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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
25 37

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. Long-range and Urban 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 build open-source tools that help accelerate the advent of the circular economy.

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 approximate size of your Place, in square kilometers? (New question, not required)

544

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. 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. 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. There is a high consumption of highly processed foods by a 15% of people facing poverty who find it difficult to afford healthier options. 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 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/rent 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
- Hardware parts of small robots can be 3D printed out of plant-based material, like PLA or PHA and distributed as open source designs
-Food is grown indoors either with in-home food modules or weaved through vertical structures like apartment buildings
-Partnerships with rural farmers in surrounding counties to source local produce
-Aquaponics systems with fish grown and provide nutrients to plants, plant waste feeds insects for fish food
-Algae Production in areas of the system that are beneficial and is used for nutrient supplement (like spirulina), 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)
-Integrate food bearing plants into existing ornamental gardens and landscapes

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)
-Uses 3D Printed Foods such as those from Foodini (10) for unique flavors and texture combinations
-Meals are suggested 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.

25 comments

Join the conversation:

Comment
Spam
Photo of Paige Colburn
Team

Thanks for getting Huntsville on the map with a 2050 Food Vision!
The BIG Picture master plan team looks forward to working with you and incorporating the Internet of Food into our city's future!
- Paige

Spam
Photo of Ankur Shah
Team

Hello Paige! So great to hear from you. We really appreciate your comment and absolutely look forward to collaborating with you and the team of the urban and long range planning team of Huntsville. Thank you so much for being willing to work with us and we cannot wait to convert our vision into a reality before 2050.

Spam
Photo of Benjamin Fahrer
Team

Curious why such a focus on Robotics? I am always fascinated at why we want to take out the human hand in such an intimate act as growing and preparing our food. Could your vision meet its goals with Humans?

Spam
Photo of Ankur Shah
Team

Great question, Benjamin. We have discussed the same concern and addressed this in some comments below and in this video - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p9U62mSwbq4

In a nutshell, Huntsville is an urban area with a busy population that lacks the time to grow food. In terms of our vision for food production in 2050, going back to first-principles, we can either continue business as usual--where food is produced unsustainably in large centralized monoculture farms and transported hundreds of miles--or we can try a decentralized and localized approach. Decentralized, localized food production has historically been done by our ancestors who had gardens and produced their own food. However, the amount of people growing their own food has obviously changed over time along with specialization becoming more common leading to our disconnection from our food production. We believe it’s important to go back to the time where people grew their own food, and we think one feasible way to accomplish that in 2050 is to use the technological tools that will likely be available in 2050. So far, technology hasn’t replaced the individual; it has empowered the individual to do more. We have not yet been successful with convincing people to produce most of the food they eat in urban areas so there is no reason to expect the same in 2050. However, this system has the potential to replace a lot of nonlocal production and offers convenience with choices making it attractive to the population in our city. We will integrate programs of food production and nutrition in schools as stated in our vision which ensures the traditional knowledge is not lost. Lastly, this vision is only meant for the city of Huntsville for now. As stated in our vision, Huntsville is unique in its high concentration of engineers and the amount of funding available for technologies to localize food production. We see our vision creating two different groups of consumers. One will readily welcome robotic food production systems whereas others will stick to traditional means. These systems are assets to reduce the dependency on people and are choices for those who wish to use them. Just like YouTube is a means for decentralizing video production, the system envisioned by Mycelium will be one to decentralize and localize food production. We would love to hear your thoughts on this and discuss further.

Spam
Photo of Archiebold Manasseh
Team

Good project, innovative tittle : Internet of Food, all the best

Spam
Photo of Ankur Shah
Team

Thank you so much for the kind response! Best wishes to you as well.

Spam
Photo of Kanika Khanna
Team

Hi Ankur Shah ,

I really liked your 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!

Spam
Photo of Ankur Shah
Team

Hello Kanika Khanna 

It is so great to hear from you and thank you for commenting on our vision. It is super inspiring and heart-warming to see a vision for Ladakh. I actually spent two weeks there last summer with an NGO called Goldenmile Learning and was mesmerized by the place and the culture. I even went to Namza cafe and met Dr. Dorje once. It seems like we were meant to be connected here. I also have personal contacts in Ladakh who may be very interested in working with you. Feel free to email me at aas0024@uah.edu and we could continue the conversation or even talk over the phone.

From my experience there and after reading your vision, I believe passive solar greenhouses (that you include) combined with solar-powered indoor aeroponics/hydroponics could be a powerful combination for food independence. The great thing is there is no limitation for land but production systems need to be climate resilient so growing food indoors is wise. Secondly, for the nutrition deficiencies of Ladakhis, I do envision cheap sensors being available within 30 years that individually prescribe specific locally available foods like our Huntsville vision mentions. I am well aware of the connectivity issues in Ladakh but these sensors could simply communicate via a bluetooth or wifi which does not need cellphone services.

Lastly, there are initiatives in Ladakh such as GoGreen GoOrganic headed by Namgyal Durbuk and Lama Konchok Gyalston and Green Himalayas which plan to create forests near villages. I have met both of them and they are amazing people. You could work with them to grow native fruit-providing trees and medicinal herbs for outdoor-grown foods. Here is a link where you can read more - https://www.greenhimalayas.org/

Another exciting thing is I am working independently on a short documentary on Ladakh so if you are interested, I can send a link later. This will focus on modernization and cultural change there. Do keep in touch! I look forward to hearing from you and wish you the best.

Spam
Photo of Dan Meisner
Team

Hey Kanika Khanna 

I really love your vision of bringing nutrient-dense foods to Ladakh! I also wanted to add an additional point about maintaining grow temperatures in greenhouses that are located in areas with extreme temperatures (high or low). Using geothermal heating/cooling to keep the greenhouse a constant temperature is much more energy-efficient than using other HVAC systems (heaters/coolers). I'm sure you already know about geothermal temp control, but in Ladakh, you could make sure the greenhouses are facing the south, dig a deep (~2-3m deep) trench that runs east-west (facing the south), then run tubes along the ground that are capable of exchanging air. If you bury those tubes they will exchange the air temperature in the greenhouse with the temperature of the earth--keeping it a more stable temperature with only the energy use of one or two fans to move the air through the tubes (kind of like this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lVIj-p0Eqcg). Additionally, if you make sure the bottom part of the greenhouse is slightly underground (~1m underground), you should have even more of a temperature constant. Finally, if you add transparent slanted roofs, facing the south, you should really be able to keep the greenhouses at a constant-food growing temperature all year-round.

Very cool vision--and I wish you all the best of luck in implementing it. You have Ankur's email. Feel free to message us if you have any questions!

-Dan

Spam
Photo of Stefano Gonnelli
Team

Hi Ankur Shah,

Please forgive my provocative thought but, by reading your contribution, and looking at the world from 20,000 feet, it looks like that by 2050 machines will grow food with the only purpose to breed human beings.
I cannot help thinking that this is a dystopian future where human beings will have lost the meaning of life and where machines will act on our behalf, prepare our food, work for us, pray for us, think for us, until when they will decide that we are totally useless to the system.

Kind regards
Stefano

Spam
Photo of Ankur Shah
Team

Hello Stefano Gonnelli 

Thank you for your comment and we understand your concern. We have thought about the same issue and discussed it in detail. We really believe that’s an important topic for discussion (however, outside the realm of this single comment).

The dystopian future you’ve portrayed, where robots have even replaced religion, would probably make a good ‘Black Mirror’ episode or sci-fi novel. However, I would argue that technology won’t change human nature; humans have always been humans. For hundreds of thousands of years our needs and behavior has stayed relatively the same; we eat, sleep, hang with friends and family, make things, wander to new areas, have new experiences, tell stories, and share our theories, beliefs, and religions. So far, technology hasn’t changed that--it’s only changed how we accomplish it. People who pray, will continue to pray. I think it’s up to us collectively as a species to determine how technology evolves over time.

In general, the concern for machines replacing humans has been around since they were first invented. But machines and technology have always just been tools that extend our current reach as a species. So far, technology has enabled us to be more productive and connected than any point in history. Robots have replaced much of our factory work, computers have replaced much of our needs to calculate, and the Internet has created new ways for everything and everyone to share information and to stay connected. Both new opportunities and new problems to be solved have always emerged with new technology. What we do with that technology will be collectively up to us as a species. By itself, technology is often a neutral yet double edged sword dependent on human nature.

In terms of our vision for food production in 2050, going back to first-principles, we can either continue business as usual--where food is produced unsustainably in large centralized monoculture farms and transported hundreds of miles--or we can try a decentralized and localized approach. Decentralized, localized food production has historically been done by our ancestors who had gardens and produced their own food. However, the amount of people growing their own food has obviously changed over time along with specialization becoming more common leading to our disconnection from our food production. We believe it’s important to go back to the time where people grew their own food, and we think one feasible way to accomplish that in 2050 is to use the technological tools that will likely be available in 2050. So far, technology hasn’t replaced the individual; it has empowered the individual to do more. We have not yet been successful with convincing people to produce most of the food they eat in urban areas so there is no reason to expect the same in 2050. However, this system has the potential to replace a lot of nonlocal production and offers convenience with choices making it attractive to the population in our city. We will integrate programs of food production and nutrition in schools as stated in our vision which ensures the traditional knowledge is not lost. Lastly, this vision is only meant for the city of Huntsville for now. As stated in our vision, Huntsville is unique in its high concentration of engineers and the amount of funding available for technologies to localize food production. We see our vision creating two different groups of consumers. One will readily welcome robotic food production systems whereas others will stick to traditional means. These systems are assets to reduce the dependency on people and are choices for those who wish to use them. Just like YouTube is a means for decentralizing video production, the system envisioned by Mycelium will be one to decentralize and localize food production. We would love to hear your thoughts on this and discuss further.

Thanks a lot and wish you the best,
Ankur

Spam
Photo of Stefano Gonnelli
Team

Thanks Ankur for taking the time to answer to a clearly provocative thought.
I agree with you: technology isn't good or bad by itself but depends on the its usage and certainly we cannot stop technological progress. However when technology touches services which are essential to life for human beings, ethical principles should be established to set the boundaries within which technology can evolve. For some people food is just a bunch of nutrients so, it does nor really matter the way proteins, carbohidrates, fibers, fat and sugar are produced. It is just matter to feed the body.
Some other people instead believe food is our medicine, and the way it is grown, cooked and eaten is an essential part of our body and soul, it is intrinsically bound to our role as a living organism among other living organisms of the living planet.
That being said, in our view, the future of the food system is a highly distributed system of local resilient, regenerative food systems and there will be no general rule applicable to all the single nodes of the network.
So, maybe what works fine in Huntsville may not work well in Tuscany and the other way around.
In other words, we may well have people over there getting the daily meal delivered by a drone and grown by a robot fermenting micro-proteins in vats, and people over here, hands on in the soil, growing their salad, ancient tomatoes and beans, and cooked by a chef in a community kitchen.
The most important think is making sure that every local system is regenerative and resilient. So, I would encourage you to think if such a widespread usage of robots would actually be regenerative and resilient.

All the best
Stefano

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Hey Stefano,

We definitely appreciate your points! Food is absolutely an integral part of our health, so it’s worth discussing the various means of producing that food. I agree that it’s also important to explore the boundaries at which technology is integrated into human-essential areas, like health. I also think we’re in agreement that food that’s organically grown at home (or locally) is probably the ideal way to maximize nutrition in that food.

That being said, from the perspective of nutritional output of the plant, I’m not sure it matters whether it’s a robotic tool that maintains the health of the plant or a person. In fact, I would argue that a system that continuously monitors every variable of the plants health, including the chemical profile of the plant, and fungal/bacterial network of the soil--and adjusts the input variables like water and fertilizer accordingly--would likely be better at maximizing the nutritional output of the plant compared with the traditional farmer. It’s impractical to assume a person could monitor all of those variables without technology, or to expect a farmer to sit and watch each plant for 24 hours a day. We have the tools that can do the work, which frees up time to focus on other things. This wouldn’t be chemicals assembled by robots into food, it would be robots maintaining ecosystems that produce food (for example, see Farmbot: https://farm.bot/).

Regarding the use of robots to create regenerative or resilient food systems, as we mentioned in our vision, the same systems that can help people grow their own food at home--and deliver produce, seeds, compost between systems--can also deliver nutrients and seeds to barren land to plant permaculture food forests that regenerate the landscape. In fact, the system we propose could financially incentivize the regeneration of land by reincorporating the output back into the food network we’re proposing. Utilizing technology like drones to regenerate landscapes is not a new concept and there are companies that believe they can use drones to automatically seed 100,000 trees per day ( https://flashforest.ca/ ), which is beyond our capabilities as humans (at least without a lot of people and funding).

So in terms of technological tools used for food production, how big of a difference is there in using drones to drop seeds/compost, and tractors that till (kill) soil and drop seeds? Where do we draw the line for how many technological tools we want to use in our food production systems? Historically, which systems of technology have been unsustainable, and which systems can potentially be regenerative?

Thanks again for your insightful comments!

-Dan

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Hi Dan
I like this conversation. It helps me thinking deeper.
Referring to the renewability and resiliency of your food vision I was more referring to the widespread usage of robots within the households and within the town rather than the usage of drones to drop seed bombs to reforest the planet (which is something I do like).
I wonder if you considered would be the building and ownership cost ($$$ and carbon impact) and ultimately what would be the renewability and resiliency of all of that? Robots will have to be built and mainteined and replaced and it will require a) factories exploiting natural resources and b) they will be a single point of failure for the food system (a failure in robotic supply and/or maintenance would mean a disaster for your town).
Tractors are also having an impact on environment and and on the resiliency. That is why we are proposing equipment sharing (not just machines but also labs, farming tools, transformation tools ) among a bigger users community within which someone will be an expert maintenance engineer. Also we are proposing to convert our farms to Agroforestry which is promising do drastically decrease the need for inputs (including labor, machines, fertilizers, water, ecc...), increase yields, increase carbon sequestration and soil fertility.
All of the above will decrease environmental impact and increase overall efficiency and resiliency.

All the best
Stefano

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Stefano,

Yes, as an engineer, it’s definitely always enjoyable to “dig deeper” in these kinds of conversations! I do think we’re saying the same thing, but perhaps in different ways. I also love your plan to convert the traditional farm system into one that’s includes shared equipment, sustainable practices, and implementing agroforestry and layers to essentially create sustainable permaculture food forests. Have you read any books by Masanobu Fukuoka? He’s basically the father of permaculture and had some really amazing ideas for agroforestry; like emphasizing planting in multiple layers, as well as no-till practices (he said worms and bugs till the soil without killing the beneficial biome in the soil).

In terms of our vision above, I’m glad you mentioned the point about building and distributing these systems--as it was something we didn’t mention, but will make sure to add. We weren’t planning on going the route of the old industrial age, where these systems were built in large centralized toxic factories. I believe that with the advent of 3D printing and exponential growth over the next 30 years, people will be able to 3D print a majority of the components for the systems we’re designing--with much of the material used being plant-derived materials, like polylactic acid (PLA) or polyhydroxyalkanoate (PHA). The factories of the future can be decentralized using robotically-controlled tools like 3D Printing. The PLA or PHA material used to create the parts could be made from the inedible portions of the plants grown in this system (sequestering carbon in the process). Additionally, by utilizing aeroponic or aquaponic system design, they will require far fewer resources than traditional soil farming.

The designs themselves will be open source, so entire communities can be set up around their development. An example of this kind of model is used by farm.bot ( https://farm.bot/ ). In the case of open-source distribution, coupled with 3D Printing, the physical footprint of transporting digital files around the world is fairly low compared to storing and shipping large pieces of farming equipment--not to mention, it’s also instantaneous. A new design or upgrade can be deployed, and within minutes, thousands of people around the world can begin making them at home if they own a 3D printer. If something breaks, there will be all of the documentation for the system, an online community of people to help troubleshoot, and digital models for replacement parts that are available to 3D print and replace the broken parts at any time.

Thanks again for all these great comments and shared ideas! I hope one day to be able to visit Italy and see the system you are implementing (and drink some wine ;) ).

-Dan

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Thanks, Hadi Shamieh ! Definitely appreciate the reintegration of nutrients and biomass in your vision (the no-till gardening, sheet mulching, and huglekulture). Circular use of resources FTW!

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Thank you! Permaculture brings back a lot of useful techniques from traditional practices.

Your idea here is very well developed, but has a risk of reducing human interaction and engagement. A big challenge is to not contribute to the "laziness" that is spiraling up from our common practices today. It also may create dependencies on technologies of today that may not be as relevant in 2050. I think a perfect balance would be a combination of human engagement and feel of responsibility (focus of my project) and reduction of human labor (at least the repetitive tasks) through technology, as you present it here. Looking forward to having our conversation next week and diving deeper on this!

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Are you referring to human engagement with food or with each other? If you mean technology reducing human interaction with other humans, I think that’s outside the scope of this comment (lol).

But I assume you’re referring to robot gardens reducing human interactions with food, which is a fair assumption; but I would actually argue robotic gardens would lead to more interaction with your food. At that point, food production would be more “in your face” and transparent than the current system because it's in your backyard or in a basement. In fact, currently, many of the children--at least around here--just think food comes from a grocery store. Most people don’t realize how many miles each calorie has traveled. I would be willing to bet that if people had robotic gardens, they’d not only know where their food comes from but become more interested in learning about the process.

In terms of higher-level engagement with global food markets and trade, if those robotic gardens also traded those ingredients, and even earned people an income from planting permaculture forests and farming them, people would be incentivized to pay more attention to what the current market prices are and where their food came from. In general, people would also be financially incentivized to reforest major areas of land, which also means paying attention to the health of that land. I don’t know how many people currently actively monitor the health of the forests around them, but I think we need more engagement with the general health and regrowth of our forests. I think in this vision, such a system would not just financially incentivize regrowth of forests, but also the active engagement with and monitoring of their health.

As an aside--just because a robot maintains a garden, doesn't mean you can't go dip your hands in the soil (or even guerilla plant something for fun just to confuse the robot). Likewise, just because you have a robotic chef to prepare the meals from that garden, doesn't mean you can't make them do the prep work (and clean up) and you cook the main course.

These would be tools to assist in producing healthy, organic, and hyper-local food while utilizing the waste in a circular fashion.

I don’t want to get into the statistics about how business as usual isn't working, or how we’re definitely not trending towards using less technology, but I would agree that engagement with our current system does need to change, because is lower than it’s historically been; and meanwhile there are a record number of bankruptcies for those farmers getting engaged in it due to the effects of a changing climate. In general, we do have the ability to get engaged today--yet we’re not, and many of those who do get engaged don’t seem to be finding the financial compensation they probably expected.

Didn’t mean to have this comment get so long--let’s just say I too am excited to talk more next week about ways to engage people with the food production process!

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Hi all,

Very well-thought out and thorough vision plan! I was also concerned about what feels like a lack of human interaction with food (cooking, gardening, etc) here, but you make a good point Dan--most people aren't doing that now anyway. And for those that do like to cook and garden, the robotic aspect is a choice. I was also curious about what this heavy level of automation might do to food industry labor/employment (especially low-skilled jobs), but by 2050 the industry will have probably already have switched over to automation in fast food anyway. Perhaps there will be room within this high-tech food system for training/employing lower-skilled folk in system maintenance? In any case, that question may be slightly outside the scope of this proposal.

Anyway, kudos to the team for all the hard work!

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Hey Vanesa,
Thanks so much for the compliment and comment! I also appreciate you seeing the other response about our current lack of connection with our food. Another point worth mentioning is how cooked meals also bring people together. Automatic (or assisted) preparation of food means it would be easier to have restaurant dining at home with friends and family.

With respect to labor/employment, technology definitely seems to be trending towards automation. That being said, I could certainly see room for--as you mentioned--employment in system maintenance. However, this brings up another point; what do we do when everything can be automated and no one can find employment? Currently, it seems the main solution that’s being discussed is Universal Basic Income (UBI), where everyone gets “free” money. Without getting into potential issues with UBI, the system we’re presenting in this vision would be capable of earning the owner an income; it would be considered an asset. In fact, part of our vision mentions policy changes for the government to distribute “Universal Basic Assets” (UBA) that generate an income for their owners, rather than UBI ( https://qz.com/1096659/to-fix-income-inequality-we-need-more-than-ubi-we-need-universal-basic-assets/ ). UBA’s could be solar panels that sell excess energy back to the grid, self-driving cars that transport people and earn you an income--or in our case, food production systems that sell excess produce and cooked meals. Universal Basic Assets give people the means to generate an income. In the case of our vision, a UBA of food production systems would also provide an essential part of our life; food.

Again, thank you for your compliments and great points!

-Dan

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Hey Vanesa Martín Arias 

Thank you so much for your comment! It is indeed a great question and Dan answered it very thoroughly. We also just uploaded a video that answers most questions and concerns regarding the use of automation in our food system vision. It is called Mycelium Technology Q&A and it is the fourth video just below the full vision on the page above. Here is the link on Youtube just in case - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p9U62mSwbq4

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Dear Ankur Shah Thank you for well-organized reason information for your vision. My questions: What kind of community asset will use to implement your vision? How is easy to your community to use the mentioned technologies?

Best,
Vicent

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Hello Vincent!

Thank you so much for your interest and for asking a great question. Huntsville is a truly high-tech city with a great concentration of engineers, specifically mechanical and aerospace engineers. This city is also called the Rocket City because of its past and current involvement with U.S. Space Missions. Aerospace and defense companies like Lockheed Martin, Boeing, and Dynetics are in this city which have an immense amount of incoming research and development funding. Huntsville simply needs to redirect some of that funding into developing and implementing the robotic technologies included in the vision. The talent for engineering exists so we do not need much external support. At Mycelium, we know that Huntsville has the right potential for this food system vision to be executed. Once the technologies are well developed, the cost of implementation needs to be figured out. People here are addicted to the convenience of grab and go which the technologies will provide. We will be updating the vision soon after our food system vision event for more details.

Thank you,
Ankur

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Masterpiece.

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Hello Hadi!

Once again, thank you so much for your feedback and it was great to speak with you yesterday. We are very grateful that our vision has inspired yours.

Thanks a lot again!