Thursday, December 6, 2012

What is the future of agriculture?

This week I came upon two very different articles online regarding where our food comes from. They both focus on how technology has impacted the way we farm, but come to different conclusions about the benefits of current farming technology. I think they raise some interesting questions about what role technology should play in food production in the future.

The first article, on, discusses an art project conducted by photographer David Liittschwager, wherein he photographed all the species that pass through a cubic foot of area in different locations around the world. The result is a unique way of visualizing an area's biodiversity. Locations such as a public park in South Africa and a tree in Costa Rica contained more than a hundred different species of plants, insects, and animals. He also examined a typical Iowa cornfield - part of a huge system of industrial monoculture that provides much of our country's food supply. How many species did he find there? Eight. Including the corn. Over two nights and three days of observation, he didn't even find a single bee.

This total lack of biodiversity strongly contrasts the previous state of the Iowa prairie landscape, where a century ago hundreds of species coexisted in a complex system. Liittschwager's work raises questions about the benefit of our industrial agricultural system. What are we losing when we eliminate almost all species in a natural ecosystem? To what extent does the health of the soil and the crops depend on the complex network of interrelationships that we have destroyed without fully understanding? Industrial agriculture on this scale requires energy input in the form of fertilizer produced by burning fossil fuels. How long can we sustain these practices before we run out of materials or permanently alter our atmosphere and climate?

Another perspective on technology and farming comes from, where you can find photographs by Freya Najade of another technology-dependent method of food production: self-contained robotic farms. These facilities can produce food, without soil or sunlight, separate from any natural ecosystem. They are touted as possible models for production of food on the moon or in space, and similar systems have been developed to grow food in urban spaces previously considered unusable for food production. These systems, like the industrial corn farm mentioned earlier, feature a stark lack of biodiversity, but instead of destroying an existing ecosystem to create these farms, unfarmable areas have instead been transformed into a place where food is produced. Using computer-controlled systems, food can be grown locally, closer to consumers, and with less effort by humans, increasing efficiency. However, we don't fully understand the consequences of using these systems, which exist completely outside the natural environment or season, and which require the input of energy in the form of electricity and heat to function.

So, where do we go from here? What will be the role of technology in the future of food production? We have already used technology to enormously increase the efficiency of food production, with mixed results. The US spends, per capita, the least on food and the most on health care compared to almost any other industrialized nation. Industrial agriculture is changing our climate and eliminating biodiversity in our environment. Currently, the way we produce food is efficient but destroys our health and local ecosystems. Some proponents of systems such as biodynamic agriculture say that going back to a method of farming where we avoid monoculture and grow a diversity of plants on smaller farms that also include uncultivated natural spaces is the way forward. Could we also use more advanced technology to grow food outside of natural systems, farming previously unfarmable areas with the help of computers and other advanced technology. Can technology allow us to farm more efficiently, with fewer people, and closer to the consumers of food? I suspect that both of these approaches will be tested in the no-so-distant future, as we try to address the complicated problems with our current systems of food production. It may be that the best solution is a synthesis of old wisdom about how to care for plants and the soil and new knowledge of how to manipulate energy, information, and plant biology.

(Image: hydroponic farm 035, a Creative Commons 2.0 licensed image from missdrummajorette's photostream)

Sunday, November 11, 2012

DIY Sriracha

Hello internet friends, I know it's been awhile since I have last posted. The situation is, I've relocated from NYC to SoCal, and I've been busy moving and re-acclimating. So far, sunny California has been treating me well. It's almost impossible to find a good slice of pizza but the burgers and beer are pretty amazing.

I'm going to make an effort to get back to posting on a more regular basis soon. For now, please enjoy this awesome video about making your own Sriracha from SkeeterNYC that I found on BoingBoing.


If you don't know what Sriracha is, please read this informative comic from The Oatmeal.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Old is gold...

I rarely talk about materials science on this blog, but today is your lucky day if you get excited about the physical properties of matter. As it turns out, all glass baking items are not created equal, because all types of glass are not created equal. A report in the Bulletin of the American Ceramic Society (also covered in this Scientific American Podcast) reports on changes in the material that Pyrex glassware is made from that affects its performance.

Prior to 1994, all Pyrex cookware was made of borosilicate glass (which is also what most laboratory glassware is made from). The advantage of this type of glass over normal glass is that it has a low coefficient of thermal expansion. This means that when the glass is heated, it expands less than normal glass. This might seem insignificant, but it can be important if the glass is going to be used in a way that results in it being rapidly headed or cooled, such as going from an oven to a refrigerator. Rapid changes in temperature can cause glass to expand unevenly, causing stress within the glass that leads to cracks or even breakage. Glass with a lower coefficient of thermal expansion is less likely to crack or shatter after exposure to rapid changes in temperature, making it ideal for kitchen (or laboratory) use.

However, since 1994, Corning has been licensing the Pyrex name to companies that produce products made of soda lime silicate glass, which is the type of glass found in most common glass items in your home. This glass is less likely to break when dropped (although this is not tested in the above bulletin), but has a coefficient of thermal expansion that is about three times that of borosilicate glass, making it more likely to shatter when exposed to thermal stress. In fact, the report says that a temperature change of 100 degrees F is enough to break the new Pyrex products, while a change of 330 degrees F was required to break the old borosilicate products. To put this in perspective, the difference between a raw, room-temperature roast and a hot oven is about 275 degrees F.

The take home message is that if you want the old, shatter-resistant formulation of Pyrex, look for older pieces (or, presumably, look for items that are labeled as being made from borosilicate glass). That casserole dish from the thrift store might be an even better deal than you previously thought. And, if you're a fan of pictures of glass shattering, definitely check out the full report from the ACS bulletin above!

(via BoingBoing)

(Image: IMG_5201, a Creative Commons 2.0 licensed image from gruntusk's photosream)

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Cilantro haters, it's not your fault.

I fully admit to really liking cilantro. It's probably one of my favorite herbs, and I know quite a few people that enjoy it. However, it's I am well aware that it's also an herb that divides people - most either really enjoy it or absolutely hate it (much like the movie Garden State). If you're a hater, know that you are not alone - even gastronom Julia Child is said to have hated cilantro. Now, thanks to science, there may be an explanation for why some people loathe cilantro with such passion.

Charles Wysocki, a neuroscientist at Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia has found evidence of the genetic basis of cilantro hate in his studies of twins. He says that 80% of identical twins share their preference for cilantro, while among fraternal twins the number is only 50%, indicating that there is some genetic basis for cilantro preference. Scientists at the University of Toronto in Canada have linked variants in genes for an olfactory receptor (those are the proteins on the surface of cells in your nose that let you detect scents) and a bitter taste receptor to cilantro preference. Additionally, researchers at the genetics company 23andMe found that dislike of cilantro was linked to a different olfactory receptor. All of these studies suggest that preference for cilantro may be genetic, and that the reason that some people dislike cilantro is because they perceive the taste of the herb differently. Still, differences in cilantro preference between even identical twins does indicate that there are some environmental factors that affect how much you enjoy the herb.

What does this mean for you? Well, it's more evidence that a person's genetic makeup affects the way that they perceive and interact with the world, including the things we eat. Right now, we have no way to affect a person's genes, so, at least for now, cilantro haters gonna hate.

(via BoingBoing)

(Image: cilantro, a Creative Commons 2.0 licensed image from looseends' photostream)

Monday, September 10, 2012

What are the advantages of organic?

There has been a lot of kerfuffle on the internet in the past week since Stanford University scientists published a meta-analysis of many studies regarding health and organic foods. They found that there was no evidence that organic foods are "more nutritious" than conventional foods. However, they did note some differences between conventionally grown and organic foods. Organic fruits and veggies had less pesticide residue, and organic meats were less likely to be contaminated with antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

At this point, many people have thrown down on either side of the organic food divide. Proponents of eating organic say that we still don't know the long-term health benefits of an organic diet, as these studies mostly looked at short term effects of an organic diet. Opponents say that organic food is a pricey fad, a method of food production that can not feed the world's large population, and offers little benefit to the consumer.

Overall, I do still think organic food offers some benefits. Organic farming reduces our dependence on fossil fuels and prevents the damage done to soil and ecosystems that are a result of industrial monoculture. As the farmer from the CSA that I belong to pointed out, most people on the planet currently do not get their food from an industrial agricultural system like one that we have in the US, suggesting that feeding the world's populations using organic methods might be feasible. Eating organic  also reduces our exposure to pesticides and antibiotic resistant bacteria, the long term effects of which I agree are not well studied. However, this study did not interrogate the long-term health effects of organic food, nor did it consider the effects of organic agriculture on anything besides consumer health, and it also grouped all organic food into one category, when there are a diversity of types of "organic" farming practices, from industrial organic to small-farm biodynamic.

Overall, this study is part of the big picture of food production in the United States. This also an excellent example of a study that can be interpreted multiple ways. We should take the conclusions of this study, that organic produce does not seem to be higher in nutrients than conventional, into consideration. We should also avoid extrapolating the data in an unfounded way to align with whatever political point we're trying to make. This study sought to help inform consumers of organic food to make better decisions about what to buy, but it did not address the larger questions of what type of food production are best for the economy, environment, or long-term sustainability of agriculture. Organic food has not been proven to be healthier, but neither has it been condemned as being completely without benefit.

(Image: The sign reads "Organic no chemicles" a Creative Commons 2.0 image from friendsoffamilyfarmers's photostream)

Friday, August 31, 2012

A New Kind of Cooking Class

I'd heard previously about the wildly successful "Kitchen Chemistry" class taught at MIT and how it combined chemistry and kitchen skills into a class about cooking that was based in science (and counted for a science credit). It turns out that this class might be part of a larger trend towards teaching the science behind what's happening in the kitchen. Classes are cropping up at other universities around the country, according to Chemical and Engineering News.

That's good news for several reasons. First, I think any topic that relates science to everyday life helps to engage students with science and results in more overall science literacy, which is important for a well-informed populace. Second, I think educating people about food and cooking helps to make them more enthusiastic and confident cooks. This in turn helps people that eat better, healthier food, increasing health and quality of life in our society. Lastly, it's great for me, since I'm pretty sure I can't think of  job I'd enjoy more than teaching such a class.

(via BoingBoing)

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Antibacterials and Allergies

 Has everyone else noticed that, apparently, everyone is allergic to peanuts now? Or has some other serious allergy? One explanation is the so-called "hygiene hypothesis," which says that the reason allergies are on the rise is because our super-hygienic lifestyle has reduced our exposure to all sorts of microorganisms, both good and bad, and has prevented our immune systems from developing normally.

Now new support for this hypothesis has come in the form of a study showing that children with higher levels of antibacterial and preservative chemicals in their urine have higher incidence of food and environmental allergies. The levels of these chemicals found in the urine reflects the amount of exposure kids have to them, and come mainly from personal products including soap, mouthwash, and toothpaste. More exposure resulted in higher levels of IgE antibodies, involved in the allergy response. Children with the highest levels of exposure to Triclosan, one of the antibacterial agents studied, had twice the risk of peanut and environmental allergies as kids exposed to low levels of the chemical.

The researchers' hypothesis is not that these chemicals directly cause allergies, but that exposure to them inhibits proper development of the immune system, which leads to development of allergies later. It's a little more support for the idea that, while antibiotics and antiseptics are pretty awesome and have extended the human lifespan enormously, bathing your children in Purell and antibacterial soap every time they go outside might not be the best idea. Let them eat a little dirt next time.

(Image: Untitled, a Creative Commons 2.0 image from ms. Tea's photostream)

Friday, June 8, 2012

Strange Fruit

BBC Nature has an interesting feature on unusual and hybrid fruit varieties. It's worth a read, especially if you were wondering how to eat a durian, aka the world's smelliest fruit, or if you are curious about what fruits humans crossbred to make crazy hybrids like oranges and lemons.

(via BoingBoing)

Monday, June 4, 2012

Quick Hit: The Future of Food @ Slate

Slate has an interesting set of articles up on their Future Tense blog about technology and food production. It includes discussions of robotics in small scale agriculture, the future possibilities of genetically engineered foods, large scale agriculture in the face of climate change, and more. If you're interested in high tech food packaging, nanoparticles, genetic engineering, and laboratory-grown meat (and who isn't?!), go check it out.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

The Tomato Code

What's got 31,760 genes and is red all over? Tomatoes, that's what! It's the moment we've all been waiting for folks: after nine years, a group of plant geneticists from 14 countries have finally decoded the entire tomato genome. Hopefully this will lead to tasty-yet-shelf-stable tomatoes of the FUTURE. Or, possibly, tomatoes that need less pesticide to thrive. For now, we can only hope.

For those of you who are counting, that means that tomatoes have about 7,000 more genes than humans. Although this isn't all that unusual, since many plants have extremely large genomes (wheat, for example, has a genome that is five times the size of humans'), I wouldn't turn my back on them. No one wants to be surprised by something like this.

(via the NYT)

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Coffee drinking linked to reduced death risk

 So today, in health news that makes me happy (for once!), a recent study links coffee consumption with reduced death risk. The study followed 400,000 adults for 14 years and found that men and women who drink 4-5 cups of joe a day had the lowest death risk - 12% less than non-coffee drinking people. Even a daily cup of coffee reduced the risk of death compared to non-drinkers by 6%. Good news for those of us who have a rough morning without our daily dose of caffeine (although the correlation still exists for those who mostly drink decaf, suggesting that caffeine itself is not beneficial in this way).

Just a note: As usual, science reporting generally goes for the sensational above the technically correct. The statement that "Coffee may be the key to living longer" accompanying the above article is misleading because it implies that drinking coffee causes you to live longer, while the study has not proved that at all. Repeat after me, science scouts: "Correlation does not imply causation!"

(Image: Coffee in the morning, a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 licensed image from chichacha's photostream)

Friday, May 11, 2012

Fractal Pancakes

I think they probably require way more talent than I possess to make, but these fractal pancakes (via BoingBoing) are super cool.

Along with the Mobius Bagel, they make a mathalicious (if carb-laden) breakfast.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Home Made Kimchi

If you could pick anyone in the world to teach you how to make your own Kimchi, you could do worse than to pick a Korean grandmother who's been making it for seven decades or so. If you're the type of person who's inclined to ferment their own cabbage and you have access to some Korean ingredients, check out the video below (via GOOD), and then go take a look at the full recipe at CoolHunting.

Kimchi (or Kim Chee) is a fermented Korean dish, usually made with cabbage and/or radishes with dried red chilis. Like many other naturally fermented foods (like yogurt, sauerkraut, and fermented pickles, etc.), it contains bacteria that may have beneficial health effects. It's also low in calories and contains lots of healthy vitamins, so eat up!

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Pasta Architects

Ever wonder who is behind the silly shapes in your Kraft Maraconi and Cheese Dinner? Dan Lewis from Now I Know has the inside story. Apparently, the design of these novelty noodles involves quite a lot of design skill as well as IP patent knowledge, and it has quite a high failure rate. Who knew it was so complicated?

Sidenote: If you think this type of thing is interesting, sign up for Dan's daily email, which contains interesting tidbits about all sorts of things, or follow him on Twitter.

(Image: Kraft Macaroni and Cheese, a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 licensed image from Like_the_Grand_Canyon's photostream)

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The Future of Bananas

This is what bananas looked like before humans got involved in their reproduction.

Some of you may know that 50 years ago, although people in the USA were eating bananas, they were a different kind than the ones you're familiar with. That's because at the time, the Gros Michel was the type of banana gown for eating, and almost all bananas for sale were this type, grown on clonal trees. A post over at BoingBoing explains what happened to these bananas, and what will likely happen to the bananas we're enjoying now. (This post was inspired by another at Damn Interesting, also about the sex life of bananas. Go check it out.)

Because we don't like to eat bananas with seeds, humans have selectively bread bananas without them. (The picture above is of a wild banana that has not been subjected to selective breeding by humans.) Unfortunately for the bananas, this makes it difficult to reproduce. Humans make more banana trees by growing a new tree from a cutting of an existing one. This creates a population of banana trees that are all genetically identical - the entire code of their DNA is the same. If these banana trees were human, they would all be identical twins.

In the same way that two humans may not be affected by a disease in the same way, diseases also affect banana trees differently. This variation is due to small differences between individuals. By creating a clonal population of banana trees, we have eliminated this variation. If a disease kills one of these trees, it will kill all of them. This is what happened to the Gros Michel, and it's why you can't find this type of banana anymore. It was wiped out by a fungus known as Panama Disease in the 1950's.

The banana you know today, the Cavendish banana, replaced the Gros Michael after that period. However, the Cavendish today has the same problem the Gros Michael had 50 years ago - they are all clonal plants. A disease called Black sigatoka is laying siege to the Cavendish, and it may not be long before the entire population is wiped out by this disease.

Don't worry too much about future bananas, though. There are many, many varieties of bananas grown around the world, and banana growers have already developed a banana, the Goldfinger, that is resistant to Black sigatoka. These bananas are also a clonal population, so it doesn't mean that they won't be in danger of being wiped out by another disease. The banana-disease arms race will likely continue on into the future, but until then maybe you (or your children) will come to recognize the Goldfinger as your friendly neighborhood banana.

(Image: Inside a wild-type banana, Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 image by Warut Roonguthai)

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Will red meat really kill you?

A recent study in the Archives of Internal Medicine correlates eating any type of red meat with a higher risk of mortality. This 20-year study followed 110,000 adults and concluded that eating red meat of any kind may be risky. The lead author of the study, An Pan, said in an interview that "Any red meat you eat contributes to the risk."

Does this mean we all have to stop eating red meat at the risk of dropping dead? Probably not. The authors of the study themselves suggest modest dietary changes (eat red meat a couple times a week instead of every day) rather than red meat abstinence. Despite what may be suggested by many news organizations' headlines, this study does NOT establish a causative relationship between eating red meat and death. Instead, they have correlated these two things. Other factors may be at play.

There are other valid criticisms of the study, or at least limitations on what can be concluded given the data at hand. The authors do not differentiate between unprocessed and processed meat (things like bologna, bacon, and hot dogs) in the study. Since processed meats have already been shown to increase your risks for certain diseases, these specific types of meat may be more to blame than the unprocessed sort. Also, the study relies on self-reported data, which is not always the most accurate way to judge human behavior. Via BoingBoing, a great explanation of the study, what it has found, and what it has not found, is located here. It's recommended reading for all carnivores.

The take home message seems to be that, for now, although we're not certain that eating red meat will harm you, it seems to be correlated with an increased risk of death. We do know that consuming certain types of red meat is likely to increase your risk of certain diseases, so it's a good idea to reduce your intake to no more than a couple times a week, and to balance it out with other types of protein as well as lots of fruits and vegetables, the consumption of which seem to be correlated with good health outcomes.

Since meat is also expensive, calorie-dense, and producing it is environmentally taxing, that seems to be pretty good advice for your health, your wallet, and the environment.

(Image: Beef!, a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 image from Michael Cannon's photostream)

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Happy Pi Day!

Happy Pi Day everyone... why not celebrate with some Pi pies?

Need a recipe? How about one from a woman who I pretty much view as the queen of pie?

(Image: Pie for Pi Day, a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 image from djwtwo's photo stream)

Friday, March 9, 2012

The Compartmentalization of Violence

Over at BoingBoing, there is a very thought-provoking interview with Timothy Pachirat, who has written a book after going "undercover" at a slaughterhouse in Nebraska entitled Every Twelve Seconds. Rather than the usual expose, his writing addresses how the violence inherent in killing animals for our food on an industrial level is compartmentalized and shielded from society. Although this work is more related to food philosophy than food science, I think it's important enough an issue to think about that I'm blogging about it here.

Pachirat discusses how the actual work of killing cattle at slaughterhouses is broken down into specific tasks, and how the individuals that do each task are separated from each other and the outside world, physically and mentally, using walls, ideology, and language. This separates humans from the violence that is occurring, allowing consumers and even slaughterhouse employees to effectively ignore or believe that they are not responsible for the act of killing. This happens within the slaughterhouse, and, on a larger scale, outside the slaughterhouse where society in general is separated from the nasty work, done mostly by immigrants behind closed doors that few, if any of us, get a glimpse behind.

The issues discussed in this interview and in Pachirat's book raise quite a few uncomfortable questions about industrial meat production. Who is responsible? Is the act of placing responsibility another way to compartmentalize violence perpetrated by an entire society? How does this relate to other acts of violence that occur behind closed doors in order for us to remain "civilized," like torture, inprisonment, and execution? As a consumer of meat myself, I think that it is the responsibility of humans to ask questions about where their food comes from. We must make educated, informed, and well-thought-out decisions about what is okay to eat, and by extension what processes in which we are willing to be complicit. 

(image via BoingBoing)

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

What Color is Your Cheese?

You've heard the saying that a diner eats first with her eyes, meaning that the way things look can influence our perception and enjoyment of food. Over at The Kitchn, the resident Cheesemonger Nora Singley wrote a post about the origins of the different colors of cheese and what they can indicate about the type of cheese you're looking at.

Here's the shorthand:
Orange: artificially colored cheese, including cheddar and processed cheese
Yellow: Grass-fed cows' milk
White: Goat
Blue: Contains mold

What I found most interesting was that, while cows' milk contains beta carotene, goats' milk does not. That means that if a cow consumes more beta carotine in its diet, its milk will contain more beta carotine and cheese made from this milk will be more yellow. On the other hand, no matter how much grass a goat eats, its milk and cheese will be perfectly white. Some food historians believe that the reason people began dyeing cheese orange was to mimic the yellow color of cows' milk cheeses from the spring and summer, times of the year that the cows' normally would be eating more grass and also times of the year when the milk was full of fat and flavor.

(Image: Blue Cheese, a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 image from Liz Davenport's photo stream)

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Homemade Astronaut Ice Cream

One small step for man...

As a kid, after visiting almost any natural history or science museum, a package of freeze-dried "astronaut" ice cream was one of my favorite treats. I still like it today, actually, even though I think it's mostly the nostalgia and not the taste. Via BoingBoing, I found these instructions for making your own, homemade freeze-dried ice cream, assuming you have access to a vacuum pump and some laboratory glassware. Although it seems like a bit of work, the limitless flavor possibilities are intriguing. Also, I suppose you could use this setup to freeze-dry all sorts of foods, not just ice cream. Tasty.

(Image: astronaut ice cream, a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 image from Rakka's photostream)

Friday, January 27, 2012

Pizza is still a vegetable.

Today the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) introduced new guidelines for school lunches, intended to make the lunches healthier. These new guidelines, including limiting the caloric range for school lunches and requiring that each lunch have at least two servings of vegetables, seem like a step in the right direction. Despite all of the general pats on the back I see going around the internet, however, the guidelines are still far from perfect. Thanks to agri-business lobbies in congress, the tomato paste in pizza is still counted as a vegetable, and the proposal to limit servings of french fries (another "vegetable") did not make the cut. Baby steps, congress, baby steps...

Monday, January 23, 2012

Science of Beating Eggs

My friend Lynn tipped me off to a neat story on the NPR website about the science of beating eggs. Read it if you'd like to get some pro-tips (from a real chef!) on beating egg whites into a foam for use in a souffle (or other whipped-egg-white application, such as meringue).

The first trick is to separate your eggs (that is, separate the yolks from the whites) without letting any of the egg yolks contaminate your whites. This is important because, while the egg white is entirely made of protein, the yolk contains some fat. When you whip the egg whites, you denature some of the proteins, which unfold and expose some hydrophobic areas. These hydrophobic areas would rather stick to each other than to the surrounding water, so the proteins stick together, creating a sort of net that can surround air bubbles, creating a foam. This foam is what makes whipped egg whites fluffy. If you contaminate your whites with the fat from the egg yolks, the hydrophobic areas of the egg white proteins will interact with the fat from the yolks instead of each other, leaving you with no net of denatured protein in which to catch bubbles. No bubbles means no foam.

Another note: if you over-beat the egg whites, continuing to beat them after a proper foam has formed, the egg white proteins will coagulate completely, sticking together so strongly that they force out all of the liquid between them, leaving you with a clumpy, separated, egg white mess.

If you're more of a visual learner and are interested in learning this useful kitchen technique, check out this how-to slideshow from Serious Eats or this excellent segment on souffle from the ever-informative Alton Brown from Good Eats.

Related: The Science Behind Poaching an Egg

(Image: Soufflé, a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 image from David_Turner's photostream)

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Growing Vegetables In the Cloud

Artists rendering of the new Nikkei vegetable growing system from Panasonic.(Image via TechCrunch)

It seems that lately food trends have been moving in the low-tech direction. Slow food, local, organic, grass-fed, heritage, biodynamic - all sorts of words describing us basically getting back to our roots with regards to growing produce and farming animals. Mostly I'm inclined to think this is a good thing. There is all sorts of evidence to show that many aspects of the modern industrial-agricultural complex are harming our environment and hurting our bodies. However, we can't go back to the way we farmed food 100 years ago without creating a shortage of food for our current ever-increasing population. What's the fix?

One way could be to blend modern technology with old farming practices. For example, growing organic heritage greens in a high-tech rooftop garden. I discovered one company, Gotham Greens, doing something similar. This company is growing local vegetables and herbs for restaurants and consumers in Brooklyn, New York City, in a high-tech hydroponic rooftop garden set up in an abandoned bowling alley. Also recently, Panasonic introduced a new product for people who desire to grow vegetables, indoors or our, at home with a super high-tech system that allows users to monitor vegetable growth and manage the garden using a cloud-based computing system. Right now the system is prohibitively expensive for most people at around $8000, but if there is enough demand for this type of technology, every home could soon have its own high-tech victory garden, helping the effort in the war on carbon-footprints and fossil fuel dependence.