The Grocery Store of the Future
If scientists succeed, farm-to-table may someday mean picking your own produce at the supermarket.
Agropolis is a marvel of a grocery store. Blushing tomatoes and crunchy emerald-hued cucumbers grow hydroponically in-store, and customers simply pluck what they desire right off the plant. Crisp butter lettuces mature in aeroponic setups suspended in air, without soil, fed only by mist and fertilizer. Aquaculture tanks filled with live tilapia feed nutrients back into the system.
The only problem with this wondrous market? Agropolis doesn’t actually exist. Rather, it’s a prototype presented by a group of researchers last year at NEXT: Nordic Exceptional Trendshop, a futurist conference and exhibition in Denmark. As Rand Hindi, one of the project’s creators, explains, “Agropolis offers a unique experience where consumers can pick their own food fresh out of the growing medium. It couldn’t be any fresher.” And as anyone who has shopped at a local grocery store knows, finding excellent produce is no easy task. Even during peak summer months at first-rate supermarkets like Whole Foods, the selection is often disappointing. Why is this, and what’s to be done?
The less-than-stellar quality of produce is the result of a number of factors: adverse weather conditions during the growing season, being picked before reaching full maturity and poor storage and handling. Produce right off the farm or orchard certainly tastes better, but despite the proliferation of farmers’ markets and community-supported agriculture (CSA) programs, this is not the norm. “The direct relationship between farmer and consumer has been largely lost. Instead of being vegetable artisans, farmers have become commodity factories,” notes Jurrien Swarts, a co-owner of Vermont’s Holton Farms, which offers a different model of CSA from most, allowing shoppers to purchase as-needed instead of receiving a set amount weekly. “All the money goes into the pockets of middlemen and immensely large farms. And consumers expect rock-bottom prices,” he says. “This all combines to shift the market’s focus away from flavor and nutrition.” Cutting out the supermarket middleman almost guarantees better produce, but still, these farm-direct options are often inconvenient and impractical. Is there a supermarket solution to this supermarket problem? Could something like Agropolis be the answer?
Unfortunately, it’s unlikely. “While it might add a nice touch to the store’s image, let’s remember that farming is a very different profession than retailing,” observes Phil Lempert, a supermarket analyst. Indeed, such state-of-the-art technology remains prohibitively expensive and out of reach for even the largest supermarket chains, not to mention that many crops aren’t suited for hydroponics. Yet there are innovations in technology that are helping food taste better. Radio frequency identification (RFID) tags, for example, can track a single produce item on its journey from field to shelf. “Most produce is already rotting when it reaches the retailer. You just can’t see it. At every point in the cold chain, there’s a potential for the temperature to fluctuate,” explains Kevin Payne, whose company, Intelleflex, makes a chip that alerts suppliers when temperature thresholds are reached during the shipment process, thus helping to prevent rotting fruit from hitting shelves. “It creates accountability, so if there’s a problem, we can identify where that problem is. The benefit for the retailer is that they’ll have a better ability to determine shelf life, and then higher quality is passed along to the consumers.” However, this technology is far from being widespread. “RFID holds much promise once it is embedded in every package, but the costs are still too high for that today,” Lempert says.
In some cases, finding great produce is simply a matter of identifying a store that has excellent buyers who, in turn, have strong relationships with farms and producers. Though primarily a hub for Italian foodstuffs, New York City’s Eataly features an extraordinary produce department that carries exotic goods like finger limes and Buddha’s hands, and even employs “vegetable butchers” who instruct the consumer on the proper way to clean, trim and prepare produce. “It’s pretty unique now, but I notice a lot of people who own markets taking notes and pictures,” says Joseph Nieves, one of the store’s two vegetable butchers, predicting that Eataly’s model will become commonplace in grocery stores in major cities over the next two years. Once customers learn the proper way to handle and cook their produce, it might taste even better.