How are we going to feed ourselves in 2050, when the population of the world reaches 9.7 billion? How are we going to manage resources, when the majority of fresh water in the world goes to farming, and nearly half of farm produce ends up in landfills? Food waste of various types is the leading cause of methane gas production from landfills, which is contributing to climate change and impacting our access to fresh water. Across the world, being overweight (rich countries) and underweight (poor countries) is causing loss of life and human potential, and an enormous burden on health care systems. Will a kitchen still be used?
These strangely circular global problems can be broken down into these: unequal land and water resources; systems of agriculture that will require infrastructure development for storage and shipping of food in the developing world; systems of food shopping and eating behaviors in the developed world that perpetuates waste and obesity. It might seem like a simple problem with simple solutions, to have half of the world ill from poor nutrition and vitamin deficiency, and half dying of diseases caused by obesity. Even stranger to have people going hungry while half the food we produce goes to waste. But these are problems of different systems, and changes in one system, while impactful, do not necessarily cause change across the board.
The challenges of agriculture, infrastructure development, storage and shipping of food, and nutrition in the developing world, are related systems that can be affected by resources, research, and hard work. In the developed world, resources, research, and hard work are also needed to affect change. But what is it that we need to change? Patterns of behavior, cultural standards, entitlement, habit? Are we all just spoiled brats who want what we want, and if it isn’t right, we throw it away in a snit? Will we have to face a global Armageddon on fresh strawberries and the decimation of the artisanal cheese industry before we start showing some care about our food?
We can leave the whole charged issue of spoiled brat/snit to the sociologists. The rest of us want to do better. We want to eat healthy food, and we want to eat ugly squash and tomatoes to save them from an afterlife in the landfill, covered with flies and making methane gas. We don’t want to throw away food, but we also don’t want to overeat, and after two weeks in the fridge, the Chinese food take out really needs to go. We would all probably eat less meat and more quinoa if we had a clue how to cook it, or what you were supposed to do with it in reference to a pot of chili. And we all want to support local organic farmers and reduce the carbon footprint of monoculture farms, but some mornings we just need to grab a muffin and go, and we don’t care how far that muffin had to travel to get into our hands.
These are guilt-laden conundrums, in which we take on responsibility for the fate of the planet as a direct consequence of how far our coffee beans were forced to travel. It’s no wonder that eating, tasting, growing, a simple cob of corn comes with a mantle of blame and quiet desperation before we even begin to douse it in butter and salt. It’s ridiculous, but it’s us.
But individual changes in behavior, while helpful, are not going to change a system that is unsuited for the current population growth v. resources issue as we understand it. At this time, most of us have kitchens in our homes or apartments. We shop for groceries in the grocery store, and take food home to cook for meals. We eat out in restaurants or fast food places a couple of times a week. In this system, farmers are going bankrupt, farm workers who pick produce are starving, fast food and restaurant workers are living below the poverty line, and grocery stores are showing huge profits. In addition, much of the food we buy is better travelled than we are. Those crazy jet-setting grapes, that arrive in the store after a long ocean voyage from South America!
Food waste happens in the current system in several places: at the farms, unattractive fresh fruits and veggies are not even picked–too expensive, and no market. At the grocery store, the nice-looking stuff goes fast, while the asymmetrical squash sits until it is past prime. And when those lovely grapes are on sale, we take home a huge bag, and after several days of gorging on grapes, we let the rest of the bag sit until it starts to form raisins, even in the fridge, and we throw it away. There are several nonprofit groups who are developing systems to deal with food waste, including rescuing ugly produce and delivering it to food banks. While these groups are doing good work, they are not changing the system that is producing the problem.
The coming population explosion is going to force the system to change. We will not have enough resources to continue as we are. Where technology is going to step up, and has already started to innovate, is in the new ideas for feeding ourselves. We want healthy, delicious, fast, and fresh, with no waste. We want some hybrid between eating out and cooking it ourselves. We want variety and we long for meals to be social occasions again. Do we really all need full-sized ovens and stoves in our houses? A quad of smart boys at MIT has stepped up to the plate and hit one over the fence.
It has been called a robotic kitchen, but the more appropriate term is autonomous. The Spyce kitchen has a fridge, dishwasher, stove, and autonomous cooking pots that collect ingredients, cook, and serve them. The cooking pots move along a conveyer belt, and after cooking and serving fresh stir-fries, curry, hash, and other whole grain, vegetable-heavy foods, the cooking pots move themselves to the dishwasher for a quick clean before taking their place in line for the next order. Ordering can be personalized with ingredients, spices, and portion sizes. The kitchen is stocked with fresh ingredients by humans, but otherwise can run on its own, without supervision or human assistance. And the system only occupies twenty square feet.
Combine this idea-system with space-intensive urban farming, hydroponics, rooftop gardens, urban bees busy making honey.
The prototype Spyce kitchen is serving up fresh grub to MIT students, but consider this type of kitchen in multi-family housing units, in office buildings, in storefronts in place of the current hot dog and noodle carts. Kitchens are going to exist in the pages of history before long, and we’re all going to learn what a mean machine can do with a sweet potato, a few greens, and a ladleful of curry.
Technology has addressed the waste and energy use concerns in the way the world grows, packages, ships, and wastes fresh produce. At this point, agriculture is not sustainable, and the inequities in world-wide farming systems are causing concern and changes in consumer behavior. The local food movement, urban agriculture, farmer’s markets, CSA’s, and other direct-to-consumer models of food sales have been blooming. Now we have kitchen appliances that are mini-grow stations, sized to fit on the kitchen cabinets.
Using hydroponics and LED lights for growth, the systems use little electricity and water, both major concerns in traditional agriculture. Sized for family or single person use, they also eliminate much fresh produce waste by allowing a person to pick leaves, for example, from a living lettuce plant, rather than buying an entire harvested head at the grocery store. The systems currently in development or on the market are scalable, from single units to mini-farms to feed a large family.
Replantable has the Nanofarm in pre-production testing. This system is the ultimate in plug-and-play gardening, with seeds imbedded in paper and fiber mats. The seeded mat is soaked in the water reservoir, then the reservoir with mat is placed inside the nanofarm and a start button is pushed. You can watch your plants grow through the glass door and the system will let you know when it’s time to harvest. After harvest, you can pop the pieces into the dishwasher and then plant a new crop. They are testing mainly leafy greens, lettuce, and herbs.
IKEA has developed kitchen-sized hydroponics called KRYDDA-VAXER for both the kitchen-farmer and restaurants that want to grow their own in-house. Using LED lights and hydroponics again, the home units are inexpensive and are sized to fit into any number of small nooks and crannies. The Space 10 system is the restaurant sized system, and has been successfully trialed.
Panasonic’s Smart Home programs have included hydroponic kitchen gardens that are managed by the cloud with the rest of the home systems. These smart homes are being trialed in Singapore, and the units are the size and shape of the average microwave.
Most of these hydroponic systems are designed for rapidly growing and shallow rooted plants, such as leafy greens. We all need more leafy greens! But for those with stirring farm-ambitions, and a porch or balcony, there is a new apartment farmer in town called the Garden Tower. Developed with a successful Kickstarter campaign, the system is made with care toward sustainability, and has a unique feature that anyone who gardens or eats fresh produce will appreciate. It has an integral vermiculture composting tube in the center of the tower, so the peels and ends can go straight back into the compost pile, which will feed the growing plants. The unit is sized for larger plants such as squash as well, and can be easily turned to take advantage of sun requirements.
There is a saying about kids and veggies, that if they grow it, they’ll eat it. Maybe that’s a good way forward for all of us! A Nanofarm!