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My grandmother, my mother's mother, lived in a small, corner apartment on the north side of Copenhagen. She relished fresh cucumbers, so she managed to coax them to climb up a fragile trellis in the pale, Nordic light, on a north-facing bay window sill. Unfortunately, we didn't visit Mormor in Denmark very often so I don't recall seeing more than a few of her cucumbers. For a small city boy like me this plant was a bit magical. The whole process of growing an edible fruit inside, especially in that smoky, musty, formally but sparsely furnished apartment was mysterious.

The memory of these home-grown, finger-length cukes on the vine had been tucked away until I read a brief article in Fast Company last week about a massive indoor farm in Kentucky. My grandmother didn't need more than a summer harvest of a pound or two. She lived alone. I think growing them was as much a precious hobby as a craving for the freshest possible cucumber. AppHarvest, on the other hand, is producing tomatoes to ship all over the country. They say this one facility will be able to grow up to 45 million pounds of tomatoes annually.

It would seem that we need a range of food production systems, including indoor farming given the environmental challenges we face like soil degradation and more severe flooding and drought cycles. AppHarvest's model uses no soil and counts on mostly filtered rainwater and natural light. They claim too that because the farm is centrally located the facility has a smaller carbon footprint than operations that import produce from Mexico or ship exclusively from California or Florida.

Where AppHarvest is taking advantage of relatively affordable land in Appalachia to spread growing containers over almost 3 million square feet, AeroFarms, promotes vertical farming, stacking growing containers up to the rafters. AeroFarms' flagship vertical farm in Newark, NJ can produce up to 2 million pounds on 70,000 square feet with a closed system of carefully monitored and metered artificial light, water, oxygen, and nutrients. Again, no soil. And in this case, no natural sunlight.

What does an AppHarvest tomato taste like? How might an AeroFarms cucumber compare with cucumbers grown in soil, out in the elements? I'm finishing up a Talk to Me About Food podcast about regenerative agriculture. Regenerative agriculture is all about the soil. Rainfall and natural light photosynthesis are the same critical inputs as AppHarvest relies on...the difference is soil. What are we missing if we skip the soil, and the particular piece of land the soil covers?

Well, it's the interaction between the organisms in the soil and the plants growing in that soil that most determines both the taste and nutritive density of the stuff grown. Minerals make a cucumber or tomato taste better and minerals get into the plants through vigorous microbial activity in the soil.

The quality of a vegetable growing in the earth, outside, is also impacted by its interaction with the quantity and quality of light, the wind, humidity, as well as other natural variables and how these factors are variable on any given day or across a growing season. These disruptions build resilience but also add a unique taste profile to what's growing on the land. Carrots and beets benefit from the first touches of cold in the fall. They get sweeter as carbohydrates are released. Growth slows down when the frosts arrive which makes these root vegetables more nutrient-dense too. The cold gets more flavor out of things than summer's heat.

What about the pollinators? They too impact the flavor of what you bite into. I've had melon that tastes of floral lavender and I've sunk my teeth into melon that is almost mushroom earthy.

The symbiotic relationship between root and soil organisms. The climate. The solar and lunar cycles at a given latitude and longitude. The interaction between plant and animal, whether it's a bird or a bee or foraging mammal. This can't all be simulated indoors. I can't help but believe that a tomato grown on a vegetable patch will taste better than one grown indoors. Certainly different.

But I think too there is more to consider here than the taste benefits of a cucumber or tomato grown outdoors in fertile soil - and, by the way, there is evidence that food grown using regenerative agriculture is much more nutrient-dense too. The traditional approach also offers a vital symbol of our connection to nature. A reminder to most of us who are food consumers, not producers, that we are part of this living ecosystem not apart from it. A reminder that we need not envision ourselves forever more sequestered in a bubble where human activities, like food production, are uniform, prescribed, and controlled. LED lights, misters, fans, fertilizers metered out by algorithm-driven timers.

Food grown indoors might taste different, in a good way, or be better in some other way. But it should complement land-grown food, I think. AppHarvest's CEO says that most big scale fruit and vegetable production will end up being done in controlled environments like AppHarvest's. But I hope we can maintain a balance between food grown in the lab or lab-like environments and food grown in the wild of eco-mimicry on land teeming with the full range of flora and fauna above ground and the same, deep biodiversity below ground too. I think a balance is better for the collective physical and mental health of Homo Sapiens. We are still of this Earth.

Maybe my grandmother sought, in a small way, to strive for this balance; to nurture this attenuating connection to nature every spring when she tended to her bay window cucumbers.

Let's not assume that We will allow soils to continue to degrade so that we must rely on soil-free indoor farming, and meat grown in a lab (cell-cultured chicken was approved for sale in Singapore just a few weeks ago).

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  • Writer's pictureAli Tadlaoui

That's the name of a relatively new book I've been reading by Tania Lewis, a professor of Media and Communication. No, the book is not about manufacturing food through 3D printing. "Digital Food - From Paddock to Platform" is a review and analysis of the impact of the digital world many of us spend an increasing amount of time in on many aspects of food and eating. It goes beyond that, actually. Sharing pictures of what you chose from of a lunch menu or what you've made for dinner shares something about you, and does something for you that goes beyond the immediate benefits of eating that particularly compelling plate of food or preparing a noteworthy meal. Instagram, YouTube, Facebook, and other connection points to this digital world are facilitating new and fascinating consumer behavior when it comes to food too.

For one thing, I wasn't aware how many food photos are circulating in cyberspace; how big a behavior this is. There are probably more than 200,000,000 #food posts on Instagram, projecting from what was reported in a 2017 article cited in this book. The author posits that taking and sharing food photos, as well as images of other everyday objects and occurrences, speaks to a movement towards making our mundane, post-capitalist lives more interesting. That we imbue symbols of "domestic drudgery and housewifery," like meal preparation, with creative expression, pleasure, leisure, and aesthetics.

I can see how we are looking to attach more meaning to more of what we do, especially when the tools make it effortless, and to broadcast this within our circles to help our followers help us define and redefine who we are. A picture of food can be that impactful? I guess so. Five years ago already my niece was expending time and energy curating her social media story. After celebrating a milestone birthday at a place-to-be-seen restaurant I asked her why she hadn't yet posted one of the several pictures she had taken of her plate. She had told me she was waiting for the best time to get the most likes. Food can be a key ingredient in this unrelenting popularity contest, apparently.

I see what sharing food photos does for the sender; a picture of an awesome dessert in front of a smiling, knowing, self-satisfied face showing off glowing skin, braces-free teeth, and a great hair day. But what does it do for a follower on the receiving end? Do you envy the sender for discovering and enjoying this awesome dessert? Does she reaffirm that she's an influencer when it comes to food, and beyond, and that you are truly a follower? I wonder how many of these food photos streaming on your feed spur you to seek out an awesome-looking dessert. Or to ask for the recipe for that whole foods, plant-based lasagne basking on the kitchen island. Maybe it's just more food porn, like what many get out of the impressive scale and breadth of food preparation videos thriving online. YouTube research suggests that 50% of U.S. adults watch food-related videos on YouTube, and a Chinese online cooking video show called Day Day Cook gets between 200 and 250 million views every month.

There's more to it than food porn with food videos online, though. Watching home cooking shows on TV is mostly passive. It's entertainment, whether it's marveling over a celebrity chef's handiwork, or sympathizing with an amateur struggling to reproduce a dish under time constraints. You might look up a couple of recipes and file them away for the right occasion, which may or may not arrive. If, on the other hand, you've determined to make profiteroles, say, for a real occasion, there are a hundred how-to videos online to guide you through the process. (Gordon Ramsey's tutorial has 1.7 million views at last check.) You have the luxury of choice. You can find a famous chef, a non-food celebrity, an amateur cook, or member of your "tribe" that speaks to you. There are different formats too. In addition to on-demand videos, those looking for instruction, inspiration, entertainment, or even community can choose live-streaming, interactive content. The digital world continues to deliver on this over-abundance of choice for consuming food without eating it.

I'm intrigued by a smaller, but growing behavior around meal sharing. There's an app for everything, so, no surprise that there are apps to facilitate meal sharing. At its peak (before shutting down in the pandemic) Home Cook connected home-based cooks - 40,000 of them - with some 3.5 million folks across several Chinese cities willing to pay someone else for a home-cooked meal. Eat With takes a different tack. It offers a platform for an amateur cook or up-and-coming chef to turn their home or other venue into a restaurant of sorts for discrete occasions. It's a dinner party you invite yourself to through the Eat With app. The price tag for one of these events near me is $120/person. Clearly, this is an upscale experience. Not a humble bowl of food delivered by someone in a neighboring high-rise. And then, there are an uncounted number of meal-sharing "pop-ups" enabled by social media platforms like Facebook and WhatsApp. Imagine a homemaker posting that they're making a batch of something or other over the weekend, maybe a signature lasagne, and then taking orders from folks in their network. It's happening. For a little extra cash. Or to provide meals for free to those in need.

This grey market for prepared meals seems fraught. There is always the threat of health departments cracking down on this food gig worker for not having a license. And as we move beyond the Covid-19 crisis and start adapting to social life that is framed by a heightened awareness of viruses and germs will many of us want to engage in these kinds of meal experiences? How many of us will feel comfortable trusting private cooks, maybe only somewhat more skilled than ourselves in the kitchen, in kitchens not very different from our own, to make and sell us a meal we pick up on the way to or back from work. Some of us will.

On the one hand there are those who take all sorts of risks to endure or enjoy an experience. An elusive or exclusive experience. A meal and the context - the stories that complement the food - that only a few others can also claim to have consumed. Another photo op to share with those from whom they seek validation.

And then there's the struggle for too many in this country to secure their daily bread, while food goes to waste in many other households. Apps that connect those who need a meal with those who can provide one can and will create a necessary exchange platform. I see the opportunity to also connect people who want to eat healthier food but who don't have the means, time, or skills to make more nourishing food with competent cooks who can share an affordable, better-for-you meal.

There's more to the exchange of a meal you've made with someone in your physical proximity whether there's money involved or not. There's the exchange of goodwill that builds with each transaction across a community. Goodwill that makes neighbors out of strangers. I'm reminded of ethnography work we did when I worked on Banquet frozen foods. We saw how frozen and refrigerated foods are stored across several extended family homes because nobody's fridge is big enough. It's a pain, but how many extra bonding visits this creates...

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  • Writer's pictureAli Tadlaoui

The other day I got up a bit earlier than usual to be part of a zoom call put together by the UN Food Systems Summit. This event was open to anyone in the world with internet access. I guess 13:00 Central European Time works best to get all the time zones involved.

I'm working on a Talk to Me About Food podcast episode about regenerative agriculture, an approach which implies a major disruption in the way our food system currently works, so my antennae have been up for big picture, sustainability-focused resources like this UN-sponsored event.

Top line on the UN Food Systems Summit:

* In their words "The Summit will awaken the world to the fact that we all must work together to transform the way the world produces, consumes and thinks about food. It is a summit for everyone everywhere – a people’s summit. It is also a solutions summit that will require everyone to take action to transform the world’s food systems."

* The summit will be held in spring of 2021

* 5 action tracks - each with a public forum and discussion starter paper

- Ensure access to safe and nutritious food for all

- Shift to sustainable consumption patterns (the one I attended)

- Boost nature-postive production

- Advance equitable livelihoods

- Build resilience to vulnerabilities, shocks, and stress

* Dialogue sessions along the way to the summit that are open to the public

* A Champions Network anyone can join that provides a starter toolkit

What really strikes me about this campaign is not so much the scope and scale of the UN Food Systems Summit goals - the UN is always about lofty ambitions - but the strategy to directly engage as many people as possible around the world. The UN is trying to crowdsource ideas to fix or improve food systems. They are hoping to create organizers and advocates at every level of engagement who will themselves catalyze this crowdsourcing effort.

This campaign is looking for input on so many fronts. One of the work streams I made note of is focused on improving the product experience of healthy, sustainable food (taste, satiation, price/value, convenience etc.), sparking consumer motivation to eat this way, and enabling consumer capability to make more nutritious and delicious food. Clearly, there are many ways to contribute to this crowdsourcing effort based on your experience and interests.

The day after the zoom call I watched a recorded UN Food Summit Dialogue held in October. It was a four-hour affair that featured people from all walks of life weighing in on the future of food systems. Devita Davison is one example. She works with Food Lab in Detroit. She is a "connector" in this community working to improve consistent, continuous access to quality food. She bubbles with enthusiasm for the "blueprint" they've developed in Detroit.

The UN outreach effort feels genuine. I'm sure it provides a platform for companies and institutions of all stripes to boast about all the good work they're doing, and plan to do in this space. At the same time I felt fresh energy in the voices of optimistic, maybe a bit naive voices being asked to take the microphone and share their screens.

Now that I'm primed, I'm starting to see examples of this effort to more broadly share responsibility or accountability for how we feed ourselves in other places.

Unilever just announced that shareholders will vote at next year's annual meeting on the company's plans to cut greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2030, and to also cut in half the environmental impact of its products. Unilever sells $20 billion of food products every year.

A rancher/farmer/ag consultant I interviewed plainly called the movement to regenerative agriculture a grass-roots effort that will only succeed if each of us demands food grown and raised in this way. He said that the current Farm Bill is a barrier to change but that government policy will not be the change driver. The onus, he says, is more on the farmer and the citizen-eater.

As I think about the sustainability-focused podcasts I've produced I see that they also point to the need for us as consumers to take on more of what it takes to feed ourselves. Whether it's doing more to reduce food waste at home (and making more meals at home from scratch), shopping with reusable containers, or growing some of your own food, these all take time and effort and even a willingness to learn meal preparation skills for some of us. We have to be willing to give up some of the convenience many of us rely on. We will likely have to pay more, at least in the short term, for food that is grown and distributed in a sustainable way.

Are these individual sacrifices worth making to enjoy more nutritious, healthier, better tasting food? For everyone? Not to mention a healthier planet? We're being asked to stand up and be counted, one way or the other. I don't think we can allow ourselves to be on the sideline.

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