Can Tech Really Help Us Eat and Farm Better?

gotham greens

Editor’s note: If you’ve been keeping up with some of our editor in chief Brian Halweil’s recent writing, you’ll know he keeps a close eye on the intersection of agriculture, food and technology. Last month, he hosted a dinner as part of Almond Bridgehampton‘s “Artists and Writers” series to discuss these trends, as well as his general feelings about their potential to actually make us better eaters. The following is an adapted version of his presentation (see his slides here). Your interest piqued? You can try some of these technologies in person at Food Loves Tech on June 10–12. More info and tickets here.

There are two food sayings that are getting lots of play in Silicon Valley these days.

The first is: “The time to eat the hors d’oeuvres is when they are being passed.” In other words, the time for start-ups to take money from investors is when they are willingly giving out money.

The second expression that I’ve heard a few venture capitalists, inventors, food scientists and others say is: “Everyone has three things: A food blog, a food allergy and a food start-up.”

Well, right now, food, and everything that goes into growing food for our hungry planet, is among the hottest tech investments around. The metaphorical hors d’oeuvres are being passed. Technology is wending its way into every link of the food chain, from robot farmers and drones monitoring herds of livestock at one end of the chain, to beverage pairing apps, handheld allergen testers and smart sous vide machines on the other end.

In 2014, investors bet $2.4 billion on foodtech start-ups worldwide. That number jumped fivefold in 2015 and is due to jump again this year. While there’s been talk of a foodtech bubble, many argue we’re at the beginning of a long uptrend. The space has just begun to attract interest from large players in food, not to mention companies like Uber and UnderArmour and Target leapfrogging into food through tech. Food and drink accounts for about 20 percent of the global economy and right now they account for just 3 percent of global venture capital investment. Steve Case, one of the founders of AOL, called food a multi-trillion dollar problem just screaming for technology to fix it.

What exactly is “foodtech?” It is adding automation or sensors or data to a part of our food system that used to be analog. So, let’s use Almond restaurant as an example. Instead of calling to make a reservation, we use OpenTable, which automates that process. Instead of relying entirely on a good manager, this restaurant uses software called Avero, which gives the general manager a data-based report card of what waiters sold the most and who was underperforming. The chef might order from a local farm via a web-based marketplace and may use a smart oven that sends alerts to his Apple watch when the potatoes are done. Finally, you, the eater, will probably photograph what you’re eating and then share it on Instagram and tag it #EEEdailypic. That’s all foodtech.

So why am I fascinated by this?

This feels a lot like the heady days of the local food movement 20 years ago. We’ve watched farm to table, the notion of eating regionally, go mainstream as farmers markets exploded, as CSAs became more common and everyone understood the benefits of eating food from nearby. I’m glimpsing the same sort of excitement around foodtech, and it feels cutting edge in a way that local food no longer feels.

I’m also fascinated because we’ve all seen the incredible power of tech in our lives: who could do without Google Maps or having a video camera in our phone or ordering with one-click from Amazon. Our lives are so tech enabled; we all have iPhones, we have all used the poop emoji, we all know what words like “analytics” and “optimized” and “in the cloud” mean. And that means tech can move into our food lives without us even knowing it, and can do it wicked fast.

When we consult Yelp for where to eat or stock our pantry from FreshDirect, when a restaurant owner logs in to a dashboard to see how her waitstaff are performing or a corn farmer assesses crop health using drone-gathered data, technology is radically shifting the way we decide what to grow and eat.

So here’s the thesis that has been guiding my writing and research on this topic: In the next few years, tech will change our relationship to food in ways not seen since the advent of agriculture 12,000 years ago. Tech has the potential to improve the quality, reduce the cost and improve healthfulness of our collective diet, but there’s no guarantee that it will. In fact, there’s good evidence that it will continue prevailing trends of our dysfunctional food system, including removing us even more, reinforcing the industrial model and creating a techno-food elite with access to data and apps.

Amidst the buzz, there are some really important questions that aren’t being asked: Is all this tech helping us eat better? Is it helping us farm better? I’d say the jury is still out on both these questions.

Tonight I hope to offer you a glimpse of what this all means for us as eaters. When I spoke to chef Jason we agreed that it wouldn’t really be so fun to just eat tech foods. No one really wants to eat like the Jetsons or pay $45 for three courses of astronaut ice cream. So we chose real foods from our area that aren’t necessarily tech enabled but that I consider incredibly innovative and disruptive in their own way.

So the first course is a 10 microgreens salad from Good Water Farms, which I consider innovative because microgreens have just a nine-day growing season and because they are these tiny plants that pack a superconcentrated dose of flavor and nutrients. Also because they are grown inside under light, but they are grown in soil, in contrast to a growing number of indoor farms that use hydroponic media and no real soil.

A dish of rare, heirloom beans from Marilee Foster. I won’t even mention the fact that Marilee is a disruptive person in general. But beans are disruptive because they were once a major source of fertilizer for most farms and they have been removed almost entirely from our crop rotations. So reintroducing them into our fields and diets is revolutionary.

A fish burger. Dock to Dish is a revolutionary fishing-boat-to-consumer-business model that gets the fish from the boat to the eater in as few steps as possible. But their latest innovation that allows them to buy from many more fishers and use a lot more of what is caught is the fishburger, which at any given time of year could contain any of a few dozen species that Long Island fishers are allowed to catch. For more details, Edible Manhattan did a big story on how the fish burger could save the oceans by reducing seafood waste by 65 percent.

Beyond these three main ingredients, you’ll be getting tastes of Soylent, a drinkable meal whose company is now valued at a billion dollars and growing fast; Ambronite, also a drinkable meals, but the more green alternative to Soylent. Your tables all have bottles of Just Mayo, a vegan mayonnaise from Hampton Creek, which uses a machine that learns to create recipes from underused plants around the world, and cricket bars made from, you guessed it, crickets.

Now fasten your seat belts for a speedy, CliffsNotes deep dive into the foodtech that is around us or will shortly be. We’ll start at the beginning of the chain and end at our plate.

Farming is becoming more and more about data. And a watershed moment in agtech was when Monsanto, yes, that Monsanto, bought Climate Corporation, the largest provider of weather data on the planet. Monsanto understood that farmers were going to need access to data, just as they need to buy seeds and chemicals.

John Deere is also getting in on the data play, recently entering an agreement with Monsanto to aggregate all the information collected by John Deere’s next generation of smart tractors.

Meet Rowbot. This autonomous device is sized to fit between rows of corn. It has rotors on the bottom to mulch up weeds. It can also plant cover crops and spray herbicides. One rowbot can cover 50 acres in a day and it can be deployed in flocks of several dozen, all controlled from a laptop or phone.

Image courtesy of Rowbot.

Of course, some of the most common robots on farms today are flying machines. Farmers are among the largest and fastest growing consumers of drones, using drones designed to spot disease, survey plant health and even apply doses of insecticide.

This is one of my favorites: A baguette sized device is called the Bolus and it’s made by an Irish company called eCow. It’s designed to live in the rumen of a cow, for as long as six months, and collect all sorts of data on gut health that can then be used as a proxy for the health of the whole herd.

Farm’s aren’t just in the countryside anymore either. With automation, farms are moving inside.

This tweet is from AeroFarms in Newark, New Jersey, the largest indoor farm on the planet. The plants bask in red light—”more effective than the sun,” they declare with a bit of hubris—and are fed their nutrients through irrigation water, never touching an ounce of soil.

Indoor farms, also called vertical farms, are being concentrated near cities, where the eaters are, and mostly produce leafy greens.

A new indoor farm just opened in Japan that hopes to not even use people. This robot-run farm will harvest 30,000 heads of lettuce a day.

There are efforts underway to automate nearly every aspect of farming including animal slaughter. A robotic arm was designed in Israel to separate the parts of a chicken and replace the high-speed, highly dangerous knife work of slaughterhouse workers.


And a lot of effort is going into food that doesn’t actually come from a farm, but is instead cultured in a lab, grown in big vats of bacteria and then shaped and colored and extruded to look like food. This isn’t a totally new idea. Winston Churchill, a little known futurist, actually predicted it, and today we have the microbiology know how to do it.

And here are just a few examples of the brands you may see in coming years:

This is Clara Foods, a Silicon Valley start-up trying to make eggless eggs.

There’s also Impossible Foods, a Stanford start-up that is making a beef-like product from plant blood, whatever that is.

This is Muufri, another Silicon Valley company culturing milk that doesn’t come from a cow but has the identical nutrient and taste profile of real milk.

There’s New Wave Foods which is making shrimp without shrimp.

And there’s Beyond Meat—which is actually sold at King Kullen, Provisions and beyond—and is made from pea protein, which is the ingredient of choice for many of these fake meat companies. Part of the reason there is so much interest in fake protein is because meat and seafood are the most ecologically problematic and resource intensive parts of our diet.

Some of the foodtech creations don’t even try to mimic something else. Soylent, mentioned earlier, is a drinkable meal that contains everything you need to survive. Nearly 1 million Americans have subscribed to a monthly shipment, is growing at 300 percent a year, just launched in Europe and Asia, and already has a multi-billion dollar valuation. Some people say it takes like Cheerios milk, but you be the judge.

Soylent’s founders envision every household on the planet having some in their pantry—for a meal in a pitch in wealthy countries, and for famine times in poor nations. Soylent’s financial success is evidence that the company is clearly meeting some need for at least a million eaters. But that doesn’t fully answer the question we started with: can this tech help the world eat better and help us farm better?

Now once the food gets grown, or cultured, it’s gotta get to us. Food delivery is the space in the chain that has attracted the most investment to date. New Yorkers got an early glimpse of this with FreshDirect, which allowed you to shop for groceries without ever leaving your apartment.

Amazon is also making a big bet on food delivery and has launched AmazonFresh in six metro regions, including New York City.

Uber has launched UberEats, which mostly focuses on takeout from restaurants, but will roll out groceries in the near future.

A Brooklyn-based company called Farmigo offers the online version of a CSA in which you sign up with some friends or neighbors for a weekly delivery of farm-fresh produce.

A subset of food delivery is meal kits, essentially precut and pre-measured ingredients that allow you to do a bit of cooking at home. The big start-up in this space is Blue Apron, valued at over a $1 billion, which makes it a “unicorn” in Silicon Valley speak.

But there are literally dozens of companies doing meal kits, including some for Paleo eaters, families with little kids, cancer survivors and locavores.

With all this delivery, there’s a lot of cardboard and other trash. One of the companies that I’m most excited about is called FreshRealm. They have created a reusable, insulated container that is a 17-inch cube and contains all the prepared produce that a household needs for a week. The insulation allows FreshRealm to use Fedex and UPS instead of a fleet of refrigerated trucks. FreshRealm leverages its sister company, Calavo, a global avocado industry leader who offers a diverse portfolio of fresh food products.

Now, let’s enter the kitchen of the future. Here the name of the game is automation, combined with sensors and cameras everywhere.

This is Mellow, a smart sousvide machine that is sort of like an iPhone crossed with a slow-cooker. You drop the food in in the morning, watch it simmer all day from your office and come home to perfectly cooked chicken.

There’s also Teforia, the smart tea machine.

Here’s Somabar, the smart cocktail maker.

And Flatev, the smart, countertop tortilla maker.

And June, named after June Cleaver from “Leave it to Beaver,” which is a smart oven that senses what you’ve put in it, suggests how to cook it and then gives you updates and images as it cooks.

The company trying to create the complete smart kitchen is Innit, a Silicon Valley firm that has equipped a theoretical kitchen not just with cameras and sensors but also written the software to detect key moments and milestones like when you run out of milk or dishwasher soap or when your oven is done baking muffins, and automatically place an order with Amazon.

Some of the new thinking around appliances involves working food production into our homes. This is Grove, the smart indoor garden, designed to give households access to even more fresh produce. Again, automation and ease are the key. Grove gives you alerts when it needs watering or weeding or harvesting. Grove was launched out of MIT’s CityFarm Lab which is spawning all sorts of foodtech.

This is the FlowHive, which I include because it’s a new bee hive design that makes it easier to dispense honey, and because this was the most successful Indiegogo project ever, raising $10 million.

And here’s the Edyn garden sensor, also a successful crowdfunding project, that tells you all you need to know about your garden, from soil fertility to moisture to seed germination to presence of pests.

This is what’s called the “Internet of Things,” when things like ovens and gardens and wine glasses acquire sensors, can make decisions and are wifi enabled.

Jack Daniels has introduced a smart whiskey bottle on its premium spirits. It allows the drinker to get all sorts of additional information on what they are drinking. But for the company it allows them to track exactly how long the bottle is staying on the shelf, how long it takes the consumer to drink it and when the bottle is thrown away. Big advantages for inventory management and reducing waste.

A company out of California’s salad bowl called Intelleflex is the leading producer of smart tags for produce shipping containers, from large trucks all the way down to boxes of produce. They claim they can help everyone from grocers to restaurants to school cafeterias reduce food waste by 20-50 percent, saving billions of dollars throughout the food chain.

At restaurants, we’re going to be seeing more screens and less paper. Ordering via iPads is already pretty common at airports and at some wine bars. But just as OpenTable eliminated the need for reservation books, services like Resy and Reserve will eliminate the need for a check. They envision a seamless experience in which you book a table, enjoy your meal and don’t even need to sign or pay because they have already shared your credit card info with the restaurant. Sort of like Uber.

I was speaking to one chef who said the holy grail for him is the marriage of OpenTable data with all the point of sale information a restaurant has so that when you arrive they know exactly what you ordered before. You wouldn’t get the same menu as everyone in the restaurant. You would get the menu optimized for you.

Hyper-personalization is another trend as we start to combine our own interests with our own biology, and as we each collect our own personal food data.

This becomes particularly relevant for people with allergies or food businesses trying to keep allergens out of their food supply. 6SensorLabs is one of the leading companies making devices that eaters can bring with them to detect minute amounts of gluten or shellfish or dairy.

They have just released a version for restaurant kitchens so they can test dishes before they leave the kitchen.

bbs is a company incubated by Stanford that uses rapid DNA sequencing to analyze packaged food items at the molecular level to see if the ingredients on the back are really accurate. ClearLabs recently looked at twenty vegan hotdogs on the market and found that fully 30 percent of them in fact contained some animal product, including traces of human DNA. They take the traceability that is so important to the good food movement to a molecular level.

Ingredient1 is a New York based company that sees a future in which all of us have a personal food ID. Just like Facebook is our social identity and LinkedIn is our work identity, our Ingredient1 profile will be our food identity—whether we like smooth or crunchy, sweet or savory, local, humane, gluten free—and as we built that identity we will be served all sorts of product ideas, dietary recommendations and eating notifications.

Stuff starts to get really personal when we tie this all into wearables that track our behavior. Jawbone is investing a tremendous amount of resources in food and drink apps. One of their most popular now is called UP Coffee which shows you how you body responds to a serving of coffee and tells you when to stop having coffee to optimize sleep for the night.

And as health tech and foodtech marry, we are seeing products like the SmartPlate, which is designed for hospital settings to give patients feedback when they are eating too much or too little.

This is really just the tip of the iceberg. I just learned about a new Android app that 3D scans your food and gives you a calorie count for diet tracking. And at SXSW, IBM Watson just launched a predictive algorithm designed to help companies throughout the alcohol chain design more popular cocktails.

What would it look like if we started over? This question comes from marketing material of Hampton Creek, the company that makes the mayo on your tables. They ask it because they don’t just want to make incremental improvements on the food system, they want to reinvent it.

And this mindset gives me hope because it is a really important distinction between foodtech and all the other food and farming technologies that have come before. All the companies I’ve told you about tonight came to be in the age of Michael Pollan and Mark Bittman. They are starting from the assumption that the food system is dysfunctional and broken, and so they have a mission to fix it.  they include ecofootrpint information on their labels. Their whole value proposition is around fixing the food system.

And, so even though they are clearly processed foods, aren’t they better than the current processed food we get from McDonald’s and PepsiCo?

But it’s a slippery slope. The Rowbot can mulch weeds and plant cover crops but it can also spray herbicides. Self-driving tractors mean that fewer and fewer people are needed to farm more and more land. Do smart kitchen appliances make us better cooks or actually reduce our kitchen skills and turn cooking into a fetishized activity that requires full-charged devices and strong wi-fi?

When I recently attended the Indoor Agriculture Conference in New York, I heard people talking about the broken food system that needed to be fixed, but I also heard language that sounded very similar to how companies like Monsanto have justified genetically modified foods. That we have a growing population, that we are running out of farmland, that this is the only thing that will work. I also heard people saying soil needed to be removed from farming entirely because it was dirty, contained toxins from past farming and could transmit disease.

Many in the tech world have voiced concern that the “move fast and break things mentality” that powers Facebook and other software companies may not be the best approach for our most essential of human endeavours, what we eat.

In fact right now, very few of these technologies are being used to feed the hungry or get people to eat better. Many in the tech world have voiced concern that the “move fast and break things mentality” that powers Facebook and other software companies may not be the best approach for our most essential of human endeavors: what we eat.

In a recent TED talk, Kimbal Musk, a successful chef and restaurant owner who used to be in the tech biz like his big brother Elon Musk, said he doesn’t see any good food ideas coming out of Silicon Valley because Silicon Valley is too removed from the soil.

Earlier this year, the scientist and food activist Vandana Shiva spoke at Marders and I told her about my research on foodtech and asked her what she thought. She said she is not opposed to any technology but is most interested in how it is used. She also added that just because a farmer uses smart tech doesn’t mean he is a smart farmer.

Yes, a smart tractor can know things that a farmer can never know, but at the same time, a farmer will know lots that a machine will never know.

I predict there will be farmers and eaters who decide to opt out. These will be the neo-luddites of the food movement. Just like folks today who avoid GMOs and processed meals, there will be those who abstain from food apps and digital food notifications and who want to keep screens and machines away from their meals. I think of my wife, who would say that all of this sounds too much like a Margaret Atwood novel for her pallette. She will not be the sort of person to embrace this foodtech wholeheartedly. She’s also a better cook, shopper and eater than 99 percent of people so she may not be the target user.

Someone eating Soylent or lettuce from a robot farm is willing to give up the humanity that comes from our food being grown in soil and touched by people.

With an open mind, I can see all sorts of good. Massive reductions in food waste with smart shipping containers and smart labels. A Montreal based company called Provender has built an online ordering platform that makes it as easy as possible for restaurants to buy from farms in their area; they use a predictive technology called “Menuplanting” to help guide farmers planting decisions and also encourage chefs to use produce that comes in early or late.

Not every chef will be as good as this restaurant at managing those relationships so tech could help there too. So when the foodtech is truly increasing transparency, reducing waste, giving more power to consumers and reinforcing good eating and farming habits, that’s the sort we should encourage.

Consider HelloTractor, which is a Kenya-based start-up that is the Uber of farm machinery. Farmers can rent, by the hour, farm equipment that will be delivered to their farm. Farmers who have made the investment in equipment can make some extra money by renting it out. It’s already being used in five African nations.

With an open mind, I can see all sorts of good. But I also wonder if all this tech isn’t just removing us, putting us one more screen farther from our food. Someone eating Soylent or lettuce from a robot farm is willing to give up the humanity that comes from our food being grown in soil and touched by people.

So I will ask again, is it helping us eat better? Is it helping us farm better? And we will have to ask this question often in the next few years as robots and smart devices and artificial intelligence become more and more a part of our every day.

I wanted to end on a recent image that astronaut Scott Kelly recently posted of his first family meal back on Earth. I was struck by his point that beyond the food that he missed in space, he missed the convivial nature of eating around the table with others.

He doesn’t want to live in a place or a future that is missing that. And neither do I.

Brian Halweil

Brian is the editor at large of Edible East End, Edible Long Island, Edible Manhattan and Edible Brooklyn. He writes from his home in Sag Harbor, New York, where he and his family tend a home garden and oysters. He is also obsessed with ducks, donuts and dumplings.