Food Sustainability & Distribution

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.

Everything old is new again in food system trends...

During his lifetime, Massachusetts Congressman and Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill was famous for—among other things—his saying “all politics is local.” These days, all food is increasingly local.

Not that this is anything new. Until the Interstate highway system was built during the Eisenhower administration in the 1950s, America’s food systems were mostly locally-based. But, over the past six decades, as it became easier to quickly move food across the nation—and to ship it in from foreign countries—our food system has become a complex web where California tomatoes may show up in New England stores two or three days after being picked, even if it might have been easier to get them from New Jersey the same day.

Although there have been “local food” movements in the U.S. since the Great Depression and World War II, there’s been huge a resurgence of interest in local food systems over the past 10 years—so much so that even Time magazine did a cover story on eating local in 2007.

Why such interest in local foods? The reasons are myriad. For one, people are taking increasing interest in where their food comes from and how it’s produced. This is in part due to a desire to return to simpler times. It’s also due to a focus on healthier foods and outbreaks of foodborne illnesses such as E. coli or salmonella, which can quickly spread when affected foods are shipped cross-country. Then there’s the environmental factor and economics of shipping food over long distances. Although mass production may have driven down food costs, hauling it across the nation can be expensive when you consider fluctuating fuel prices and emissions.

And who can’t help but be more curious about local foods when more and more restaurant menus list the farms, dairies and producers where every item on the menu came from? This level of awareness from chefs carries over to their patrons, and with more people returning to farming as a way of life, city folks are supporting their communities through buying locally.

Finally, let’s face it, local foods just taste better. When produce, in particular, is picked the same day it’s sold, it’s fresher, it lasts longer, it retains more nutrients and the taste is amazing. There’s nothing worse than a tomato that’s been picked too early, never ripens and tastes mealy. Yuck.

Until recently, the local food movement consisted primarily of farmer’s markets, Community Supported Agriculture, or CSAs, and even school garden programs such as Alice Waters’ famous Edible Schoolyard Project. Urban gardening and cottage food laws, allowing local food purveyors to sell certain foods created in home kitchens, are also tied to the locavore movement.

As is to be expected in the Internet age, parts of this movement are also beginning to intersect with technology to enable everything from food delivery to locally sourced foods and even food hubs, where local goods are gathered and then dispersed regionally.

Online Grocery Delivery

Of course, grocery delivery services are not that new. Although Webvan famously tanked during the dot-com bust, online services such as Peapod, which delivers in the Northeast and Midwest, have been around since that time. On the West Coast, grocery chain Safeway also provides online ordering and same-day delivery.

What is new is tech companies like Amazon and Google getting into the mix. You can’t talk about any retail supply chain these days without mentioning the great up-ender of all retail systems, Amazon. With its Amazon Fresh service, the company has gotten into the delivery of perishables in addition to everything else under the sun. One feature of the Fresh service is making goods available from local artisans and restaurants. Last year, the company also introduced Amazon Dash, a barcode reader for home shoppers that allows them to scan the barcodes of household items and have them automatically added to their Fresh order. An Amazon Fresh app is also available. However, Fresh comes with a hefty price tag. The company received criticism last year for charging Prime Fresh users $299 per year for same day delivery—which is only free if the order is over $35.

Google’s Shopping Express also offers same-day delivery for goods picked up from local stores for quick delivery to patrons. The service sources from stores such as Whole Foods, Costco and Target. Users can order online or via a mobile app.

One part CSA, one part delivery service

New to the delivery scene are services such as Good Eggs and Farmigo, which cut out the retail middleman by working directly with local farmers, producers and artisans to sell goods to consumers online. Farmigo provides software for farmers to connect with CSA programs and helps them sell direct to consumers. Users pick up their produce, baked goods or meats at designated neighborhood pick-up spots. Good Eggs employs a similar model but also includes specialty packaged foods and pre-packaged meal kits from local producers. The service is available in the San Francisco Bay Area, Los Angeles, Brooklyn and New Orleans.

Food hubs

The term “food hub” can encompass any number of different things, but is usually a centrally-located facility where farmers can bring their food to either be sold or distributed locally or regionally. New England-based Red Tomato is a food hub that has honed in on logistics and the supply chain. The company works with farmers to aggregate products, which are then delivered either by other farmers, distributors or third-party logistics services, making sure that the foods can be sold fresh and within the region. For instance, the company works with a local grocery chain in Northern New Jersey on a program that guarantees produce displayed in the program were picked within 24 hours of arriving at the store. The store features a special display section of local produce delivered as part of the program.

If you’re a local food system startup, 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. We are hosting a startup expo where entrepreneurs can showcase and launch new products, including new food traceability solutions. More information available at www.bonappetech.com.

Post image copyright 2008 by Marc Smith. See full license for use.

Is it time for insects to move up the food chain?

Fried in cornmeal. Smothered in ketchup and mustard. Dripping with maple syrup. On top of an ice cream sundae. I can still remember the myriad ways that Billy Forrester tried to disguise the fact that he was forced to eat 15 night crawlers in as many days after losing a bet in the classic children’s book How to Eat Fried Worms.

As hilarious as Billy’s predicament was to my fourth-grade self, I have to admit the thought of eating worms has never been that appealing to me, now or then. In fact, for many people the idea of entomophagy, or eating insects, is, well, to use a fourth grader’s favorite word, gross!

But in much of the world, that is simply not the case. Throughout Asia, Central America and Mexico and Africa, insects are just another part of the food chain—much like burgers, fries or pizza are part of the American diet. And with many experts worried that the planet may not be able to support projected world population growth—which the U.N. is projecting will reach 9.6 billion by 2050—there are an increasing number of entomophagy advocates and companies that believe the solution for feeding the planet is to turn back to sources that can already be readily found in nature.

Food sources based on what’s already found in nature vary. An article in Natural News, for instance, suggests looking to drought-resistant plants and trees that grow quickly or produce large yields. For instance, jicama—a root grown primarily in Mexico and Central America—is said to provide high amounts of vitamin C. The article also points to the moringa tree, also known as the horseradish or drumstick tree, as a potential food source. The tree, which grows in tropical areas, is said to propagate easily, has edible leaves that are high in protein and vitamins and its seeds can supposedly be used to purify water.

A similar article in Scientific American suggests a return to a staple of the Native American diet—the acorn. According to the article, oak trees—from which acorns come—are actually the single most important tree used by wildlife for food and cover throughout the state of California. Acorns have been a dietary staple for farm animals—and of course, squirrels—and people for centuries. The article says acorns can be eaten in a variety of ways—raw, cooked, boiled, mushed or even—not unlike chicory—for coffee.

So-called “wild” foods—or foods found in forested areas have also been suggested as new, natural food sources. A 2011 report by the U.N’s Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), suggested that world’s forests could also serve as a source for helping to ensure food security for the world’s populations. Judging by the recent popularity of “foraging” activities, such as mushroom gathering, can searching for more fruits of the forest be far behind?

But by far the most often-cited natural resource for alternative food sources is insects. Again, the U.N. is leading the way in advocating for insects as a food. Since 2003, the FAO has been doing research on edible insects in numerous countries across the world. Thus far they have found as many as 1,900 types of insects that are safe for human consumption. According to the FAO there are various benefits of insect eating:

Edible insects contain high quality protein, vitamins and amino acids for humans. Insects have a high food conversion rate, e.g. crickets need six times less feed than cattle, four times less than sheep, and twice less than pigs and broiler chickens to produce the same amount of protein. Besides, they emit less greenhouse gases and ammonia than conventional livestock. Insects can be grown on organic waste. Therefore, insects are a potential source for conventional production (mini-livestock) of protein, either for direct human consumption, or indirectly in recomposed foods (with extracted protein from insects); and as a protein source into feedstock mixtures.

Getting beyond the “ick” factor

Of course getting Westerners to move beyond being grossed out by the thought of eating bugs will take some doing. However, there are a number of companies and VC firms that are betting the ant farm, so to speak, that they will. According to the Wall Street Journal, VC firms put $83.4 million into food start-ups that are developing alternative food products—from meat substitutes to insect-based foods—during the third quarter of 2014.

Although there are many insects that can be eaten—grasshoppers, ants, worms, cicadas, caterpillars and beetles to name a few—judging from the number of start-ups that are using them, crickets seem to be the gateway bug of choice for burgeoning entomophagists.

Although I’ve heard of roasted cricket snacks, the most popular medium for conveying crickets into food stuffs these days seems to be cricket flour. Crickets are said to be very high in protein, calcium and iron and low in carbs. By finely grinding the crickets into a “flour,” they can be easily ingested and used in a variety of products—from protein bars (Exo, Hopper Foods,) to cookies (Bitty), chips (Six Foods) and even cocktail bitters (Critter Bitters).

Breeding insects for food products is also a key part of this value chain. In addition to milling cricket flour, Aspire Food Group offers organic whole crickets for cooking, and the company has insect breeding projects underway in Austin, Texas Mexico (grasshoppers) and in Ghana (weevil larvae). Taking the childhood ant farm model a number of steps further, Silicon Valley based Tiny Farms offers mealworm farming starter kits for companies that want to develop their own products or people who want to start their own insect farms. The company is even using data collected from individual insect farms to develop best practices for better growth.

If Rene Redzepi, famous forager and chef of Denmark’s acclaimed Noma, can make insects palatable to foodies by serving fermented grasshoppers or ant-infused gin, can more middle brow palates be far behind? Palates change. Ten years ago, not many people were eating kale, either. Everyone thought its sole purpose was to adorn salad bars. Even Rosé is making a comeback after being maligned as the wine of choice for 1980s housewives. And who knew that canning would someday become a hipster DIY activity?

So maybe we should try bugs. We might like them.

If you’re a technology based food product start-up, 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. We are hosting a startup expo where entrepreneurs can showcase and launch new products, including new food products. More information available at www.bonappetech.com

Post image copyright 2006 by Lon&Queta. See full license for use.

New start-ups look to create new meat alternatives

Food scarcity. The obesity epidemic. Chronic disease. Greenhouse emissions. Rising food prices. What do these things have in common? Each is one of the myriad reasons that companies and researchers are looking to alternative food products to address growing concerns about the health and welfare of the human population and our planet.

Why the concern? According the The Scientist, population growth and human consumption are beginning to threaten the earth’s resources. With the U.N. projecting the global population will reach more than 9 billion by 2050 and issues such as climate change, overfishing, drought, pollution and reduced agricultural productivity, there are some that fear the planet may not be able to support that population growth, forcing more people into poverty and hunger crises.

As such, food technologists are beginning to look at alternative food sources that can help provide healthy alternatives to feed the population and save the planet. And with the advances in genomics now enabled by high performance computing, it’s easier than ever for technologists to use a variety of methods to create new food sources that have “natural” origins—from recreating meat-like substances using plant compounds to cellular regeneration and “synbio,” or synthetic biology (which creates new organisms using existing DNA sequences).

Plant-based foods

Tofu. Seitan. Veggie burgers. Chances are most people have at least tried some kind of meat substitute even if they’re not a vegan or vegetarian. With chronic obesity and health problems becoming an epidemic in Western countries, many people are taking it upon themselves to eat a healthier diet, which may mean incorporating more plant-based proteins into their diet or following a “Meatless Monday” rule. And a number of companies are trying to make faux meat more flavorful and realistic than what’s previously been available to consumers.

For instance, Beyond Meat says it has taken the elements that comprise meat—amino acids, fats, carbohydrates, trace minerals and water—from plants and has applied processes of heating, cooling and pressure to give plant matter the consistency and texture of animal meat. The company’s products include “beef” crumbles made from pea protein and grilled “chicken” strings made from non-GMO soy and pea protein. Not only does the company have strong backing (investors include Bill Gates, Twitter co-founders Evan Williams and Biz Stone, and VC firms such as Kleiner Perkins Caufield and Byers) but the company was also named one of Fast Company’s “Most Innovative Companies” last year. Their product is said to have even fooled The New York Times’ food writer Mark Bittman into believing it was real.

Seattle-based Field Roast makes what it calls “grain meat,” which the company claims can be traced back to Buddhist monks who wanted a meat alternative in 7th Century China. Field Roast products are similar in tradition to seitan, but their grain-based products were created by founder and chef David Lee in the tradition of European charcuterie and sausage making. As such, the company makes a variety of grain-based meat substitutes that range from breakfast sausage, frankfurters, burgers and deli slices to meatloaf. The company also makes a line of vegan cheese called Chao made from coconut and tofu. Also tackling plant-based meats and cheeses is Impossible Foods, whose website is very hush-hush about what the company is doing other than to say it’s using specific proteins and nutrients from plants to develop milk, meat and eggs.

Hampton Creek has focused on making a substitute for eggs. Rather than sell the egg product as is, at this time the company is focused on creating healthy substitutes for staples like mayonnaise (Just Mayo) and cookies (Just Cookies). Also billed as a health-oriented option, Soylent is a powdered drink mix that, when combined with water, can be used as a complete meal substitute. Utilizing microalgae, Solazyme is developing vegetable oil and animal fat substitutes. The company has already developed a vegan flour that can replace oils, egg yolks or dairy fat and a gluten-free protein substitute.

Cultured Products

Academia is even getting in on the faux meat action. Cultured Beef, a project of Maastricht University in The Netherlands, uses muscle cells harvested from cows to create new meat tissue. According to their website, a normal-sized hamburger can be formed from approximately 20,000 cell strands. The company believes that by “growing” beef in a lab, not only will it be easier to meet growing demand for meat due to population growth but it will have less of the environmental impact that raising beef can have on emissions and land.

Lest you think that synbio need be limited to food products, Brooklyn-based Modern Meadow is taking cellular science even further to produce cultured leather. Using techniques first developed to grow human tissue for drug testing and development, the company is combining tissue engineering (also known as biofabrication) and 3D bioprinting techniques to create “leather.” Once they’ve conquered the leather-making process, the company plans to develop a meat product using similar methods.

In Boston, a startup called Gingko Bioworks has taken on the challenge of engineering new organisms. In one project, the company is working with DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) to manufacture probiotic bacteria similar to microbes that protect the body from infection or aid in digestion. In addition, Gingko scientists are working on cultured food and fragrance ingredients. According to Perfumer and Flavorist magazine, the company has already developed six as-yet unknown cultured ingredients.

Edible packaging

Harvard bioengineer David Edwards is in the process of developing edible packaging for food to help reduce waste. His company, called Wikicells, is said to be working on products such as ice cream and frozen yogurt products wrapped in flavored “skins” designed to help consumers move beyond plastic wrappings.

Whether eaters will get on board with these discoveries remains to be seen. According to a Pew Research Poll, only two of 10 Americans are willing to give lab meat a try. But that’s probably what your grandparents once said about tofu, too.

Find out more at our Expanding the Pie panel on alternative foods at Bon Appétech, April 10-12, 2015. Modern Meadow will be among the participating companies presenting the latest challenges and solutions to alternative food issues.

If you’re a technology based food product start-up, 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. We are hosting a startup expo where entrepreneurs can showcase and launch new products, including new food products. More information available at www.bonappetech.com

Post image copyright 2015 by www.sweetonveg.com. See full license for use.