An evening exploring the future of food with SPACE10 and guests
How can we transform our systems of food production and distribution—through biology, engineering, machine learning, and artificial intelligence—so that we produce food much closer to where it’s consumed, and reduce food miles, food waste, and our impact on the environment?
Speakers included Matt Orlando, founder of the acclaimed Copenhagen restaurant Amass; Søren Ejlersen, founder of Danish organic food delivery company Aarstiderne; and Jason Green, cofounder and CEO at Edenworks, a Brooklyn-based vertical farm.
Tomorrow’s food, today
Guillaume Charny-Brunet, SPACE10’s director of innovation and strategy, kickstarted the evening by explaining its interest in sustainable food production. SPACE10 is a future-living lab whose “purpose is to enable a better, more meaningful and sustainable life for the many people,” he said.
“People crave solutions”
In that light, he said, five “mega trends” have fuelled its focus on the future of food: Accelerating urbanisation; political and economic shifts; lack of natural resources; demographic shifts; and technological breakthroughs.
Charny-Brunet traced the evolution of SPACE10’s interest in sustainable food production, explaining that it had “started with a shower”: the realisation that it takes 2,400 litres of water — a month-and-a-half’s worth of showers — to produce a single burger.
“That idea sparked something”, he said —namely, the desire to explore the role that “conversational interfaces, open sourcing, better and more sustainable food alternatives, AI and the future of manufacturing” could play in inspiring the many people to shift their behaviour and diets.
Charny-Brunet explained that SPACE10’s foray into the future of food began with Tomorrow’s Meatball — a visual exploration of the future of food, using IKEA’s iconic meatball as a template. It showcased the project first in Copenhagen and then at a pop-up in New York.
More recently, however, SPACE10 launched the Growroom, an open source urban-farm pavilion, whose “thought-provoking architecture” was picked up by the media and demonstrates that “people crave solutions”.
Finally, he introduced SPACE10’s latest lab, The Farm — a hydroponic farm located in its basement — and its project leader, Stefannia Russo.
Down on the Farm
Russo began with an overview of what she has been exploring at The Farm: “We have been looking at how we can transform food production and distribution as we know it, and create new ways of farming by bridging biology, engineering, machine learning and AI, to create new ways of farming, and hacking the way we grow food right we live.”
Noting that a supermarket apple is typically 11 months old and has travelled 5,000 km, Russo asked what the true cost of food is. With the food supply chain responsible for about a third of all greenhouse gases and the UN estimating that we’ll need to produce 70 percent more food in the next 30 years, “we must find smarter ways to produce and distribute food”, she said.
To that end, The Farm explores the intersection between food and technology. And it comes as farming in cities is “booming” — in backyards, on rooftops, in community gardens and in restaurants. “We are in the early blows of a food revolution where tech is already changing the way we see, taste, buy, grow, process, distribute and consume food,” Russo explained.
“Can we reuse food and make it better? Can we make it last longer? How do we perceive it and treat it?”
She also noted some of the pros and cons of indoor hydroponic systems, like the one at The Farm. On the one hand, they allow us to grow ingredients such as micro greens, which are typically harvested 14 days after germination and contain 40 times more nutrients than fully grown greens. However, they also have a very short shelf life — three days, on average — which explains why supermarkets don’t like stocking them.
Hydroponic systems also allow us to grow crops “twice as fast and all-year round”. Not only do they have a reduced carbon footprint, they also use 98 percent less water than industrial farming, she said. But the downside is that they can be very expensive to power — particularly their lights. “If it isn’t sustainable, it isn’t a sustainable way of producing food,” Russo said.
Beyond the Farm
Besides hydroponic farming, SPACE10 is also looking at hacking protein, Russo explained. “Protein is an essential part of any diet”, but when we consider it, “we instantly think of meat and fish.” Given our depleted fish stocks and the resources required to raise livestock, we ought to consider “alternative sources of protein, whose value chains have the biggest scale and a better impact on the environment”, Russo said.
“We are in the early blows of a food revolution where tech is already changing the way we see, taste, buy, grow, process, distribute and consume food”
However, SPACE10 isn’t looking at plant-based proteins but at insects — like mealworms, which contain 27g of protein per 100g — and at micro-algae such as spirulina. The latter, she explained, is “a superfood with the biggest concentration of protein and iron of any food. It can grow anywhere in the world, even in polluted water, and is one of the fastest growing organisms we know. So is it part of the solution to malnutrition around the world?”
SPACE10 is also interested in ways to hack the supply chain. “The longer the supply chain, the less nutritious food is — and the bigger its carbon footprint,” Russo said. “So how can we shorten the supply chain?”
Similarly, SPACE10 is exploring food waste. “We cannot talk about food production without talking about food waste,” Russo said. “Can we reuse food and make it better? Can we make it last longer? How do we perceive it and treat it?”
“The longer the supply chain, the less nutritious food is — and the bigger its carbon footprint”
Finally, Russo defined What’s Cooking as a “collaborative, network-driven approach”, and introduced two of SPACE10’s residents. One is chef Simon Perez, who worked on Tomorrow’s Meatballs. “Can he make spirulina taste good?”, Russo asked.
The other is bioengineer Keenan Pinto — “the biggest nerd we could find” — who’s researching micro-algae, sensor connectivity, bio-hacking and robotics to see if he can “make plants talk to us in a way that we understand”.
Food for the soul
The first guest speaker was Matt Orlando, founder of Amass, a sustainable restaurant in Copenhagen. He began by explaining his hostility to the idea of food waste. “We need to change the language we use”, he explained. “When we talk about excess food, if we treat it as waste, that’s all it will ever be. There’s no such thing as a by-product, only another product.”
Orlando explained that dishes are created at Amass by starting with their “larder” of excess ingredients. “The aim is to unlock the flavour” in a by-product — nut pulp that’s turned into a kind of dairy-free ricotta, say, or parsley stems that are turned into a powder that tastes like seaweed. “It has really started to define how our food looks and tastes,” he said.
“When we talk about excess food, if we treat it as waste, that’s all it will ever be”
“We are creating something delicious that doesn’t weigh heavily on the soul.” He also explained that Amass thinks in terms of “excess ingredients”, not excess food — meaning unused table water is used to clean the floor, say, while egg crates and candle stubs are used to light their bonfires.
Garden state of mind
Next, Orlando talked about Amass’s garden, which now has 126 grow boxes and a “moody” compost box. “We’ve gone through five different compost processes to figure out which one can take a steady stream of organic matter,” he said. Amass also has a “grown-up” poly-tunnel, which contains an aquaponic system — 20 “magic making” earthworms in each vertical zip grow, converting fish waste into nutrients for the plants, he explained.
“We are creating something delicious that doesn’t weigh heavily on the soul”
Orlando admitted that he was once “the biggest skeptic” of aquaponics. “I didn’t think it would taste of anything”, he said. “But what makes a plant delicious? It’s what the plant eats.”
He also wants to see a “connection made between farming in the city and excess food production in restaurants and family homes”.
Finally, Orlando said he hates the term “urban” farming: “You don’t talk about countryside farming, it’s farming,” he concluded. “We’re growing vegetables, feeding people, and in the end we all have the same goal”.
Connections to the earth
The perfect cue, then, for Søren Ejlersen, co-founder of Danish company Aarstiderne, which now provides organic seasonal ingredients to 70,000 households and has a direct relationship with 200 farmers.
He explained that he launched Aarstiderne because he had a “dream of securing a connection to the earth”. In particular, he has an interest in biodynamic farming and biodiversity, and in compost as an “engine for making or keeping soil healthy”.
“Planet Earth is simply filled with biodiversity … Plants are simply magic. Plants are the solution”
Aarstiderne wants to help shift the ratio of meat to vegetables that people eat. To that end it has increased the amount of plants in its meal boxes. In fact, 25 percent of them are now either vegetarian or vegan. (“Vegan boxes really took off 10 months ago, especially in Sweden,” he said.)
Moreover, Aarstiderne sells 350 varieties of plants, herbs and vegetables that consumers don’t tend to see in supermarkets — including 26 kinds of peas, 20 kinds of corn, 12 kinds of amaranth and blue potatoes. Ejlersen also applauded a Danish supermarket giant for selling heritage carrots.
He also talked about Aarstiderne’s interest in fermentation — especially in kraut, kimchi and kombucha — and its hope to get 20,000 Danish children growing their own food this year (with a target of 100 percent by 2020).
“Planet Earth is simply filled with biodiversity,” Ejlersen concluded. “Plants are simply magic. Plants are the solution.”
Lean, green manufacturing
The final speaker of the evening was Jason Green, cofounder and CEO at Edenworks. He started by talking about the importance of food’s “deliciousness” — before adding that “in order for all of us to eat really well, the supply of food has to be scaled”.
He then asked: “What’s wrong with how we grow food today?” — and explained that 95 percent of leafy greens sold in America are grown in two cities in California and New Mexico.
Yet, Green said, “people want to eat local food, because it is fresher and has more flavour, and benefits the local economy”.
At Edenworks, the thesis is that “indoor agriculture can and will replace these consolidated, centralised centres of production.
“Everybody’s getting squeezed and nobody’s getting much value out of this system,” Green added. “The point about indoor agriculture is that it is shorter and more efficient, and it grows for flavour not ease of distribution.”
“In order for all of us to eat really well, the supply of food has to be scaled”
Finally, Green argued that accessibility to products grown using indoor agriculture is key. In that light, he praised “the magic of just-in-time manufacturing” — explaining that aquaponic systems are a form of “lean manufacturing”, like the system pioneered on Toyota’s production line.