As the year winds down, it’s a good time to look ahead to what the future of our food system might bring. Watching what changes lie ahead can be a good way to take stock of what food values and principles are still important to us and what needs improving. And nowhere does the future of food come rushing headlong towards you and the disruption of our status quo than at the Food Loves Tech conference.
Food Loves Tech Conference and Expo was a two-day food technology and innovation expo that took place in early November at Brooklyn’s Industry City. “From rooftop farming and the food app boom to virtual reality menus and insect proteins, FLT unites food and drink innovators, thought-leaders and enthusiasts to experience the future of food and drink.” The expo gave attendees a deep dive into the future of the food, farming and beverage industries, saw new and emerging technologies in food production, distribution or service, met new players in the food chain, and heard featured panel discussions addressing some of the most pressing issues facing our food supply.
One clear truth emerged from the event–the “good food” movement has arrived and is big business–and urban ag is king. Here are some of the emerging food trends, products and new companies featured at the Expo:
Growing Food Indoors: Wall Street Loves Urban Ag
The big take-away from the Expo is that urban agriculture is not the realm of community gardeners and food activists anymore. Urban Ag as a for-profit industry is growing rapidly and right now is the sweetheart of Wall Street and venture capital/angel investors. Specifically, start-ups founded by entrepreneurs and investor groups that grow food indoors, using vertical (shelves or stacks upwards to 30 feet high) and hydroponic methods and/or aquaculture, are launching all over the New York City area, with Brooklyn as the epicenter. On panels and at their display booths, companies touted indoor agriculture the solution to future ills, such as climate change, lack of land access, a growing population, among others. Most of the food grown indoors are quick growing, high yield and high profit lettuces and greens that require little in the way of labor to maintain. Some tomatoes and herbs do well but the need for sun and heat, and higher nutrient levels than water-based growing methods provide, limit some of the crops that do well in soil in the outdoors.
Day one of the Expo featured a panel of local indoor farming entrepreneurs and industry investor/analysts, moderated by Brian Halweil, editor in chief of Edible Manhattan and several of Edible’s other New York area publications. The panel discussed some of the unique benefits of growing food indoors, specifically, the high production and potentially high margins, highlighted some emerging business models and proprietary technologies, from hydroponic to aquaponic to aeroponic, and offered a few of the current limitations of urban agriculture, specifically, the very high start-up costs and breakeven curve, and the somewhat limited variety of produce that indoor farms can grow without soil, space and sunlight.
Some of the farms that featured their produce at their booths for tasting. Here are a few of farms that were on the panel or in the expo:
Aerofarms: All We Need is the Air that We Breath
Aerofarms currently holds the title of “the world’s largest indoor vertical farm.” The farm has multiple growing locations in Newark, New Jersey, totaling over 100,000 square feet and producing over 2,000,000 pounds of food, primarily greens, each year, not counting the produce it grows in its 5500 square foot R & D facility. The company grows its food using a “patented aeroponic growing system for faster harvest cycles, predictable results, superior food safety and less environmental impact” that uses 95 percent less water than soil farming. Aeroponics is a process that uses air to grow plants, usually without any growing medium at all, though some water is misted through the system.
Aerofarms sells over 250 varieties of greens and herbs directly to restaurants and other food service. It also sells a retail brand for consumers called Dream Greens, blends of baby greens like baby kale and arugula, and more spicy greens like watercress. On the panel and on its website, the company touted the benefits of indoor farming, food service benefits, such as consistent quality and pricing, year long availability, longer shelf life, customizable mixes. For consumers, the company stresses the nutrition, freshness and flavor, the local, non-GMO brand and water conservation. For investors and the bottom line, its big selling point: the company claims to achieve yields 130 times greater per square foot than traditional farming.
The farm’s higher profile restaurant customers, including Eleven Madison Park, the Momofuko Group, Red Rooster in Harlem and Facebook’s New York office chef, Anthony Moraes.
Bowery on the Passaic
Despite the name, Bowery Farming is not located on the Bowery, but in a large warehouse in Kearny, New Jersey, though its corporate offices are in New York City. (New York City’s street called The Bowery is English for “bouwerij,” the original name in Dutch, meaning “farm”). Bowery Farming uses vertical farming techniques: the produce is grown in stacked vertical rows, using water and other growing medium, using highly precise nutrient and water measurement equipment, LED lights and special seeds developed by undisclosed partners. The farm produces baby kale, arugula, basil, butterhead lettuce and two varieties of blends. The company’s co-founder and CEO Irving Fain comes from the financial world, Citicorp, and as a result, the company has been very successful with start-up and runway funding from major venture capital financing.
Bowery sells to two New Jersey Whole Foods, and Foragers Market in New York City. Also, two Manhattan restaurants, Craft Restaurant in the Flatiron, and Temple Court near City Hall carry Bowery’s produce.
Putting Fish to Work at Edenworks
Edenworks is an indoor farm that grows microgreens and fish using aquaculture. Launched in 2013 in Bushwick, the company raised enough capital in 2016 to move into a 10,000 square food warehouse and build a vertical farm that it estimates can produce 50,000 pounds of tilapia and 130,000 pounds of leafy greens, such as kale, mustard, chard and other microgreens. The produce is grown without pesticides or GMOs. The fish, specifically, tilapia, are grown in tanks. The fish create waste, which is broken down and fermented using bacteria into the nutrients to fertilize the greens. The vegetables filter the water as they grow and sends it back to the fish tank. The farm uses a stacked vertical tray system with LED lights to help the plants grow and sensors in the growing trays to monitor the nutrient content of the plants. According to Edenworks, the produce is on the shelf within 24 hours of harvest, compared to upwards to a week for produce from more distant commercial farms. The company website doesn’t give a product list or where to find there products, though it does currently sell at the Whole Foods in Williamsburg, in Brooklyn. The company continues to raise money to finance plans for additional indoor farms in other U.S. cities.
SmallHold: Mini farms Popping Up Like Mushrooms
Instead of producing food locally in large warehouses, Smallhold goes hyper-local and brings the indoor vertical farm into restaurants and other large business kitchens and even backyards. The company is developing networked vertical mini farms that grow a variety of mushrooms, complete with sensors, climate control mechanisms, and hydroponics. Operated as a subscription service, the company grows the mushrooms 3/4 of the way to harvest and then delivers them to units at subscriber restaurants. The units, which are similar in size to restaurant shelving, hold the mushrooms on site as they continue to grow, until they are ready to pick and serve fresh.
Currently, the company has units in two restaurants, including a custom designed unit in Mission Chinese restaurant in Manhattan that produces over 30 pounds of exotic mushrooms, and Bun-Ker Vietnamese restaurant in Brooklyn. The company also grows mushrooms for distribution in five mini farm units in a shipping container in North Brooklyn. The website has no information on the pricing or other arrangements (e.g., What is the fee/product? Is it rental on the unit, fee for the services, the cost of mushrooms? What do the sensors measure? Or does the company own the mushrooms throughout the growing period and then charges the subscriber a specified price for the mushrooms as they are harvested? NYC Foodscape will update with more information as we learn more).
Koppert Cress Brings Big Flavors in Tiny Greens
Koppert Cress is a Dutch company that grows and sells a variety of cut and living micro-greens, edible flowers and buds, and specialty produce in a dozen European countries and North America, including a local franchise greenhouse operation on Long Island. Many of the specialty items feature exotic, sweet or savory flavors and textures, including popcorn, mushroom, and even the BlinQ blossom’s “electric” or numbing salty-lemon flavor, and when combined with other greens or buds, some create a new almost non-plant flavor, such as fresh oysters. It also sells live plant sets of greens that restaurants and consumers can harvest as needed.
NOTE: Industry Lobbying Results in City’s First Ever Urban Ag Policy Bill
This summer and fall, New York City urban agriculture advocates saw our city take an initial step in joining other visionary cities like Boston, Los Angeles, Chicago and Atlanta to bring together the long-standing work and wisdom of individuals and groups growing food in community gardens, rooftops, schools and other spaces to create a path towards long-term resilience, economic opportunity, food security, health and community sovereignty for all New York City residents. On December 11th, 2017, the New York City Council unanimously passed the city’s first-ever urban agriculture policy bill (Int. No. 1661-A: A Local Law in relation to requiring the department of city planning, department of small business services, and the department of parks and recreation to develop urban agriculture website). The bill creates a city-run website to create a comprehensive database of existing urban agriculture organizations and businesses and provide guidance to those who are interested in becoming involved in urban farming.
Much of the initial lobbying that sparked Brooklyn Borough President to introduce the original bill came not from the long-term gardeners and local food advocates, but from relative newcomers to the work of growing food locally: Brooklyn’s growing number of private sector entrepreneurs who wanted clarity and easing in regulatory hurdles and new incentives for launching new, often indoor, urban agriculture start-ups in industrial spaces around and near the city. Indeed, news of the proposed urban agriculture plan spread beyond local or usual food or environmental publications to include those covering Wall Street, food tech and venture capital/angel financing trends.
For more information about this bill, see NYC Foodscape’s Dec. 7 post, “NYC Council’s Comprehensive Urban Ag Plan Downgraded to Website: Attend 12/11 City Council Vote to Be Heard.”
Chefs Embrace Food Tech
It’s not just Wall Street that loves Food Tech. Chefs are signing on to buy and use some of the newest food products and methods in cooking and hospitality/food service. Here is the list of chefs who presented and some of the dishes they created using newer food products and methods featured at the Expo:
Gramercy Tavern: Michael Anthony, Executive Chef, serving Barramundi Fish Croquets, Gotham Greens Salad with Marinated Smallhold Mushrooms. Chef Anthony also spoke on a panel about the role of genetic technologies like GMO, Crispr and old-school cross-breeding in food production. The panel was lively, indeed, somewhat controversial, as the benefits and risks involved in manipulating genetic material in our food system were debated by fellow panelists Marion Nestle, Paulette Goddard Professor of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health, Emerita, at New York University and Sam Kass, former White House Chef and founder of Trove, a food technology, investment and strategy company, and partner in Acre Venture Partners, a venture capital fund launched by Campbell’s Soup, that invests in startups that create “transparency, health, and sustainability” in the global food system. Kass as well as touted the use of genetic technology as an essential tool in creating enough food to feed the world and combating climate change, while Nestle spelled out the scientific differences in various technologies and reminded the audience of many of the ethical and environmental impacts that GMO farming has had on soil health, biodiversity, and food sovereignty around the globe.
bonbite: Chef Winston Chiu serving celery dumpling “cheese curry,” burnt onion powder and celery leaves. Bonbite is essentially a local catering company with a focus on local ingredients and a sustainability mission, but it also has a meal delivery service as well.
Untitled: Chef Suzanne Cupps served roasted beets with whipped feta and almond-arugula pesto from local indoor farms.
Seamore’s: Chef Michael Chernow serving fall panzanella with winter skate, delicata, pumpkin and beer bread.
Saxon + Parole: Chef Brad Framerie serving Impossible Foods sliders and (For more on Impossible Foods, see below)
New Foods Claim to Address Climate Challenges
Dream the Impossible Burger
Animal production is a major contributor to many of today’s environmental challenges–according to research, raising animals for food uses 30% of all land and over 25% of all fresh water on Earth, and creates more greenhouse gas emissions than driving cars. Vegans have been advocating for a meat and dairy free food system for years, and though there are many reasons animal production in small sustainable farms is actually beneficial to our health and for biodiversity, it is clear that the world would be better off if we all reduced our meat consumption. But what is a meat lover to do with that love of a juicy burger?
According to Impossible Foods, the company that makes Impossible Burger, their burger is made from “simple, all-natural ingredients such as wheat, coconut oil, and potatoes. What makes the Impossible Burger unlike all others is an ingredient called heme. Heme is a basic building block of life on Earth, including plants, but it’s uniquely abundant in meat. We discovered that heme is what makes meat smell, sizzle, bleed, and taste gloriously meaty. Consider it the “magic ingredient” that makes our burger a carnivore’s dream.”
Impossible Burger definitely tastes like beef, though its texture is closer to pulled beef barbecue rather than ground beef. It is juicy and has a slightly “umami” taste, imparting some of that satisfying flavor and mouth feel that beef lovers crave.
Crickets Are the New Almonds
Insects like grasshoppers, worms, and crickets have been a source of protein in meals in many cultures for centuries, including the salty-spicy Mexican snack, chapulines. But many people today can’t quite wrap their tongue around a piece of food that looks too “buggy” and so it’s a hard sell as a meat substitute. So companies like Seek Foods are making products that incorporate the protein-packed cricket into other more palatable products like baked goods and snacks.
Seek Foods makes gluten-free cricket granola and snacks with no added sugar or artificial ingredients, “Motivated by a broken system around Westerners’ increasing and unsustainable desire for meat,” co-founder Robyn Shapiro introduces our American palates to crickets using highly flavorful snacks. Ounce for ounces, crickets contain comparable amounts of protein as meat, but have considerably less impact on our environment and on animals’ lives.
The Incredible, Edible Algae?
If you’ve ever had vegan mayonnaise and missed the rich, emulsified texture and flavor of traditional French-style mayonnaise or Italian aioli, or want to avoid vegan’s emphasis on soy as the protein substitute of choice, some tasting alternatives are emerging on the food horizon.
The Good Spoon makes a plant-based, non-GMO, vegan mayonnaise that uses a micro algae called Chlorella instead of eggs that is gluten- and soy-free, with 60 percent less fat than regular mayonnaise. In addition to a plain classic “mayonnaise” flavor, the mayo also comes in three other flavors: garlic and herb, curry and spicy.
Fermenting Gets Caffeinated
Fermented foods have been touted as the cure-all for our digestive and immune system issues, and pickles, sauerkraut, kim chee, yogurts, and kombucha are the value-added products of the moment at farmers markets. But now you can even buy fermented coffee to make you feel good about drinking your morning brew.
Eat Cultured, the company that sampled its fermented coffee at the Expo, uses natural fermentation process just before roasting “to completely reinvent coffee” that is easier to digest, lower in acidity, lower caffeine for less spikes, and more fruit flavor and chocolate aromas. The coffee was indeed very smooth and was actually preferable without milk than with it, a surprise if you usually don’t like your coffee black.
High and Low-Tech Tools, Apps and Gadgets
Food delivery apps remains on the forefront of consumer focused technology, and have proliferated past fad into mainstream usage. Other low- medium- and flashy high-tech ideas and launches were on display at the Expo include:
Marketing itself as the “Blue Apron for Agriculture,” Seedsheet sells simple and custom garden kits for beginner gardeners to start their gardens, embedding nonGMO seeds for various types of gardens, from herbs and greens to flowers to vegetables, into a growing medium and ready to lay onto appropriate containers in yards, balconies or windowsills. Seedsheet was featured on Shark Tank and regularly sells on QVC shopping network.
Robotics and Edible Printing
Techies love gadgets and the hot food-related gadget fads right now, besides the ubiquitous Instant Pot, are 3-D printing and robotics.
Event planners who want to create unique guest experiences might consider hiring Selffee instead of the usual “step and repeat” photo experiences. Selffee uses printing technology to print out edible selfies for guests. Customers can also upload photos to the company’s website and order a batch of cookies with their favorite image, as a novelty gift at weddings, weddings, bar mitzvahs, corporate outings, conferences or other high-end events. The company currently prints photos onto:
- Iced lattes
- Iced matcha lattes
- Soft tortilla shells
The process can take about 15-30 minutes, but here are samples of photos printed onto the foam of a latte and on cookies:
Beehex initially launched as a NASA-funded 3-D robotic printer to provide food for astronauts in deep-space missions, the company now offers robotic printing for various food production industries, including cake decorating and pizza toppings, and personalized nutrition to create an optimized diet based on individual bodies and lifestyles. The company is actively seeking more investor funding after garnering $1 million in seed funding earlier this year.
Sustainability and Food Waste Solutions
Many of the missions of the food start ups featured at the Expo claim to address the problems that our food system has created and state a vision for a more sustainable food system. Here are a few with a direct link from mission to outcome:
What’s in Season?
There’s an app for almost everything, including finding out what food is in season at your local market. Grace Communications Foundation, a philanthropic organization that develops and funds solutions to the problems of our industrial food system launched its Seasonal Food Guide in an effort to encourage eaters to buy foods in season. The app is a free online tool and app that tells you where and when locally grown produce is in peak season. It links to recipes and more in-depth information about the produce. You can search what’s in season at any time of year in each of the 50 states, using information sourced from the Natural Resources Defense Council, USDA, state agriculture extension offices and state departments of agriculture.
Ugly Food is Delicious
The massive scale of food waste from production to consumer is a major problem around the world, and many chefs, organizations, existing and new companies are starting to find ways to reduce our food waste. The problem and some emerging solutions was the feature of Chef Anthony Bourdain’s film, Wasted, and the National Restaurant Association puts reducing food waste as one of the top ten big food concept trends for 2018. Food Loves Tech included panels and a start up that uses technology to tackle this growing problem.
Grogreen Tech turns “wasted food into wanted food.” GroGreen has developed an app, launching in the spring of 2018, for local farms that have trouble selling their otherwise healthy, delicious and edible produce that doesn’t meet the superficial cosmetic standards of supermarkets. The app connects the farmers to local restaurants and juice bars, who would buy their “ugly produce” at a discounted price. As part of the service, Grogreen says it plans to pick up the produce at local farmers markets and deliver it to the restaurant customers for the farmer.
Wine for a Cause
Proud Pour is a wine company that partners with environmental organizations to “make your happy hours even more celebratory.” When you buy the company’s wine, a portion of the proceeds go to address specific environmental threats. For example, the company notes that for every bottle of North Coast Sauvignon Blanc they sell, 100 wild oysters are restored to local waters. “This group of hardworking bivalves will filter 3,000 gallons of water a day” improving water quality, protecting our coastlines from erosion, and creating wild reef habitats for fish, crabs, shrimp, and other species. And when you buy a bottle of their Oregon Pinot Noir, this means 875 wildflowers are planted on farms to provide 90 sq ft of bee habitat and pollination.
For a complete list of the urban farms, restaurants, food products, apps, services and other companies that have lead the way in or embraced the role of technology in our food system’s future, see the Expo’s line-up page.