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The Internet of Food - A Decentralized and Localized Food Network

Networked robotic food systems that produce healthy, hyper-local food, generate an income for their owners, and regenerate landscapes.

Photo of Ankur Shah
8 11

Written by

Lead Applicant Organization Name

Mycelium NGO

Lead Applicant Organization Type

  • Small NGO (under 50 employees)

If part of a multi-stakeholder entity (i.e. team), provide the names of other organizations and types of stakeholders collaborating with you.

1. The University of Alabama in Huntsville Students 2. North Alabama Food Bank's Farm Food Collaborative staff 3. Alabama A&M University Researchers 4. City Planning Commission of Huntsville staff

Website of Legally Registered Entity

https://mycelium.ngo/

How long have you / your team been working on this Vision?

  • 1-3 years

Lead Applicant: In what city or town are you located?

Huntsville

Lead Applicant: In what country are you located?

United States of America

Your Selected Place: what’s the name of the Place you’re developing a Vision for?

Huntsville, a city in the state of Alabama in the United States of America, covers a total area of 544 km^2 or 210 square miles.

What country is your selected Place located in?

United States of America

Describe your relationship to the place you’ve selected.

At Mycelium, Dan Meisner and Ankur Shah believe in igniting and accelerating circular economies using modern technology. Huntsville is our hometown where we live, work, and study. This is the city where we grew up. Ankur's family moved to Huntsville as his father bought a Subway store here. He grew up in Huntsville for the first seven years of his life before going to Mumbai, India for ten years for his early education. He returned from Mumbai in 2015 to pursue college at the University of Alabama in Huntsville to study Earth System Science and Physics. Dan Meisner obtained his degree in mechanical engineering and founded Mycelium to implement a 3-D printing from recycled plastic waste. During these past four years, we realized how unsustainable the lifestyle is in Huntsville. A fast-paced suburban individualistic lifestyle consumes and wastes limited resources. Fast food is a preferred lunch choice by many employees as noted from Ankur's experience in helping his father at his Subway restaurant. People prefer the cheap cost and convenience of fast food over their health in Huntsville. When it comes to the food system, most people living in urban Huntsville purchase from the supermarkets or eat at restaurants where the food has arrived in freight trucks from other states. Hence, the carbon footprint of the food we eat is quite high. However, Huntsville is also known as ‘The Rocket City’ owing to its association with U.S. space missions. In 1960, NASA formed the Marshall Space and Flight Center (MSFC) in Huntsville to develop boosters for the Saturn rocket used by NASA’s Apollo Lunar Landing Program. This is an incredibly smart city with a high concentration of engineering talent so Huntsville has a high potential to create a technology-based local and sustainable food system that will drastically reduce its dependence on the industrial food system and improve the health of the population.

Describe the People and Place: Provide information that would be helpful for an outsider who has never been there and may have no context about this Place to better understand the area.

Huntsville Alabama’s fourth-largest city located in Madison county of north Alabama. This is a rapidly urbanizing city experiencing high population growth as shown above. Huntsville represents a token case of a city with growing pains. It lies in the Appalachian region of northern Alabama and is surrounded by plateaus and hills. Huntsville has a humid subtropical climate with warm and humid summers and mild winters. The city is located close to the Tennessee River which provides water for industrial and domestic consumption.

Unlike rural Alabama, Huntsville is a high-tech town and among the best places for job opportunities in the southern U.S. Huntsville is a college town as it houses multiple colleges out of which the largest ones are the University of Alabama in Huntsville, Alabama A and M University, and Oakwood University with a total student body of about 17,000. Approximately 42% of the population has a Bachelor’s degree or higher indicating a well-educated population. As a result, there is a growing share of specialized jobs in the city. The population has a median age of 36.9 and a median household income of $51,926. Huntsville has among the most diverse populations in the state of Alabama. It can be best described as a high-tech Southern culture mixed with multiple ethnicities as shown in the graph image above. People come to this city in search of better opportunities.

The culture of Huntsville is a busy one like most metropolitan cities. People want their work to get done fast, conveniently, and efficiently. People do not always have time to cook meals. This culture reflects in their food choices as the consumption of fast food is increasingly common. The state of Alabama has 6.3 fast-food restaurants per 10,000 people making it the state with the highest number of fast-food restaurants in the country. Typical foods include pork, steak, catfish, fried pickles, fried okra, fried tomatoes, chicken salad, and cornbread.

Most of the economic growth of Huntsville comes from the space industry and military technology. Agriculture does not play a huge economic role in the city so most foods are exported from other states and sold in supermarkets. However, Madison county relies greatly on growing and exporting corn, soy, cotton, and beef. Families or individuals operate 91% of farms in Alabama and the state ranks second in the country for broiler and catfish production.

Huntsville is home to centers of large companies such as Boeing, HudsonAlpha, Dynetics, and Lockheed Martin. Innovation across several industries such as biotechnology, automobile manufacturing, space exploration, and telecommunications takes place in this city. Huntsville has an incredibly talented workforce in Huntsville which can be leveraged for creating a high-tech localized and decentralized food system.

What is the estimated population (current 2020) in your Place?

199518

Challenges: Describe the current (2020) and the future (2050) challenges that your food system faces.

Huntsville’s food system faces several current and future challenges owing to its rapid economic growth. The current challenges Huntsville faces fall in the six criteria themes. Poor diets have led to high rates of obesity, cardiovascular disease, and cancers. Alabama the sixth most obese state in the country with 36.8% of the population being obese. Madison county where Huntsville lies has an adult obesity rate of 32.8% The Southern diet is high in added fats, fried food, eggs, processed meats, and sugar-sweetened beverages. There is a high consumption of highly processed foods, especially by people in poverty as it is financially difficult to afford healthier options. The diabetes prevalence rate of Madison county is 12.3% which is higher than the national average of 9.4%. Even public schools in the city feed children with unhealthy meals. 

People eat foods out of season due to the 7 month growing period in this region. Foods sold in supermarkets come with excessive packaging leading to rising landfill waste. These store-foods are generally from different states or even other countries. Hence, the food culture of the South is unhealthy. There is no reliable public transportation in Huntsville so each resident owns an average of two cars. For people who cannot afford cars, they depend on food sources around them. People in poverty are the worst affected as food deserts exist in North Alabama where the only food options are fast-food stores or gas stations. 

The fast-paced culture of this city has also led people to cook less so the frequency of eating at restaurants has increased. There is excessive food waste from supermarkets and restaurants in the city and no centralized policies to mitigate it. Moreover, there is no enforced composting for creating manure from food waste so it ends up in landfills or is incinerated in a controlled manner indicating a linear disposable economy of food. Due to a rising urban population, there is an increased conversion of forests and green spaces to suburbs and shopping centers leading to higher demand for outsourced food. In addition, the suburban areas of Huntsville have excessive lawns, backyards and beautification spaces using water and land without gardens. These lands could be used for creating food forests instead so they provide an opportunity. 

Huntsville is poised to become the largest city in Alabama by 2030 with a population of 231,886. In 2050, the projected population of approximately 250,000 if the current population growth rate of 1.4% remains steady. This will lead to an increased reduction of green spaces and a higher demand for outsourced food under a business as usual scenario. Due to climate change, Alabama also faces the threat of increased frequencies of drought-like other states such as those in the Western United States. This will lead to higher food insecurity and people in poverty will be hit the worst. 

Address the Challenges: Describe how your Vision will address the challenges described in the previous question.

Mycelium's vision for a 2050 food system for Huntsville involved localizing food production for reducing the carbon footprint of the current industrial food system feeding Huntsville, improving the health of the population, and creating communities of people connected by food. For solving the issue of outsourced foods grown in an unsustainable manner and sold in supermarkets, Mycelium envisions households and neighborhoods with multiple food gardens and food forests grown and managed by robots. 

Firstly, the lawns and backyards of every suburban household will be converted to gardens for growing food for the family members. The city of Huntsville will provide financial incentives for people to have a garden. To provide a food supply for the entire year, cylindrical hydroponic and aquaponic systems will be used in communities. The plant-based produce will be package free unless it needs to be transported to people elsewhere in the city. This packaging will be created from mushrooms grown from food waste.

For addressing obesity and cardiovascular diseases, our vision has incorporated the use of intelligent bathrooms which transfer data to a mobile application to determine the nutritional needs of the user. Each person will be recommended specific nutrient-dense foods according to their health needs which are grown in their robot-managed gardens. Localizing food production indoors and outdoors will automatically lead to eating seasonal foods. 

To reduce and reuse food waste, the excess produce will be distributed on an online market. The city government will have a curbside food recycling program and designated areas to create compost which will be used on the food-growing gardens to close the loop of food production. Communities in poverty who may not have the resources for a robot-managed garden will have designated food forests grown by robots. These forests will contain foods to promote health in specific communities. This system will enable a high degree of independence from established supermarkets. 

Grocery stores and supermarkets will not become obsolete but their products will have a sustainability rating based on its life cycle with the data collected and transferred with a blockchain system. To solve the issue of increased land conversion from green spaces and forested areas to impervious urban surfaces, land-use policies will be enforced in 2050. Our vision also incorporates land regeneration whereby people buy land with the financial incentives to grow and sell food after investing in reviving the land potential.

High Level Vision: With these challenges addressed, now provide a high level description of how the Place and the lives of its People will be different than they are now.

Imagine waking up in 2050 to a healthy breakfast every morning that is automatically prepared by a robotic chef in your kitchen, using ingredients from your own robotic garden. Coupled with health information such as your recent nutrient intake data from the smart bathroom. Each meal is customized for your tastes and optimized for your health. Meanwhile, the waste from the system is intelligently managed and recycled back into the food production system.

Since your neighbors also have these robotic food systems, your excess produce is automatically traded between you and your neighbors via an online digital farmers market. This digital market enables the robot chef, for example, to request ingredients that aren't currently being produced in your robot garden. Those ingredients from the digital farmers market are then transported via a combination of self-driving cars, drones, and ground delivery robots.

This digital market enables your robotic food system to pay for itself. By selling the excess produce, fish, seeds, cooked meals, and even compost on the digital farmers market, this robotic system provides you an income. Once your robotic garden pays for itself, part of that income can go towards investing in a small plot of barren land outside the city. With multiple people investing in a small plot of land, a larger piece of land is purchased, and the same technology powering your robotic garden begins growing a regenerative permaculture food forest on that newly purchased land.

The delivery robots drop composts and organic fertilizers onto that land. The drones drop seeds. Over time, a robotically-grown permaculture food forest emerges and expands to regenerate the land. The food from the food forest is then sold on the same digital farmers market, earning you an income from your original land investment. This financially incentivizes regenerating land, while providing people access to healthy and hyper-locally grown organic foods.

Full Vision: How do you describe your Vision for a regenerative and nourishing food future for your Place and People for 2050?

In the previously discussed points provide evidence as to why the current system is hitting its limits. Business, as usual, cannot continue to work through the next century. In the words of Buckminster Fuller,

"You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the old model obsolete."

Our vision aims to completely transform our current food system over the next 30 years towards an entirely new system of decentralization, localization, and resilience. Our vision is segmented into six main themes. We have summarized the vision components in bullet form for conciseness. The document containing all the references is attached to the vision below and are labeled by number in parentheses. 

1. Food Production

Advanced automated robotic gardens that automatically plant, grow and harvest food on farms, backyards, and indoors based on the demand of the system

Transitional Steps (from 2020 to 2050):

-Integrate existing open-source robotic technology such as Farmbot (1) and Ironox (2) on local farms to empower local farmers
-Create social media campaigns publicizing growing community gardens in every back yard and encouraging an exchange of food
-Conduct soil tests on potential outdoor gardens to determine nutrients required
-Iterate on early robotic systems to create more advanced systems that produce food all year such as rotating cylindrical hydroponics systems by Omega (3) and LG Indoor gardening (4)

Transitional Policies (to be implemented by Huntsville City Council): 

-Tax incentives for growing food on private land (like reduced property tax) and for local grocery stores and restaurants to use local ingredients
-Budgets for schools to build gardens at the school and integrate gardening into the curriculum
-Programs to create community gardens to low-income and public housing areas
-Programs to deliver Robotic Food Systems that generate incomes as Universal Basic Assets (5) instead of Universal Basic Income
           

2050 vision components:

-Automated, sustainable, and multiple small-scale robotic gardens and indoor farms
-Food is grown indoors either with in-home food modules or weaved through vertical structures like apartment buildings
-Aquaponics systems with fish grown and provide nutrients to plants, plant waste becomes insects for fish food, freshwater shrimp clean unwanted algae growth
-Algae Production in areas of the system that are beneficial and is used for nutrient supplement (like spirulina), for fish feed to provide essential oils, for biofuels, cooking oils or plant-based plastics
-Mushroom production for food and packaging, grown on inedible plant biomass like straw, stalks, woodchips, nutshells, and coffee ground
-Insect production from waste food scraps, for both insect flour for human food supplement, and fish/chicken food (6)
-Lab-Grown meat grown on stacks of trays in a controlled environment optimized for tissue growth (7) (8)

2. Food Preparation

Robotic chef arms convert ingredients from local gardens into fully cooked meals in homes and restaurants


Transitional steps:

-Augmented reality applications to help teach cooking/preparation of garden-grown vegetables and meals at home combined with apps that suggest meals to prepare
-Feedback can drive meal suggestions to match individual flavors and tastes

Transitional Policies:

-Programs to integrate locally grown healthy produce into school lunches
-Creation of community centers for people to bring excess garden fruits and vegetables for donations to be made into community meals
-Programs taught by food preparers to involve students in the process of preparing their school lunches from local produce
-Integrate curriculum and education into schools for food preservation 

2050 vision components:

-Robotic chef arms convert ingredients from the robotic garden into prepared meals such as Moley’s kitchen chef (9)
-AI trained by top professional chefs
-Uses 3D Printed Foods such as those from Foodini (10) for unique flavors and texture combinations
-Meals are chosen automatically (or by selecting from a menu) based on your nutrition data
-Adopts cooking to tastes over time based on your feedback and can change flavors to account for cultural and dietary differences (11)
-By exchanging cooked meals on the digital farmers market (point 5 below), the system can pay for itself

3. Data Integration for Health Improvement

Nutrient intake and health data utilized to optimize individual health.


Transitional Steps:
 
-Fitbits, smartphone, tablet health analysis
-Apps that use AI object recognition to track food/ingredient/calorie intake with just pictures of meals
-Augmented reality fitness coaches

Transitional Policies:

-Reduce the amount of unhealthy snacks advertising on TV, especially for children and mandate healthy school lunches
-Create standards for health data, format, and security

2050 Vision Components:

-Smart toilets (12) in homes assess nutrient intake in the body after use and communicate results via a mobile app with the consumer
-Data compiled by a robotic chef to determine meals to optimize health and nutrient intake to prevent deficiencies and chronic diseases


4. Reducing Food Waste

Utilizing intelligent waste management technology and policies to create a circular closed-loop food system

Transitional Steps:

-Gather data like images from wasted food for the purpose of training machine learning algorithms for sorting food waste
-Build open-source tools and products that identify and sort food waste in compartmentalized waste bins
-Use apps that suggest recipes to cook with ingredients, or match people with excess food to be purchased at a discount (13)

Transitional Policies:

-Create more standardized food expiration labels (like a statistical bell curve of dates)
-Centralized curbside composting which employs waste recoverers
-Tax incentives for restaurants that compost; for grocery stores that prepare food made from ingredients that are near sell-by dates; discount areas for ugly fruits/veggies and near sell-by dates; companies upcycling food waste into new innovative products
-Fines for grocery stores that throw away food rather than composting (like in France and Denmark)
-Tax incentives for insect farmers and companies using insect-based ingredients in Huntsville (14)
-Local advertisements for insect-based snacks to help transition the practice towards mainstream

2050 Vision Components: 

-Automatic identification and sorting of food waste such as Winnow Vision (15)
-Compost used for food forests and gardens produced from the waste of households, restaurants, and grocery stores
-Bioplastics (PHA) made from compostable waste (16) and mushrooms for food packaging (17)
-Insect production from food scraps that aren’t composted (sustainable protein for aquaculture and humans)


5. Digital Farmers Market
A network for transportation of all the goods produced in the robotic food systems.

Transitional Steps:

 -Build an online network (18) for the exchange of locally grown produce, where anyone can earn an income selling the food one grows at home in the local area (like “Uber” for gardening)
-Integrate feedback, ratings, and pictures of the garden so people can see where that food comes from
-Create local food processing and distribution centers for value addition of food
-Integrate existing infrastructure for food delivery services, into that network so people can have local garden vegetables delivered (19)
-Integrate current online grocery services
           
2050 vision components:

-Automatic exchange earns an income for owners of Robotic Food Systems, enabling them to pay for themselves
-Blockchain-based tracking of transactions (20)
-Plant/garden-grown ingredient exchange and distribution
-Seed and compost exchange
-Insect “flour” to feed fish and chickens, or as food supplement/ingredient
-Fully-cooked meals delivered by self-driving cars (on-demand foods)
-Robotic Gardens can automatically grow food based on network supply and demand.
-Longer-distance delivery to handle larger spikes or dips in demand

6. Landscape Regeneration
Utilizing all the above to regenerate unproductive landscapes with food forests grown with permaculture techniques

Transitional Steps:
-Pilot projects in communities to establish food forests on empty plots

2050 Vision Components:

-Fukuoka seed bombs created from seeds of local harvest (21)
-Drones planting seed bombs to create food forests (22)
-Funded through blockchain-backed crowdfunding of small parcels of land
-Food sold on that land generates an income for the original investors in that land, financially incentivizing the regeneration of the land

How did you hear about the Food System Vision Prize?

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Attachments (6)

Food Vision References.pdf

These are the references used by numerical order in the full food system vision of Mycelium. They contain the information for the technological breakthroughs we believe will be commercialized in 2050.

North Alabama Local Food Study.pdf

This paper contains statistical highlights of farms and farm economics for each county in North Alabama including Madison County. This study was commissioned by the Food Bank of North Alabama in 2012. Many of the statistics have not changed significantly since then.

Alabama County Level Agricultural stats.pdf

This is a pdf obtained from USDA/NASS Census of Agriculture Data Query Service and it displays all agricultural statistics by county including that of Madison county where Huntsville is located.

Alabama Foods Grown Outdoors.pdf

This is a list of foods which can be grown outdoors in Alabama by the months and the season.

USA Food System Problems and Solutions.pdf

A presentation created by Mycelium on the current food system issues in the United States of America with crowdsourced solutions on how we can mitigate them on a local level.

USA Food System Issues.mp4

This is a short presentation on an overview of the food system issues of the United States of America. Mycelium hosted a Food System Vision 2050 event to gather stakeholders and brainstorm solutions which can be implemented locally in Huntsville. This video captures the first 15 minutes of that event where we presented highlights of the general issues.

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Photo of Kanika Khanna
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Hi Ankur Shah ,

I really liked vision and how futuristic it is. Specially the part where our own waste may some day be analysed to give us a food prescription!

One theme I noticed though is that your vision is operating on such a different level than ours Science Meets Traditional Wisdom on the Road to Self Sufficiency in Ladakh's Cold Desert - purely by virtue of the dramatically different kind of places that we have chosen.

Would love to have your thoughts on how we can leverage some of the concepts in your vision in a place like Ladakh.

Good luck and more power to you!

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