THE FUTURE OF LOCAL FOOD
Intriguing innovations in food production.
WRITTEN BY BARBARA TWITCHELL
ILLUSTRATIONS BY KATE O’HARA
Hang on to your dinner plate, my friends. We're on the verge of a major food revolution. That's not an exaggeration. Many edibles that will fill that plate within the next few years — and how they end up there — will be quite surprising. In some cases, even astounding.
Why now? Quite simply, there are literally billions of reasons.
Currently, 7.6 billion people live on Earth. According to the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, that number will balloon to 9.8 billion by 2050. That's just 32 years from now.
To feed the world in 2050, it's estimated that food production must increase by more than 70 percent. Crop demand for human and animal food will more than double. At the same time, fertile land is being depleted, water supplies are diminishing, and climate changes affecting temperature and precipitation patterns continue to negatively impact many prime growing areas.
Ernst van den Ende, managing director of the Plant Sciences Group at Wageningen University & Research in the Netherlands, in a recent National Geographic article, summed it up this way: "To put it in bluntly apocalyptic terms, the planet must produce more food in the next four decades than all farmers have harvested over the past 8,000 years."
Definitely gets your attention, doesn't it?
There is no simple or single solution. Meeting such a seemingly impossible challenge requires the intensive and coordinated efforts of many creative minds from the fields of agriculture, technology, science, conservation, and culture, among others.
What follows is a glimpse into some of the advances currently being explored, developed, and implemented by these visionaries. For the sake of expediency, they are loosely grouped in general categories; however, where one discipline ends and another begins is difficult to discern. Most often, they are interdependent, with science and/or technology permeating them all.
And while this is a serious subject, the unlimited and absolutely amazing inventiveness of the human mind also makes it interesting, fascinating, and even fun. So, buckle your seatbelt, hang on to your plate, and get ready for a wild ride into the future of local food!
WELCOME TO THE AGRI-TECH AGE
If you were asked what country is the world's largest exporter of food, no doubt you would correctly answer the United States. Do you know which country is second? Would you believe it's the Netherlands?
This tiny, densely populated country — about a third the size of West Virginia, sitting a scant 1,000 miles from the Arctic Circle — is a world leader in agricultural exports, coming in second to a country with 270 times its landmass.
How do the Dutch do it? They have become the masters of intensive, high-tech farming, focused on sustainability, social responsibility, and peak efficiency. They utilize robots for harvesting, drones for aerial surveillance, automation for meat processing, self-operating farm equipment for labor efficiency, biological pest control (bugs eating bugs), and cutting-edge technology to monitor soil content, nutrients, and water usage.
Another major key to their success? Greenhouses. Massive greenhouse complexes, some covering as many as 175 acres, are ubiquitous throughout the land. Using energy-efficient LED lighting for 24-hour cultivation, vertical planting, and water-efficient hydroponics systems, these temperature-controlled greenhouses have allowed the Dutch to reduce their dependence on water by as much as 90 percent and nearly eliminate use of chemical pesticides, while yielding up to 20 times the productivity.
The Dutch also are among the world leaders in the seed business, yet they market no GMO products.
It's no surprise that Wageningen University & Research is the world's No. 1 institution for agricultural education and that 12 of the world's largest food-and-drink companies maintain research and development facilities in the Netherlands. It's clear that this tiny country is a bona fide trailblazer for the future of agriculture.
But you don't have to go halfway around the world to see the future of farming in action. There are thriving examples in our own community.
Woody Worthington, ranch operations manager of Bently Ranch in Minden, can hold his own beside most Dutch farmers. He starts his day by checking the status of 6,500 noncontiguous acres, 2,000-plus head of cattle, and 58 employees. Most of that can be done on the cell phone in his hand.
"We maintain old traditional ways, but with new technology," Worthington says. "And sustainability is our top priority."
Embracing that philosophy, Bently Ranch is a paragon of high-tech, eco-conscious farming. Farm personnel utilize GPS-guided, self-driving tractors; solar panels to regulate the ranch's state-of-the-art water system; drones to help monitor crops and cattle in the fields; and biological pest-control methods.
Bently has its own reservoir and uses primarily snowmelt, river water, and recycled gray water to irrigate. It's home to the largest composting facility in the state to fertilize its completely non-GMO crops, and the team is building its own non-GMO seed bank. And, of course, Bently personnel humanely raise award-winning, pastured, grass-fed, grass-finished cattle that are third-party audited and certified.
Oh, yes, and they're currently adding a huge greenhouse to their highly successful operation. One major difference from the Dutch model: They prefer cowboy boots to wooden shoes.
The inside story
As the Dutch have proven, moving crops indoors has great advantages. The ability to control temperature, lighting, water usage, nutrients, and exposure to natural elements and pests almost guarantees a successful harvest. Done properly, it also conserves water, energy, space, and labor, and it practically eliminates chemical pesticide use. Additionally, it allows the farmer to control harvest times, reducing food waste. Thus, predictions for the future of agriculture include the following, many of which are interrelated and dependent.
Greenhouses already are a growing trend among commercial growers. Massive, multi-acre greenhouse complexes, with 24-hour, year-round growing capacity, will be how many future agricultural products will be grown.
Shipping container and warehouse farms allow produce to be grown locally, even in urban environments, close to consumers, reducing production costs and food miles. Kimbal Musk (brother of Tesla mogul Elon) is co-founder of Square Roots, a project that is teaching farming entrepreneurs how to raise crops in climate-controlled, LED-lit shipping containers. Musk says that each 40-foot container can produce an annual yield equivalent to a two-acre plot of farmland. Similarly, warehouses and repurposed industrial spaces, outfitted with appropriate adaptations, have a bright future as productive growing venues.
Vertical agriculture is the process of growing produce in vertically stacked layers, allowing farmers to grow many more plants per acre than can be done with horizontal (field) farming.
Greenhouses, warehouses, buildings, and shipping containers maximize space and production by utilizing vertical agriculture.
AeroFarms, headquartered in New Jersey, boasts the largest vertical farm in the world, housed in a former steel mill. This booming business effectively utilizes aeroponics to produce annual vegetable yields 390 times higher per square foot than field-farmed food, while using 95 percent less water. The company now has nine farms, all near population centers, with others in development in multiple states and on four continents.
Hydroponics involves growing plants directly in water. An inert growing medium, such as sand, coconut fiber/chips, or perlite takes the place of soil to support the plant's weight. All nutrients are provided by a specially formulated, water-based solution. Hydroponics, aeroponics, and aquaponics all have been shown to use 90 to 95 percent less water than traditional methods of agriculture.
Aeroponics allows the plants' roots to hang in the air where they are frequently misted with nutrient solution to keep them moist. A living, growing example of this can be seen locally at the Challenger Learning Center of Northern Nevada, housed at Reno's National Automobile Museum (more on this exciting new center, below).
Aquaponics is a system that combines aquaculture (raising fish) with hydroponics (soil-less cultivation of plants) in a symbiotic environment that benefits both. In this eco-conscious, sustainable system, the water remaining after fish-waste solids are removed is converted to nutrients for the plants. The plants filter and clean the water, which is then recirculated to the fish.
Dayton Valley Aquaponics is a shining example of the bright future of aquaponics. This amazing 30,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art, solar-powered, greenhouse facility is located in Dayton, Nev. Jacob O'Farrell, founder and facilities manager, reports that the company is currently on track to produce, this year, 100,000 pounds of tomatoes, 15,000 pounds of salad greens, as well as assorted microgreens, peppers, fresh herbs, and 10,000 pounds of responsibly raised tilapia, all without harmful pesticides and up to 90 percent reduction in water usage.
It takes a village
Small, local farms have long struggled to survive in this era of mega farms. According to the latest agricultural census, 57 percent of America's 2.1 million farms gross less than $10,000 a year. Increasing competition and emphasis on higher production standards in the future will only make matters worse. Still, there always will be a place for them, and several upcoming trends might be the key to their survival.
Lean farming is a concept promoted by Ben Hartman, author of The Lean Farm. Hartman incorporates the best new ideas gleaned from the Japanese auto industry into small-scale farming. He espouses eliminating waste from and introducing efficiency into all farm operations. Hartman's formulas for planting fewer crops, specializing in high demand or "profit-maker" produce, and instituting labor/harvest efficiencies now are being implemented by farmers around the world.
An agrihood is a suburban housing development built around a working farm. Generally, the farmer earns a livable salary for running the farm, which often includes on-farm housing. The agrihood residents enjoy pastoral views, access to fresh produce, and an opportunity to support their local farm economy. According to the Urban Land Institute in Washington, D.C., more than 200 of these are in existence or under construction across the country.
The Farmstead at Corley Ranch is a farm-to-table, master-planned community currently in the planning stages in Carson Valley. Designed for active adults 55 and older, the development will include 250 homes bordering a working ranch. Amenities will include a community garden, greenhouse, and orchard, as well as stores and restaurants. Residents will be able to purchase or grow their own farm-fresh produce.
WHERE'S THE BEEF?
More than a quarter of the world's landmass and freshwater is used for raising livestock. Yet, as much as we may like our meat, it's not an efficient use of those resources. For example, only one out of every 25 calories a cow eats becomes edible beef. Additionally, livestock create 14.5 percent of greenhouse gases, which is more than what is produced by all forms of transportation combined. Factoring in the increased food demand we soon will face, the meat-centric plate appears to be unsustainable.
So that lovely plate you're hanging onto — envision it without meat, or at least with much smaller portions of meat. The diet of the future largely will be plant based. And the protein sources will prove to be healthier, more diverse, and even rather ... uh, let's say, interesting.
Less but better beef will be the way of the future. Massive feedlots will cease to exist. Future herds will be a lot smaller and more eco-consciously raised.
"If you're not doing it right, you're not going to last," Worthington says, admitting that he anticipates beef demand will diminish in the future. "But I think there always will be a demand for the healthier kinds of beef."
Worthington points out that Bently Ranch already has one foot in the future. Its pasture-raised, grass-fed/finished, hormone- and antibiotic-free beef is leaner than conventionally fed cattle and offers more heart-healthy omega 3 fatty acids and antioxidant vitamins. It's also single sourced — conceived, raised, butchered, and dry aged on the ranch — and sold to the public directly from Bently's own butcher shop.
"People are getting smarter. They want to know where their food is sourced and how it was raised," he says. "We've already got that covered."
More and different meat choices abound. We'll get creative with under-utilized cuts of meat such as neck and shank. Less reliance on beef will mean looking to other, smaller animal sources for our protein. Pork, chicken, and lamb don't make as much environmental impact as beef, but still other sources make far less. Rabbit, goat, venison, and guinea hens are a few examples. And how about ostriches? Environmentally friendly, they create minimal waste and yield lean red meat that reportedly tastes like the best filet mignon.
Edible algae, or seaweed, is fast and easy to grow; rich in protein, essential vitamins, and minerals; and is naturally low in fat. Some Asian cultures have used seaweed for centuries. There's been much progress in making it more palatable for westerners, and some even predict that it soon will be a component in almost everything we eat. It's already used in milk, nondairy creamer, ice cream, baby formula, cookies, and salad dressings, to name a few. And, surprise! It doesn't have to grow in the ocean. Algae farms can be located in the desert! About 100 algae operations currently exist in the U.S. and employ more than 20,000 people.
We'll also need to discover forgotten grains. Humans have cultivated in excess of 7,000 crops. Yet today, just four crops — wheat, maize (corn), rice, and soybeans — are the source of more than half our food. That's not only surprising, but our overdependence on so few is risky. The future will see a resurgence of interest in ancient grains. Attention also will focus on utilizing plants we formerly dismissed as weeds.
Insects may be better than you think. Let's talk crickets, otherwise known as the gateway insect. They are low fat and nutritious, offering more protein and micronutrients per pound than beef while making a fraction of the environmental footprint. About 80 percent of the world's population already consume insects, so what about us? Yeah, yeah, what about the ick factor? Okay, mealworms, beetles, and ants may not make your mouth water yet. Apparently, we'll get over it.
Cricket flour is a fine powder made from ground crickets. It can be successfully incorporated into foods we already know and love, including protein bars, snack chips, smoothie powders, and other processed foods. You wouldn't even know the difference.
And then there's this: The Seattle Mariners started selling chapulines, which actually are toasted grasshoppers, sprinkled with chili lime salt, sold at $4 for 20 of them at home games. They're a huge hit, selling out at every one. Who knew?
Still not convinced? No problem. Insects also can be used to make protein-rich animal feed.
THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE ABSOLUTELY AMAZING
National Aeronautics and Space Administration, better known as NASA to most of us, actually is a major player in the food development technology game. Many innovations in food packaging, preparation, preservation, safety, and nutrition originally were created or advanced by NASA for space travel.
Things have come a long way since the early flights when astronauts squeezed their food from tubes and ate freeze-dried snacks. Today's astronauts in the International Space Station are able to enjoy delicious meals. It has even become trendy for celebrity chefs to have some of their recipes adapted for space travel (see an Emeril Lagasse recipe that is a favorite among astronauts).
As space missions grow longer, and NASA anticipates eventual lunar and Martian space colonies, much research has gone into food technology that can meet those challenges. As with past research, earthlings aim to benefit from these technological advances right along with the space jockeys.
Dinner is printed
Three-dimensional food printers are among the most amazing advances that have come out of research funded by NASA grants. They function much the same as other 3D printers, except instead of squeezing plastics and metals out of a dozen or so cartridges, they use edible ingredients — pastes, gels, powders, liquid ingredients — to assemble computer-guided recipes. Sound incredible? Well, they're real. The prototypes already exist.
The Silicon Valley startup BeeHex has developed a 3D printer for NASA that can make cheesy, delicious pizzas in space. It also will be available on Earth as Chef 3D. It's set to appear at theme parks, malls, and sports arenas in the not-too-distant future. Not tomorrow, but surely long before it gets to Mars.
Barcelona startup Natural Machines, with its flagship product Foodini, has taken the lead in 3D food printing, targeting the consumer market. Foodini can make all kinds of foods, from sweet to savory, including spaghetti, ravioli, gnocchi, rolls, chocolate, and crackers.
Science fiction it's not. Someday soon, this item will revolutionize our kitchens, offering new options for convenience as well as the opportunity to customize and manage personal dietary needs and nutrition. It may also have important ramifications for solving world hunger.
The Challenger Learning Center of Northern Nevada recently opened a permanent exhibit at the National Automobile Museum in Reno. It offers a great hands-on experience in space travel for all ages, including information about space food. You may even get to taste astronaut ice cream there. Sorry, no 3D pizza, but lots of other great items to check out!
Meat me in the lab
It's been called by different names: lab-grown meat, cultured meat, cruelty-free meat, clean meat. It refers to meat that is grown, not by an animal, but in a lab, using animal stem cells. A stem cell is unspecialized and can be stimulated to produce muscle cells. Meat is made up of muscle cells. Ergo, it is possible to grow a steak without having to raise and slaughter a steer. Same goes for chicken, fish, and so on.
The potential ramifications of this are astounding and far reaching. Hoping to cut down on the immense environmental impact of livestock as well as the 10 billion animals killed for food each year, startups such as Memphis Meats and Finless Foods already are successfully growing chicken, beef, duck, pork, and fish. The first burgers, meatballs, and chicken tenders have even garnered rave flavor reviews.
Many believe it's the future of meat production. Big money is betting on it. Bill Gates, Kimbal Musk, and Richard Branson all have backed Memphis Meats. Branson, in a recent article on The Virgin Group's website, has gone so far as to predict that animals will be eliminated from our food system within the next few decades.
Plant-based meat has come a long way since the veggie burger, which doesn't really resemble a burger at all. Two meatless burgers now on the market actually come close to replicating the flavor and juicy mouthfeel of beef.
Beyond Burger already is available nationwide in about 25,000 stores and 5,000 restaurants. It's the first plant-based product sold in the meat department at Whole Foods Market. It's also available at the Great Basin Community Food Co-op in Reno.
Impossible Burger is said to taste, look, smell, brown, and even bleed like real beef, thanks to a molecule called heme, derived from the root of soybean plants. It's available exclusively through restaurants right now, about 600 of them nationwide. Want to taste one? The Impossible Burger is a regular item on the menu at Old Granite Street Eatery in Reno, where it sells so well it's hard for the kitchen staff to keep up with the demand.
Genetically modified food actually encompasses a huge category. The much-maligned term GMO (Genetically Modified Organism) has become associated with plants and animals genetically engineered in a way that people fear might present a potential health threat to consumers (e.g. absorption of pesticides). But as Dan Barber, author of The Third Plate, reminds us in his writings, a huge spectrum actually exists between heirloom seeds and "frankenfoods." The answer, he suggests, is somewhere in the middle.
Responsible genetic engineering can help create new varieties of vegetables, fruits, and grains that can improve flavor, nutrition, yield, disease resistance, and even tolerance to heat, cold, and drought. And it can do so safely and in a fraction of the time that selective breeding takes. An exciting new gene-editing technique, CRISPR, may soon revolutionize modern agriculture by allowing scientists to tweak DNA instantly and with amazing precision.
WASTE NOT, WANT NOT
According to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, about one-third of human food produced annually, worldwide, is wasted. It's obvious that part of the solution to feeding a growing population must include conservation. We can't just grow and create more. We must also effectively manage what we have.
Many of the future developments already mentioned will help with this. Greenhouses and other indoor farms will allow better control over harvests, cutting down on surplus waste. Employing hydroponic and aeroponic techniques will reduce water usage by recycling that resource. Locating these in population centers will cut back on food miles and wasted energy.
Easy access to fresh, locally grown food will reduce the need for packaging waste. And what packaging is needed in the future will be made from biodegradable material, most likely a vegetable-based product that disintegrates in sun or water and can be added to compost.
Using reclaimed wastewater — gray water, sewage effluent, and other waste — to irrigate crops will become common practice. If done correctly, it's a safe and nutrient-rich way to water vegetation. Bently Ranch uses sanitized effluent from three neighboring waste-treatment facilities for its crops.
Bently also accepts bio-solids from five local waste-treatment facilities to add to its on-site composting facility, which reduces cost to local municipalities and enriches the ranch's soil. Composting biodegradable waste will become even more important to the farms of the future. As the demands on our soil increase, so will the need to replenish it.
Delivering the goods
One of the biggest changes coming in the future of food already has begun. It's how we get that food, from farm to vendor to our kitchen tables. We can sum it up in one word: convenience.
Online delivery services already have made their debuts and get more popular by the day. Blue Apron, Plated, and Hello Fresh are national leaders in the field, boasting huge numbers of clients.
Customized and specialized meal plans are offered locally. Reno/Sparks' Roundabout Catering features two plans: Gym Rat Foods, a healthy, clean-eating plan, and Caveman Cuisine, a paleo-style meal program. Both offer fresh, ready-to-eat meals for pickup or delivery.
Our Local Basket, based in Washoe City, provides weekly delivery of healthy, farm-fresh, responsibly raised, locally sourced ingredients from a collection of local food producers, accompanied by easy-to-follow recipes for meal preparation. It can accommodate vegetarian or gluten-free diets as well.
Regular grocery shopping? Easy. Many of the local groceries, even the big box stores, now allow you to shop online. Just check off what you need, then either swing by and pick up your already-bagged groceries or have them delivered. Before long, we may never see the inside of a grocery store again.
However, those who favor the hands-on approach might prefer Amazon Go, the AI-powered grocery store currently being tested in Seattle. No cashiers, no registers, no lines. You walk in, take what you want, and walk out. It automatically knows who you are and bills your account.
Another future option: Moby Mart, currently in beta testing in Shanghai. It's a 24-hour, autonomous convenience store on wheels that drives around loaded with perishables and other basics. You can locate it on your phone, jump in, grab what you need, and pay with your mobile app.
Next, no doubt: drone deliveries.
And here's one final thought: If you were worried that the future was going to include a nutrient pill you would take in lieu of food, we'll leave you with these words of wisdom from food activist and author Michael Pollan, published in a 2014 Time article: "[W]e don't just eat to fuel our bodies — we eat for pleasure, communion, identity, etc. and you can't get all that in a pill or powder."
So hold on to your dinner plate. The good news is, you'll be needing it.
Reno writer Barbara Twitchell has written many stories over the years. This was, she says, the most intriguing, interesting, informative, and fun one she has ever researched. She looks forward to seeing many of these predictions become reality. The insect snacks ... not so much.
Astronauts in space crave spicy foods — hot sauce, spicy peppers, wasabi ... they can't get enough of them. Why? Zero gravity. Bodily fluids that are dragged downward by gravity on Earth gather in the head when the body is floating in space. That congestion interferes with the sense of smell, which in turn affects the sense of taste. Normal food tastes bland. Emeril Lagasse adapted the following recipe for NASA. It is said to be a great favorite among the astronauts and a regular part of their menu. For use in space, NASA pre-processes the dish by freeze drying.
Emeril's Spicy Green Beans with Garlic
(courtesy of Emeril Lagasse, celebrity chef and restaurateur. Serves 4)
¼ cup clarified butter or vegetable oil
3 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
2 small green peppers (such as jalapeño or serrano), stems and seeds removed, minced
2 teaspoons turmeric powder
2 teaspoons ground cumin
⅛ teaspoon cayenne
1 pound green beans, tough ends removed
¼ cup water
1½ teaspoons salt
3 tablespoons sesame seeds
In a large sauté pan, heat butter over medium-high heat. Add garlic slices, peppers, turmeric, cumin, and cayenne, and cook, stirring, until garlic begins to turn golden, about 2 minutes. Add green beans, water, and salt, and stir well.
Cover and cook over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally, until beans are tender, 4 to 5 minutes. Add sesame seeds and cook uncovered, stirring, until toasted, 2 to 3 minutes.
Remove from heat and adjust seasoning to taste. Serve hot.