3 Agriculture Tech Innovations from the Mixing Bowl’s FOOD IT: Solution Harvest

We saw a device that identifies pathogens in minutes, a sensor that detects spoilage and app that tells you what your house plant needs.

avolved

Avolved is a sensor and an app that tells you what your house plant or small farming operation needs. Image credit: Facebook/Avolved

West Coast agriculture technology startups seem more expansive than their East Coast counterparts, and during a recent trip to Silicon Valley for The Mixing Bowl’s annual FOOD IT: Solution Harvest event, I saw the difference first hand.

Local agriculture is important over there, but it lacks the romanticism that we New Yorkers often relish. California farmers are not just feeding Californians, they are feeding the globe. This is not to say that East Coast farmers don’t have their place—of course they do—but the grocery stores all over the world are stocked with West Coast produce.

To boil it all the way down, farms out there are big, and they do big business. It follows that companies out west trying to use technology to change agriculture are not sexy, shiny or even that disruptive. In fact, chances are that most consumers will never even be aware of them. But what may seem like small improvements, when applied to a region that feeds the world round, can make a big difference.

The Mixing Bowl’s recent event included a pitch competition featuring two interesting solutions to challenges in the large-scale cultivation and distribution of food, as well as one that will help you with your fire escape tomatoes.  

1. SnapDNA

What is it?
SnapDNA allows farmers, distributors and retailers to test for and identify pathogens in a fraction of the time this sort of testing currently takes. This simple concept backed up by serious scientific innovation (the word semiconductor is in play) won the competition that day and it was no great surprise.

What problem does it solve?
Food recalls due to pathogens have reached almost every aisle of the grocery store. “Microbial contamination” remains the number two cause of recalled food in the United States, according to the Food and Drug Administration. In most cases, testing for things like listeria, salmonella and E. Coli (the top three microbial cause of recalls in the last ten years) can take up to four days, sometimes delaying necessary recalls and increasing the incidence of illness as a result.

Why does it matter?
SnapDNA could add speed, accuracy and agility to a fairly cumbersome process, but perhaps the most interesting aspect is the convenience and accessibility of the testing method. The device itself is handheld and more affordable than current methods. The hope is that these two points will spread this kind of testing throughout the food chain while adding multiple opportunities to catch a pathogen issue, especially at the farm before packaging.

2. FreshSurety

What is it?
FreshSurety has created a sensor that can turn freshness into an objective data point by measuring “metabolites,” or particles that are released as food spoils. According to CEO Tom Schulz, “Visual inspection [of produce] doesn’t work because produce spoils from the inside outward.” Using a sensor the size of a golfball, FreshSurety measures the level of metabolites in a pallet of fresh food. The user for this tech is the farmer or distributor—the sensor stays with the pallet—and the metabolite rating allows the grocers to see how fresh the food is when it arrives at their door. A pilot program is in process with AmazonFresh and Driscoll’s and the CEO claims that early results suggest a 20-50 percent increase in retailer profit margin due to a reduction in the amount of spoilage in the store. The company says that measuring metabolites isn’t new, but doing it cheaply and transmitting it to a digital readout is.

What problem does it solve?
There are two ways that freshness is being gauged by grocery stores right now and both are fairly unreliable. The first is using temperature records combined with time in transit and the second is simple visual inspection. This system is imprecise and contributes to food waste everyday. Adding precision to how distributors and farmers evaluate the shelf-flife of their crops could take some of the guessing out of the equation.

Why does it matter?
In case you’ve been in a hole the last few months, food waste is a problem and the public at large is starting to catch on. Putting data behind the freshness of produce in transit allows players to put the fresher product where it’s needed and put the fading product in the right hands to get used fast.

Avolved

What is it?
Avolved is a sensor and an app that tells you what your house plant or small farming operation needs.

What problem does it solve?
Window sills and fire escapes often don’t receive natural sun patterns and thus, all my plants are dead. The correct amounts of water, fertilizer and light will not simply happen through guess work, apparently.

Why does it matter?
Growing food at home can be a big money saver, and guarantees that you know your food as well as possible. The bargain basement home-grower version of this tech is about $500, so if the system is as good as it purports, and you grow organic heirloom tomatoes, you could break even in your second summer.

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Emma Cosgrove is a writer and food industry nerd living in Harlem. She is an adventurous home cook with a reductionist view of modern food. She cooks tongue more than steak, liver more than tongue. She never met a root vegetable she didn’t like.