Forward-thinking foodies are coming together more and more to try to solve the problem of our unsustainable food system. The team behind cultured beef is a great example of this. Another is Hack//Meat – a Silicon Valley event that saw some of America’s brightest minds "reimagine the future of meat". We investigate.
This summer in California, a group of "steakholders" came together at Stanford’s Institute of Design for an intensive two-day brainstorm on the future of meat production – specifically, how technology might be used to make our food system more sustainable.
In total, 300 people attended from a great variety of backgrounds. There were coders, designers, students, farmers and restaurateurs, all of whom had one thing in common – a thirst for some seriously entrepreneurial problem-solving.
Hack//Meat was organised by trailblazing New York-based company Food + Tech Connect, which seeks, as its name suggests, to use technology to improve the food we eat and the systems that produce it – for the benefit of the environment, the economy and human health. The event was a foodie take on the traditional technology "hackathon" – a highly creative, productive gathering of top tech talent working together to develop state-of-the-art software.
Danielle Gould, CEO and founder of Food + Tech Connect, said she chose meat as the focus for the event because "it's at the centre of the plate. And it's controversial and polarising". Gould believes that technology is our best hope of breaking down the sustainable/industrial agricultural divide, because it has the potential to create better opportunities for small-scale enterprises in a world where large corporations dominate. "Technology can help bridge the gap between pasture and plate", she believes.
The attendees divided themselves into small teams to devise enterprising solutions to real-world food-and-farming challenges, with input from mentors in the field. A panel of judges selected the winning ideas.
And they were certainly imaginative. The cream of the crop included a TV series about grass-fed meat, a mapping resource pinpointing the planet’s uncultivated, fertile land and "Beefopedia" – an online portal allowing chefs and other connoisseurs of meat to create and consume detailed accounts of grass-fed beef cuts, lending this kind of high-quality produce a similar cache as, say, a fine wine.
But the grand prize was awarded to the team who came up with FarmStacker – a website designed to help connect aspiring young farmers in need of land with landowners who would like their land to be used. It’s a neat idea that captures the importance of small-scale farming models, as well as the need for a new generation of progressive farmers in the drive to make better meat commonplace. This team has had the green light to evolve the project even further.
Hack//Meat was in many ways a landmark event in the history of farming. It showed that there really is a place for the ever-expanding, ever-ambitious tech industry in the world of agricultural innovation. For one, its potential to create highly effective networks to benefit small-scale producers, who form the backbone of our sustainable-farming future, is incredibly powerful.
As Amol Deshpande, venture capitalist and judge at the Silicon Valley event, said: "The brain power, risk-taking and entrepreneurial mentality in this region can help solve a lot of the problems in agriculture."
It looks like he might be right. Watch this space.