Farming in Paris: fact or fiction?

Mar 22, 2016
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cooltivated

The defining characteristic of La French Tech is, arguably, innovation for a global market. Irrefutably the darling of CES 2016 and a growing leader in fields including, but not limited to, big data, mobile gaming, ad-tech, IoT, sharing economy and med-tech, France’s startup footprint is starting to look more like the makings of a global entrepreneurial powerhouse built around game-changing technology.

It’s an exciting time, clairement – so it’s all the more refreshing when a tech startup like Agricool emerges with a focus on local economy and a commitment to the preservation of French culture and heritage, by iterating a traditional model to fit modern requirements. Agricool’s very raison d’être is what makes it so uniquely, and charmingly, French: a resistance to the globalization of fresh produce.

Let’s grow food in cities.

Agricool’s founders, Guillaume Fourdinier and Gonzague Gru, have planted their flag firmly in the fertile ground of France’s love of fresh, seasonal ingredients. Believing that the current system of sourcing produce has become untenable, Agricool is championing urban agriculture, with a view to restoring the meaning of “local” produce in France’s urban centers.

“When humans created farming, they put it around their home. It’s common sense.  But cities became bigger and bigger, and fields were further and further away. The limit has been exceeded. We need to grow food where we live, to get the ultimate food quality. 80% of us live in cities. Let’s grow food in cities.”

Mais… Où? There’s a reason agriculture takes place in the sticks, and farmland isn’t exactly up for grabs in Paris. That’s where the innovation comes in: Fourdinier and Gru have created what they call their own “farming homes” or Cooltainers, recycled shipping containers custom-designed with the perfect conditions for growing fresh produce. “It’s a real paradise for fruits and vegetables, made to let plants grow in perfect conditions: temperature, air, light, hydration. We even filter outside polluted air, to avoid pollution inside.” The internal ecosystem of the Cooltainers even include a colony of bumblebees that take care of pollination.

Is urban farming the next frontier?

As well as the right conditions, Cooltainers provide an ultra-efficient system that – quelle horreur – could even render traditional farming methods obsolete. Compact enough to fit into two parking spots, Fourdinier and Gru claim that each Cooltainer yields 120 times the produce of conventional agriculture; this is achieved by “dense” farming, a method that grows produce vertically, utilizing all available space. “All of this without pesticides, without pollution, and using 90% less water” with their own drip-watering system.

Both sons of farmers, the founders’ ethos is deeply personal – their conviction that consumers deserve to know where their food is coming from, and what they contain, is at the heart of Agricool. Chemicals, pesticides, GMO and the implications of importing remotely-grown produce are anathema to Agricool. Fourdinier told us, “We use 90% less water, no pesticide, no tractors, no transport (normally there is 1500km average transport between the field and the plate). We use 100% renewable energy.”

The beauty of their model – that “technology can glorify nature” – lies in the recognition that this isn’t a uniquely French concern. Agricool is already fielding global interest and the vision is “every neighborhood will soon be equipped with Agricool fruit and vegetable homes”.

No GMO no cry

It’s a noble notion that as the global landscape changes, so must our agricultural methods to ensure fresh produce remains accessible to all consumers, however far they happen to live from a field. It’s super-French – innovation: check; good food: check; bucking the system: check – and I happen to love it. With not a hint of facetiousness, I love going 6 months of the year without fresh tomatoes; not being able to get squash in the spring; roasting vegetables through the winter instead of feeble attempts at a green salad. I’d much rather do with naturally-occurring seasonal fruit and veg than the hothouse alternatives which are, frankly, kind of gross.

That being said… I have to ask how different a Cooltainer is to the artificial conditions of a hothouse. Granted, the recycled shipping container method certainly is innovative, and from the information available on their website, it sounds like they’re doing a grand job of recreating a natural ecosystem indoors. But haven’t we been doing that with greenhouses this whole time?

I also have to wonder about the economic viability of bringing farming to the mean streets. Cooltainers might be ecologically more efficient and take up far less space than a farm, sure, but what about the cost of Parisian real estate? Anyone who’s tried to buy or rent a parking space in Paris might pale at the thought of permanently parking a shipping container that requires two whole spaces.

Then there’s security. Aside from protecting Cooltainers from defacement by vandals, how does Agricool propose securing its contents? 120x the output of conventional farming has got to be worth something – having posed my question to the founders, I’m still no clearer on how the Cooltainers are secured. Sure, shipping containers are pretty robust, but thieves get into highly-secure property all the time. Not to mention that by their very nature, shipping containers are – wait for it – portable. Not exactly local produce if it goes driving off into the sunset.

Urban farming beyond Bercy

Fourdinier says, “We want the farmer job to become a normal job in a town like Paris. You have a “boulanger” a “boucher” and you’ll have farmers. It will bring trust and quality again in our food system. Imagine a world where everyone can access to fresh fruits and vegetables, grown without pesticides, directly in your town. It would be harvested a few hours before you eat it. Can’t wait!”

His enthusiasm is infectious. I want to believe in Agricool and their vision – and God knows that beyond the first-world preference for ripe berries that don’t taste insipid, there are global markets that could actually benefit from the kind of innovation that makes good, fresh food easy to farm and be locally available. Agricool could be the answer to problems far bigger than, “Not sun-ripened? No thanks” – but, for now, I’m eagerly in line to test the first crop of strawberries from Bercy.