Movements have been made to create a synthetic human genome from scratch, making synthetic forms of life a closer reality than ever before; governments have admitted to manipulating the weather; and virtual reality could be mind-controlled by 2030. So it’s only natural that remarkable things should be afoot in food production, too, right? Except that’s the key word: natural. When it comes to food, the dominant trends for our produce are centred around being more natural, more connected to the earth than it ever has been – or at least since before the Industrial Revolution set forth an unstoppable cycle of progress that’s taken us from steam power to sex robots.
The message of Pat O. Brown — the CEO and founder of Impossible Foods — is one that speaks to that movement toward reconnecting with our planet: “our singular mission”, he states, “is to enable the world to continue to enjoy the foods they love and increasingly demand, without catastrophic damage to the environment.” Yet his laboratory-grown meatless burgers (that bleed!) are a creation of much discourse, from the tech world to the kitchen. Meanwhile, San Francisco-based startup, Memphis Meats, have grown fried chicken from cells, and New Wave Foods have invented plant-based shrimp.
There is an undoubtable need for such innovation. Much as even the most considerate of us care admit, one of the environment’s greatest threats is from human’s dependence on (or desire for) animals as food. The evidence on the relationship between livestock and climate change is damning (for example, animal agriculture is responsible for 18 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions, which is more than the combined exhaust from all transportation), and climate change is already reeking havoc on the produce we connect most to nature: humble fruit and veg.
It’s estimated that by 2050, the world population will stand at nine billion. On a planet whose resources are currently under phenomenal stress from the seven billion who occupy it today; where more people than ever before are choosing to live in urban areas; where food miles are scorned; and where freshness and traceability are exalted, there has to be change. The sort of change technology can bring.
As brother of Mars man, Elon, Kimbal Musk knows a thing or two about technology. The brothers sold their second company to Compaq for $307 million in 1999, and Elon was an earl investor in X.com, the company that would merge with PayPal in 2001, and, in turn, be acquired by eBay for $1.5 billion in stock the next year. Kimbal’s older brother’s fortunes and galactic ambitions would be well-documented in the years that followed, but his own story would take a very different turn. He traded Silicon Valley for New York’s French Culinary Institute before opening a family of community restaurants situated throughout the American Heartland. Still a board director at Tesla, Kimbal remains connected to the bleeding-edge of technology; yet it was the quest to improve his acclaimed Colorado restaurant, The Kitchen, that has led to his latest tech-minded venture.
“The industrial food system is designed for food [that can be shipped off] thousands of miles [away]”, he told NBC’s Megyn Kelly TODAY this month, “not to taste good.” With eco-sensitivity at its heart – The Kitchen has one of the country’s most advanced recycling systems, promotes alternative energy sources, repurposes food waste and uses biodegradable straws – the next logical step was for his restaurant to readdress the provenance of its ingredients. “If you can grow the food really close to home, to the restaurant, the food tastes so much better. It is absolutely delicious.” Which may be all well and good in Boulder, at the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, but how does one propose farm-to-table authenticity in a city like Manhattan, Tokyo, or São Paulo?
In looking to a startup trend whose seeds have bloomed in recent years, Musk is the co-founder of Square Roots, an indoor farm project based in Brooklyn that aims to revolutionise urban farming. Free from pesticides and free from GMOs, there is a sense of Impossible Foods’ boundary-pushing about the South African’s project. “This is so cool”, he explains excitedly the work of one of his farmers, “he took his container, and he is able to control the weather.” The farmer in question has, remarkably, been able to recreate a vintage year of basil. “That particular year is famous for basil in Italy”, Musk continues, “he went into the weather records and recreated the summer of Italy 2009 inside his container: what time the sun came up; what time it set; what days it rained; how much oxygen was in the air; the temperature; the humidity… Everything.”
Now selling the most premium basil in the whole of New York – grown inside a hydroponic, controlled-climate container farm located in a Brooklyn parking lot – the basil and its farmer demonstrate both Square Roots’ mission to empower leaders in urban agriculture through entrepreneurship programmes, and its ability not only to have a positive environmental impact, but to improve the quality and taste of the food, too. The produce can be ‘designed’ the way a particular chef might desire, with the specialities of multiple nations created under the corrugated metal roof of just one shipping container.
“Can we grow rare flavours from around the world in the heart of New York?” Was the question that started Farm.One, a similar project occupying an indoor warehouse space in downtown Manhattan, where rare herbs, edible flowers, micro-greens are grown year round – attaining the approval of chefs and mixologists citywide. Focusing on rare crops, this sort of indoor farm can turn thousands of air miles into zero food miles, with no emissions created as 90 per cent of New York City’s restaurants can be hit in just 30 minutes by bike. And these sorts of farms are on the rise. Literally.
San Francisco vertical farming startup, Plenty, boasts 20-foot high towers filled with perfectly formed kale and herbs; New Jersey’s Bowery (with claims to be the most technologically sophisticated indoor farm in the world) has mammoth facilities, and is applying robotics, machine learning and predictive analytics to agriculture; the headquarters of nearby AeroFarms occupies a 70,000 square-foot former steel mill, the largest vertical farm in the world, and is capable of harvesting up to two million pounds per year. In the UK, Growing Underground – Britain’s first underground farm, housed 100 feet beneath Clapham High Street in a World War II shelter – has secured deals with names such as Marks & Spencer and online retailer Ocado to carry a range of salads, whilst Singapore’s Sky Greens is a soaring skyscraper of vegetation.
In a first for the high-end hospitality industry, The Ritz-Carlton, Naples, unveiled its own indoor hydroponic vertical growing system inside a repurposed shipping container. Dubbed ‘The Grow House’, it’s capable of solving a unique location-based conundrum. “It’s the perfect environment for growing lettuce”, says George Fistrovich, the hotel’s executive chef. “Especially considering that we are growing lettuce in Florida during August, when it’s 105 degrees outside, with 90 per cent humidity.” With the ability to row what you want, when you want, safe in the knowledge that is is pesticide- and GMO-free, and that it is making much less of an impact on the environment, embarking on a venture such as this is a no-brainer for hotels – especially for resorts with multiple restaurants.
At the Greenhost Boutique Hotel in Yogyakarta, Java, contemporary agriculture and creativity combine: the hotel’s Green Art Space is dedicated to meaningful artworks that provoke discourse on environmental topics; its Creative Farm delivers fresh produce such as cabbage, spinach, mint and basil direct to the tables of its restaurant; and city farming and hydroponic classes are held to educate guests on the culture at the heart of their concept.
With the sort of research and development that the likes of Kimbal Musk are ploughing into future farming, there is no reason to suggest that every restaurant or hotel who wants such technology shouldn’t be able to have it soon. At least before mind-controlled virtual reality. But there need be a reminder that just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. To grow lettuce in Florida’s sticky summers; to produce vintage Italian basil in New York City with zero food miles; to educate guests; and to aid in the battle against ecological catastrophe are all worthwhile pursuits – yet bear in mind the power of authenticity.
Urban farming can (co)exist without the assistance of space-age tech, with a glut of international initiatives bringing agriculture to the city: projects like Seeds to Feed in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights (a community rooftop farm manned by formerly homeless adults, which provides both a therapeutic outlet to aid efforts in curing mental illnesses and a centre of fresh produce for the local community), and Antwerp’s PAKT, the largest shared roof garden in Belgium (measuring over 1,800 square metres), containing warehouses once destined for destruction revived by creative entrepreneurs and a sourdough pizza restaurant that’s putting the garden’s produce to good use.
Most importantly, though, is making good use of what you’ve got, as farm-to-table continues to preoccupy the minds of consumers. Think about Villa Lena in Tuscany, who offer agricultural tours of its kitchen garden, olive groves, and vineyards; about Harads’ Treehotel, who, hanging amid dense forest some 50 kilometres South of the Arctic Circle, delight diners at its restaurant with wild game and the finest hand-picked berries; about South Africa’s Babylonstoren, who make the best use of thier position as one of the Western Cape’s oldest and best preserved farmyards; or about Fogo Island Inn, who honour their seven seasons by paying respect to the island’s distinctive bounty. If you’ve got it, flaunt it.
Whether contemplating the future of man-made meat; embracing the indoor farming revolution; devoting your unused space to getting your hands dirty; or flexing your farm-to-table muscle because of the richness of your surrounds, there are two common factors that remain: experience and responsibility. Guests are demanding authenticity, connection to the living world, traceability… Whether that means foraging amid the neighbouring countryside like Villa Lena, or sampling the paradox of fresh lab-grown Italian basil from 2009 amid the chaos of Manhattan, progression in produce will heighten the guest experience. In respecting the immediate produce that surrounds you, or in turning air miles into zero miles, you are shouldering the responsibility needed in these vital times. Progress is brilliant, but it’s nothing without a connection to humanity. Move forward, but stay true to the one thing that matters. And enjoy that basil.
James Davidson is a contributing writer for THE SHIFT and editor-in-chief of We Heart, an online design and lifestyle magazine that he founded in 2009 as a personal blog and now receives over half a million monthly views.