 

Can you give us a background to your career in the agriculture industry?

 

I actually became really passionate about urban agriculture while studying water security in an undergraduate class at UBC in Vancouver. I was fascinated with the idea of a cities being self-reliant in all ways including food. A few years later I moved to NYC to become an urban farmer, myself working on various non-profit and for-profit farms. Things really started accelerating for me when I was getting my Master’s degree at Columbia, where I studied under Dickson Despommier, author of The Vertical Farm.

I saw so much potential for the industry to solve issues within the food+energy+water nexus, but there was so little information available online to learn more. So I started the Agritecture.com blog to be platform that aggregates knowledge and news in the sector and that would also inspire new entrants to the movement. After a while, I began to actually receive consulting requests through the blog by entrepreneurs looking for guidance in starting their farms, so in 2014 I started Blue Planet Consulting and began consulting full time. In 2017, both the blog and the consultancy joined under the name Agritecture. Through the blog we continue to report on the state of the industry worldwide, and through our consulting arm we’re able to offer our clients the tools, data, ideas, network, and expertise needed to ensure their success.

 

Which areas of Ag 4.0 are you most looking forward to?

 

I am most interested in understanding consumer trends related to new forms of agriculture. Sometimes it feels like technology is moving faster than consumer interest. This has major implications for high-tech urban agriculture forms like vertical farming. Do consumers trust the product? Why or why not? How does that interest differ between generations?

 

You will be part of the Sustainable Profitability panel at Ag 4.0. What makes you passionate about this area?

 

I think that we live in a defining moment in human history. We are currently on an unsustainable trajectory that if continued unchecked will lead to devastation. But we also have the unprecedented ability to reshape the critical systems that support modern human life as we know it. The fact is that our current economic system is built around profit. In many important ways, this system forces us to innovate and be smart about resources. A company that wastes a lot of its product, for example, is not going to be profitable for long and will eventually go under.

Unfortunately, this same system has also been highly destructive towards the planet and its people due to externalities that aren’t properly accounted for. Sustainable profitability, to me, is how we restructure our economic model so that we can continue to benefit from a free-market economy while also avoiding devastation and instead actually supporting the planet’s ecosystems and people.

 

You have previously said that your primary motivations are the triple-bottom line: people, planet, profit. Can you expand on that?

 

In recent history, companies have focused on increasing their single-bottom line: profit. As I mention above, this sole focus has launched us as a global society onto an unsustainable path. Now of course there is a role here for government and the nonprofit sector to step in, but I do not believe that it should be up to those sectors alone and I am in fact a firm believer in the ability of companies to do good, not only generate profit.

In order to avoid the grim future that lies at the end of this path, I think it’s essential that companies reform their single-bottom line philosophy to a triple-bottom line philosophy where the environment and other people are valued not just as a means to profit but as essential considerations that govern business decisions. I am very passionate about inspiring others to tackle real world social and environmental issues through business. I think social entrepreneurship embodies the triple bottom line and we need more humans to take on the challenges we face today and in the future.

 

What has been your greatest achievement to date in terms of your career?

 

I am most proud of the team I have built. No matter what your business idea or tech, people are the most important asset. I take extra time to mentor and lead my team so that we all rise together. My proudest achievement is that we have a unique and powerful company culture. Every other achievement (including our 70+ client projects) follows that achievement.

 

What do you see in the short and long term future of urban agriculture?

 

In the short term, I am very excited about the integration of new technologies into the urban agriculture field. Plant breeding could transform the yields in indoor farms, making the margins healthier. Algorithms for distribution of food in cities can reduce waste and accelerate new farm business growth. Renewable energy storage through batteries could drastically reduce the high carbon footprint on vertical farming. Automation technologies could improve the bottom line of farms where labor is the highest operating cost.

In the long term, it is very hard to predict exactly what urban agriculture will look like, but based upon the information that we have now I would guess that we will continue to see a variety of different farming methods being used across the globe. Agriculture is inherently context specific, and we will continue to need farming solutions that are optimized for their specific environments and needs.

 

Are there any upcoming projects on the horizon for you?

 

We always have a number of given projects on the horizon at any given time, but right now I am especially excited about the potential for controlled environment agriculture in the MENA region. Due to the significant environmental and water challenges, traditional agriculture has historically suffered in the region, leading to a very high percentage of food imports. But with the recent innovations in CEA, the opportunity now exists for the region to become a global leader for the industry.

This is why we’re partnering with a Saudi-based mission-driven company to support this nascent industry and supply entrepreneurs with the information and resources needed to develop their own urban farming solutions that are tailored to the region’s unique conditions. So stay tuned for more information as we publicly launch this new partnership in the near future!

 

Connect with Agritecture:

 

Twitter: @agritecture

Facebook: Agritecture

LinkedIn: Agritecture

Instagram: @agritecture

 

Ag 4.0 Workshop  

Join Henry Gordon-Smith and leading industry experts at Ag 4.0, a workshop aimed at improving understanding of modern agriculture practices and creating interoperable solutions. Henry will be speaking on the sustainable profitability panel, discussing the uses of technology to introduce sustainable agricultural practices. The panel will debate sustainable farming models and the use of technology: from urban agriculture to greenhouses, and how to making the transition to sustainable agriculture.

Be part of a workshop where farmers will be given the opportunity to tell AgTech companies what they need, rather than the other way around. If you are a farmer or grower – secure your FREE ticket here.


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Rebecca Lam

rlam@challenge.org

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