The key to reducing the growing U.S. dependence on imported fruit and vegetables is greater investment in controlled environment agriculture — a form of high-tech, glass-enclosed hydroponic production — according to witnesses who testified on Capitol Hill Thursday.

“Currently more than half of all fruits are imported to the United States and nearly one-third of all vegetables are imported,” Kevin Safrance, executive vice chairman for Mastronardi Produce, said in written testimony for a House Agriculture Committee hearing. “This, while American farmers — especially high-efficient CEA farms — have the ability and desire to increase America’s food supply from farming done right here in (the U.S.).”

High-tech, large scale operations like those of Mastronardi Produce, which grows tomatoes, strawberries, peppers, cucumbers and other crops in massive greenhouses on dozens of acres, are showing the viability of such operations, but private investors need more incentives to help finance new operations on a large scale, said Aaron Gadouas, managing director of Ziegler Investment Banking.

CEA operations require massive capital expenditures, but many investors see the sector as “a loosely defined jumble of food-related businesses,” Gadouas said. That’s because the food system is not viewed as an asset class like the clean energy sector. CEA, he told lawmakers needs to be designated as “critical infrastructure” and qualify for tax-exempt financing.

Expansion is key, said Karim Giscombe, CEO of the Florida-based produce company PLANT-AG. While the European Union is home to 500,000 acres of CEA operations, there are only 10,000 acres in the U.S.

“If we want to ensure no other country … can control our fresh produce supply, it is absolutely necessary to decrease our reliance on imports … and increase the scale of CEA production in America," Giscombe said.

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Another major obstacle to the success and expansion of CEA farming, Safrance said, is labor. U.S. operations can compete with Mexican producers despite the gap in wages, but U.S. farms need more people to work in the greenhouses.

“We simply need more workers to get the job done,” said Safrance. “With an enhanced workforce, we are confident we can make a rapid and significant contribution to the strength of the nation’s food supply.”

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