Innovative food-related gadgets and practices don’t always have to rely on things like sensors, apps, and machine learning to have a positive impact. In fact, in some parts of the world, these “low-tech” (that is, technologically simple) solutions are often all that’s needed to prevent waste, improve farming practices, and even boost the local economy.
That is to say that low tech, while maybe not as alluring as, say, using sensors to save the bees, plays a bigger role in advancing food than one might initially think. Their simplicity is effective, and often just as interesting, or at least thought provoking, as a high-tech alternative.
Consider fermentation, specifically as a way to curb food waste. Instead of just chucking food that’s about to decay (or selling it at a discount on a digital marketplace), some countries turn to a kind of “controlled decay” through fermentation. This isn’t new. The idea of preservation through decay has been around for thousands of years. And around the world, it’s still a food preservation practice.
This post gives a pretty good rundown of some of the delicacies you can find in Vietnam that exist due to preserving food through fermentation, including rượu nếp, which many Vietnamese believe kills parasites. There’s also fish sauce — the kind you’ll find on restaurant menus anywhere in the world — as well as kimchi, Sauerkraut, and Filmjölk, to name a few. True fermentation connoisseurs, I dare you to try this.
Fermentation honestly seems like kind of a no-brainer in terms of a way for, say, restaurants to preserve food and reduce waste. It’s already a trend amongst foodies, which makes me wonder if, as more and more people make efforts to curb waste, fermentation has a chance to go from delicacy to staple.
Speaking of food spoilage: typically, the closer one gets to the Equator, the faster food decays. So it makes unfortunate sense that in Kenya, fruit and vegetable vendors are constantly losing money because their produce goes bad after only a couple days. The same is true for many places of similar latitude where refrigeration isn’t always readily available.
A company called FreshBox (not to be confused with hydroponic produce company FreshBox Farms) came up with a pretty simple solution: a solar-powered cooling unit — the “box” — that looks a bit like a walk-in fridge, but reportedly costs way less to operate. Each unit can hold 70 crates of produce. Vendors pay 70 Kenyan shillings ($.068) per crate per day.
Food waste is one of the main contributors to millions of people in Africa facing starvation. According to the Rockefeller Foundation, 50 percent of all produce is lost in the post-harvest stage of production. FreshBox may not be able to solve such a massive problem overnight, but it’s proof that serious problems don’t always require a high-tech answer. Sometimes a cold box powered with cheap solar energy will do.
Another pervasive problem the food industry faces is scarcity of arable land. An oft-quoted figure is that by 2050 we’ll have to feed 2 billion more people worldwide. But it’s also generally agreed on that farmers will have to produce more food on less land. Indoor farms that raise plants without soil are one solution, but there’s no proof yet that these “modern” farming systems will be enough.
And some haven’t given up on traditional agriculture land yet. Regenerative agriculture is a land-management strategy that restores soil fertility and resilience and, in the process, sequesters CO2 emissions to mitigate climate change. Like fermentation, practices in regenerative agriculture have been around almost since the dawn of agriculture itself. They include everything from crop rotation, low tillage, installing cover crops, planting borders for bee habitats, and composting, to name a few.
One especially interesting aspect of regenerative agriculture is the role livestock can play — a definite counterpoint to the idea that livestock production is only harming the planet. Some farmers have taken to a practice called “rotational grazing,” where livestock is strategically moved around to graze, so no one part of the land is entirely depleted.
Some farmers and ranchers are already exploring the possibilities of how this seemingly low-tech action could integrate with various high-tech components in order to mitigate the burden of livestock production while also helping the actual soil. And more software is becoming readily available when it comes to overall land management, so it will be interesting to see if it can work in tandem with these age-old farming methods.
A lot of these “low-tech” innovations are currently happening in the developing world, more as a necessity than for some “oh cool” factor. At the risk of over-simplifying the matter, it would be worthwhile for food companies in more developed nations to explore these practices in more detail. Would, for example, something like FreshBox be of use to those at farmer’s markets, or the fruit and vegetable vendors who set up on the streets here in NYC? Could restaurants make more use of fermentation instead of throwing out huge percentages of their inventory?
Doing so would obviously require a lot more effort than just casual interest or enthusiasm. Still, it would behoove us to step away from the burger-flipping robots for a sec and explore such possibilities.