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Five questions answered about the future of food

Nicole Lee, @nicole
11.05.14
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There are more than 7 billion people on the planet and counting. The United Nations recently projected that the world's population will rise to 9.6 billion in 2050 and perhaps even 10.9 billion by the end of the century. With so many more mouths to feed, the environmental impact of increased food production is an issue that's only growing in importance. This weekend we'll be talking with two people who have very different approaches to the problem. Agnieszka Nazaruk (also known as Aga) co-founded a company called Niwa, which makes a smartphone-connected, modular hydroponic growing system that is intelligent enough so that even those with the blackest of thumbs can grow their own fruits and vegetables at home. Greg Sewitz, on the other hand, co-founded Exo, which offers a line of protein bars that has crickets -- yes, actual crickets -- as its main ingredient. Intrigued? Come on by the Expand stage this Saturday, November 8th, to hear more about what they have to say. Here's a little amuse-bouche for the conversation ahead (The answers below are not verbatim and were compiled from a series of interviews).

What is the mission behind your product?

Aga: We want to disrupt the current food system. We think it's broken. There are 2,000 trucks traveling over 2,000 kilometers just to ship us our food and that's just not sustainable. There's already a big movement toward local organic production and growing food in an urban environment. Our product makes it possible to grow food in an urban apartment with very little space. It's not just local -- it's hyperlocal.

Greg: Insects are a very sustainable and nutritious source of protein. Much of the world already eats insects as part of their regular diet, and it's a good way to meet the protein needs of their growing population. Our aim behind the Exo protein bars is to provide a more comfortable vehicle for Americans to get used to the idea of eating insects. You get to taste insects without it looking like a bug.

Tell me a little more about your product. How much is it?

Aga: It's essentially a kitchen garden, a smart hydroponic system that enables everyone to grow their own food. Right now, it's a little small, so in terms of volume, it's not going to be enough to stop you from going grocery shopping. But it's modular -- over time you could buy more units and stack them on top of each other in a cabinet if you like.

The smartphone app is the most important thing. The whole idea is that you can plant the seed, tell the app what you're growing and it loads a specific program for a particular vegetable. It'll take everything into account -- humidity, temperature, etc. We're targeting urban dwellers who have no idea how to garden -- we try to make it really easy.

We try to make it as affordable as possible. Other hydroponic units are very expensive -- like $2,000 to $3,000 per unit. Ours is $399, and there's enough space for six plants, though they do have to work in the same environment. We're working on a tray for root vegetables, but otherwise it should work with most supermarket vegetables.

Greg: Gabi Lewis, the other co-founder, and myself started the company while we were still in university. Gabi has always been into fitness and health, and was really into the Paleo diet, which is the idea of eating what our ancestors would have had access to, so he got into making his own protein bars. I then started reading about edible insects and how sustainable they were and how we might need to branch out and start eating insects. Americans have this severe psychological hurdle to the idea of eating insects, so we decided to put it in a bar.

What we did is order a bunch of crickets. We put them in a freezer to kill them, put them in the oven to roast them and then mill them into a powder. And then we basically swapped out the protein powder in our bars with the cricket flour and had our first prototype. We took it around to farmer's markets and gyms and people really liked it. We wanted to prove that people wanted to try it. We've only been selling it since last March, and it's been consistently running out since then. We couldn't make enough to meet demand.

A bar costs $3, and there are 40 crickets in a bar. The amount of protein is comparable to most protein bars.

What are the benefits of it?

Aga: There'll be lots of benefits. For parents, they want to feed their kids the best quality food. Food produced in this environment, you know it's fully organic; it's going to taste better; there are no pesticides or chemicals. It's pure, as fresh and pure as it can get. It's also great for those who just love the taste of homegrown food. And of course, it's also really beneficial to the environment. Local food production is just way more sustainable than shipping something across the country or the world.

Greg: We only work with farm-raised insects. It's incredibly efficient and cheap to raise insects at scale on a farm. To produce enough crickets to match an equivalent amount of beef protein requires 20 times fewer resources; the farms take up way less space; it produces 80 times less methane. It's an amazing option.

What do you think of all-in-one meal-replacement powders like Soylent?

Aga: I think there's room for experimentation. For us, we're trying to connect with our past when everyone was growing their own food. Soylent is a little extreme for me, but the truth is we all need to find ways to feed people. Using alternate sources, technology, etc. is the way to go. There just needs to be a good balance.

Greg: From our perspective, anybody solving the problem of trying to find a cheap, nutritious form of food is a good thing. Not everybody will have access to grass-fed organic beef, or any kind of beef for that matter, if we keep doing what we're doing. We worry that we don't know quite enough to nail down that all-in-one formula right away, but we do think that anyone doing any work on this question has value.

What is your hope for the future of your company and product?

Aga: We need to make our food chain systems more sustainable. We want to empower individuals to grow their own food. I truly believe that our app makes it extremely easy to grow food. Individuals should be able to take control of their own food. Food production should be democratized, making the whole system more sustainable. Our vision of the company is to enable everybody to grow their own food. In a few years, we want everybody to have a smart kitchen garden next to their fridge. You'll be able to pick up your fresh herbs, your salads, right in your own kitchen.

Greg: For us, we don't view ourselves as just a protein bar company. We want to normalize the idea of eating insects, full stop. We view the bars as the first step in doing that. Sushi is a good analogy. When sushi first came to America in the '60s, everybody thought it was gross. But a chef in Los Angeles created the California roll, which took the idea of raw fish and made it more palatable to Americans. To us, Exo is that gateway product for insects. We're not trying to convince your hardcore beef eater that he shouldn't eat burgers. We're trying to introduce an entire food group that's untapped in America and most of Europe. We want to diversify our food habits so there's not too much pressure put on food production.

[Image credit: Getty Images]

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