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With AgTech, the Slow Food Movement Is Gaining Speed6 min read

Think “sustainable food” and most likely an image of an overly expensive farm-to-table restaurant pops into your mind. Perhaps the $260 multi-course tasting menu at chef Dan Barber’s swanky Blue Hill at Stone Barns, located Upstate and once featured on the Netflix Original “Chef’s Table,” would be the perfect incarnation of this.

Or, maybe it’s the intimidating selection of frighteningly-named, locally brewed beers at that Brooklyn brewpub.

Believe it or not, sustainability in the food industry is more than just a trend that increases the presence of hipsters in overalls and farm-style Michelin-starred restaurants.

In fact, it’s a growing global movement that has the power to impact not only people on every social strata and in societies worldwide, but also the planet as we know it.

Danielle Nierenberg, author of Nourished Planet and founder of the non-profit Food Tank, sums up the value of sustainable systems in Edible: “[they] are able to efficiently and comprehensively meet the food, fuel and fiber needs of today without compromising the ability of future generations to meet the needs of tomorrow.”

For her, though, and many other food activists, sustainability on the environmental side of the equation simply isn’t enough. Nierenberg goes on to say, “Our challenge is to create a food system that is not only environmentally sustainable but also economically, socially and culturally sustainable and that helps ensure that we are nourishing people as well as the planet.”

Today, we are putting an enormous strain on our food system. According to research by the Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment at Oxford University, “With population growth coupled with the emergence of a global middle class, demand growth for agricultural goods is accelerating. The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) projects that demand for food will grow by 70 per cent by 2050, and even more intensive energy, water and fertilizer inputs will be required to sustain yields on a relatively inelastic supply.”

Some areas of the world are bearing the brunt of this in their inability to meet that demand. Major innovations in agricultural technology, climate control and distribution will be needed to support the demand. In the US, however, the issue is quite a different one.

Absurdly, despite the worldwide surge in demand, the US wastes an unfathomable amount of food. A recent article in the Atlantic cited a Guardian report claiming, “roughly 50 percent of all produce in the United States is thrown away — some 60 million tons (or $160 billion) worth of produce annually, an amount constituting ‘one third of all foodstuffs.’ ”

We are privileged in the US, comparatively speaking, of course. Food is low cost here. There are many government subsidy programs that maintain a high production of staple crops like corn, wheat and soybeans. We’re also picky, apparently.

In an Instagram economy, it seems, the standards for perfectly formed, unblemished produce have risen, adding extra strain on purveyors of fresh food.

Massimo Bottura and Dan Barber are just some of the growing wave of celebrity chefs speaking out about food waste and sustainable systems. The Global Citizen reported on how, “In cooperation with Pope Francis, [Bottura] turned an abandoned theatre in a Milan suburb into Refettorio, a soup kitchen that has turned more than 15 tons of excess food into meals for the homeless, working poor and refugees.” Barber’s contribution, among others, is the near closed-circle food system he created at the aforementioned Stone Barns.

The public is catching on, no doubt. According to Food Dive, “Management consulting firm AT Kearney found 78 percent of consumers said they will pay more for local products throughout the store.”

This seems to confirm the public perception that local and sustainable options are important to buyers. But how does this increased demand translate to the real world?

Founder of Agritecture and the sustainability-focused incubator AgTech X, Henry Gordon-Smith, brought up in our recent interview with him, how, “distribution and its negative effect on the quality of produce freshness is a major issue. Consumers are getting more particular and want transparency and freshness. That will require more local farms and improved distribution technologies.”

Writer Jeff Wells elaborates on the problem on Food Dive, “As demand increases, everyone from suppliers to distributors and retailers are laboring to innovate a process that, at its core, relies on sourcing a small amount of product from many producers. They’re aggregating, streamlining, investing, educating, re-branding and applying technology in ways that belie local’s quaint, down-home image.”

Combine the increasing share of the US population living in high density urban areas with the increased consumer demand for hyper-local cuisine, and the answer is a (relatively) simple one: urban farms.

Gordon-Smith highlights the multi-fold purpose of urban farms, stating that, “high tech urban farms reduce food miles and increase freshness. They also produce significant green jobs and can revitalize communities that have been left behind. Community gardens help to manage rain, provide increased food access and often serve as safe spaces. High-end urban vertical farms provide chefs with local produce year-round.”

Farm.One is at the forefront of exactly that. With an R&D farm located within the Institute of Culinary Education and a main facility underneath the Michelin-starred restaurant Atera in Tribeca, Farm.One has positioned itself as the go-to source for top New York-area chefs looking for local, rare and high quality produce.

While Farm.One operates on the upper echelons of cuisine, Aerofarms is the everyman’s. Located across the Hudson in Newark, it’s currently the world’s largest vertical farm and slated to produce two million pounds of produce every year.

The tinier the better for companies like Smallhold, which focuses on maximizing space and efficiency for growing a wide range of edible mushrooms on its minifarms installed throughout the City, whereas for companies like BrightFarms bigger is better. With a series of corporate partnerships, BrightFarms is building and managing greenhouses on roofs, parking garages and empty lots, allowing grocers to grow their own produce directly on site.

Let us not forget about the numerous community gardens, in many cases run by volunteers, that are helping not only to localize food production but also to positively impact urban communities. Eagle Street Rooftop Farm in Greenpoint is just one of them. It hosts a range of volunteer and educational programs in addition to growing the freshest produce on its 9,000 square-foot rooftop.

Urban farming is certainly critical to developing a more sustainable food system. However, there are a whole slew of companies that are addressing the issue from different angles. An app called YourLocal, for instance, is fighting food waste by helping consumers locate food that’s about to be thrown out by local sellers, whether they be bakeries, restaurants or supermarkets.

Replate works on a larger scale, matching corporate food donors to communities in need. As its site points out, the company is, “on its way to serve 16 million meals to 100,000 people in the next four years.”

Now that it’s becoming clearer that sustainably-minded consumers are willing to put their dollars where their mouths are, investors’ interests have piqued. Forbes, for example, recently published an article entitled, “How the AgTech Investment Boom Will Create a Wave of Agriculture Unicorns.” Need we say more? The article highlights groups like the Farmers Business Network, Gingko Bioworks, Indigo Ag and Plenty as “redefining the agtech investment landscape” with “mega funding rounds.”

It’s key to have alignment among investors, consumers, farmers and AgTech entrepreneurs for the food industry to not only create high impact, but to be financially feasible. With enough support, one day we may very well achieve Nierenberg’s lofty goal of a food system that is “environmentally, economically, socially and culturally sustainable.” 


Photo credit: Inhabitat, Hell’s Kitchen Farm Project

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