When Upton Sinclair’s novel “The Jungle” was first published in 1906, readers were outraged by the unsanitary food practices Sinclair depicted in the meatpacking industry. As a result of the book and subsequent public lobbying, the government passed The Pure Food and Drug Act and the Federal Meat Inspection Act to protect Americans against adulterated food.

Today, more than one hundred years after its publication, is our food any safer? Over the past several years, books like “Fast Food Nation” and “Omnivore’s Dilemma” have revealed the darker side of the U.S. food industry. Poultry bathed in hyper-chlorinated water, genetically engineered (GE) crops and cows and sheep injected with steroids are legally sold in supermarkets nationwide.

But now, Americans are fighting back. They are embracing sustainable agriculture and countless new innovations like robotics, aquaponics and hyrdroponics systems, and soil monitors are making it possible for consumers to have more control over what they’re eating.

Community gardens

To promote healthy eating, community gardens have sprouted up in urban areas across the U.S. Cities like Cleveland and Buffalo, both of which have suffered significant post-industrial decline, have transformed vacant plots and unused land into urban farms. In Detroit, countless uninhabited lots and abandoned properties show the consequences of the decline in the city’s population over the past several years. To combat this problem, the organization, Keep Growing Detroit (KGD), now promotes urban agriculture on the city’s unused property. As a result, almost 20,000 citizens cultivate a garden or farm, and the city’s community gardens produce about 200 tons of fresh fruits and vegetables per year. In the Northwest, the organization, City Grown Seattle, promotes “food grown in your neighborhood” by transforming underutilized land into gardens. Landowners are encouraged to donate a portion of their land to City Grown and receive a share of fresh vegetables in return. In urban areas with no access to a grocery store, a community garden offers a healthy alternative to fast food restaurants or convenience stores.

Aquaponic and hyrdroponic gardens

For those living in colder climates, the first frost typically means the end of fresh fruits and vegetables for several months. Now, various companies have invented sustainable ways to grow fruits and vegetables indoors year-round using aquaponic (growing fish and plants together) or hydroponic (growing without soil) systems.

Boston-based start-up Grove Labs is bringing the garden inside with its bookshelf-sized aquaponic garden for homes. Four LED-lit boxes grow produce and an aquarium filled with fish provides fertilizer for the garden. Users can monitor and control the system from their smart phones. Another aquaponics system has been developed by Chicago-based, FarmedHere. Their indoor vertical gardens grow, harvest, package and deliver produce locally in the Midwest region. In New York City, where space is limited, Brooklyn-based Gotham Greens has taken its hydroponic greenhouses to the rooftops. Using sunlight, oxygen and CO2, the hydroponic system can grow more plants than on land and uses less water. The company Bright Farms cuts down on transport time and allows supermarkets to stock the freshest produce by designing, building and operating their hydroponic greenhouses at or near supermarkets. They currently operate farms in six states. Freight Farms’ Leafy Green Machine (LGM) sounds like some new raw juice, but it is actually a shipping container equipped with vertical hydroponics, LED lights and an automated climate control system so farmers can grow fruits and vegetables year-round.

Farming in the digital age

The days of farmers waking up at the crack of dawn may soon be a thing of the past. To increase productivity and improve sustainability in farming, new innovations have cropped up to help make the farmer’s job a little easier. For instance, dairy farmers have begun using robotic milkers to milk and feed their cows. The robots also monitor the amount of milk cows produce, the frequency of visits to the machine, how much each cow has eaten and the number of steps each cow has taken per day. Not only do the cows seem to like the robots, but the farmers also love the extra shuteye. Robotics are also invading the chicken coop. A Dutch robotics expert is developing a robot that collects chicken eggs. Although hens are supposed to lay eggs in nest boxes, up to 30 percent of eggs end up being laid on the floor. This attracts other chickens to do the same and the eggs laid on the ground cannot be sold at prime prices.

For those without a green thumb, the Edyn Garden Sensor is a Wi-Fi connected solar-powered soil monitor for your garden that will evaluate soil, recommend the best fertilizer and even suggest which vegetables will grow best, when to plant them and how often to water them. And to avoid over-and under-watering your garden, the Edyn Water Valve controls how much water your garden needs on any given day. Even during cloudy weather, the device stays online with a smart power algorithm. Planting an organic vegetable garden is easy with Smart Gardener’s free online app. It analyzes temperatures and growing conditions based on your location and suggests plants that will grow best in that climate. By providing a weekly “to do” list and keeping track of your progress, Smart Gardener helps ensure you have a good harvest.

Connecting farmers and consumers

A food product in the U.S. travels an average of 1,500 miles from farm to supermarket. That’s a lot of fossil fuels burned. To arrive fresh, produce is often harvested when immature and/or processed to avoid spoiling. Fewer transport miles equals fewer emissions and food grown locally is fresher and healthier. Now, several start-ups are connecting farmers and consumers, thereby eliminating the middleman and those unnecessary food miles.

Montpelier, Vermont-based Farmers to You connects local farmers directly to Boston area customers. Customers shop online from “partner farmers and producers” and orders are delivered weekly to 16 Boston-area drop-off spots or to customer’s doors for an extra fee. For those who want to buy local and sustainable but not schlep to the farmers market, there’s Grub Market. Consumers shop from different local producers and Grub Market picks up their food and delivers the products to customers. Searching for a case of apples? FoodHub may be the place to look. Available in Oregon, Washington, Alaska, Montana, Idaho and California, the FoodHub site connects buyers and sellers. It’s like a Craigslist for food. In the U.S., many crops go unharvested because of their appearance. Maryland based Hungry Harvest is trying to eliminate agricultural food waste by gleaning local produce and selling it at a competitive price to customers via a subscription service. For each pound of produce sold, Hungry Harvest donates a pound to those in need.

As Americans make smarter decisions about what they eat, will the agriculture industry and government take steps to improve the food industry? If some of these new farm tech companies have anything to do with it, they will. After all, I think we’ve had enough Spam and Steak-umms to last a lifetime.

If you’re involved in sustainable agriculture, we’d love to hear from you. Bon Appétech Conference will be a great way to connect with industry stakeholders, large brands and influential decision makers. More information available at www.bonappetech.com

Post image copyright 2009 by Amy Youngs. See full license for use.

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