On a crowded, climate-changing planet, food is a very hot issue. Our supermarket shelves are groaning with choices from all over the world, irrespective of seasons and almost irrespective of distance. Local Malang apples, often more expensive, compete with mountains of Ambrosia, Granny Smith and Gala varieties from the US and New Zealand.


The Technology of Food

Such choices can often mean undesirable consequences. Piles of unbought food are thrown in supermarket trash bins on a daily basis, while at the same time the UN warns that almost 800 million people in the world – that’s one in every nine of us – lack sufficient food.

Big-business high-tech supply systems can and do grind out the freshness of food. Did you know supermarket apples can stay edible up to 11 months, thanks to special treatments that arrest ripening while in transit? By the time you eat ‘an apple a day’ for your health, the natural goodness and flavour of the fruit may be in question.

It’s a wonder why we cannot solve these imbalances. Thankfully, there are clever minds at work to develop new growing methods and more efficient sources of quality food. Farmers in Europe use digital real time monitoring to track the health, wellbeing and productivity of farm animals raised for dairy and meat. Precision agriculture or satellite farming uses GPS and camera drones for growth measurement, weed mapping and weather damage assessments. Sensors collect temperature and moisture data, nitrogen and phosphate levels.

Beneath special LED computer monitored lights, the people at Green Sense Farms harvest twice a week, spend no money on pesticide and enjoy a 365-day annual growing season – whatever the weather brings. That’s because Green Sense and others like them are operating hydroponic indoor vertical farms, where they grow delicious fresh produce such as micro greens. The plants are fed nutrient-rich water in a controlled environment and need no soil.

Green Sense happens to be located 40 miles from Chicago, but the technology behind vertical farms is easily adaptable in or even under city centres.

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Local Highland Vegetables

The ‘Growing Underground’ company farm, for example, uses two former air raid shelters, 120 feet below London’s streets. Every day they produce 2,000 packs at 30 grams each of fresh pea shoots, rocket lettuce, pink stem radishes, garlic chives, fennel and coriander, among other herbs.

There’s no doubt that technology has an important role in our daily lives and has to do with growing, processing, delivering, buying and cooking.

Closer to home, the fresh produce of PT Cibadak Agri under the ‘Highland’ brand is the result of careful investment in production technology that ensures consistency in fertigation (combined irrigation and fertilizer systems), cleaning, sorting and packing – which the company believes differentiates its products and making them of the highest quality.

Fans of berries will know the local brand ‘All Seasons’. Their farm in Puncak has modern, hi-tech greenhouses covering seven hectares, containing over 80,000 mother plants, 200,000 seedlings and more than one million fruit-bearing plants. The plants are grown using computer-controlled climate and irrigation systems with rainwater reservoirs sufficient for the entire year, even in the dry season.

‘Javara’ Indigenous Indonesia works with 50,000 farmers to provide better technology, equipment and knowledge, such as dehydrators to help dry spices for the perfect texture, colour and aroma, whatever the season or weather condition. Javara also provides farmers with solar panels to ensure reliable energy supply for their dehydration and humidifying equipment in remote island locations where access to sustained, affordable electricity is limited.

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Electric Daisy edible flower grown hydroponically in Arumdalu Lab (BSD)

By and large, technology is helping us procure and prepare our food in ways many of us might have never imagined. Even smartphone apps these days are competing to make life easier in the household kitchen. The Hiku mobile app scans barcodes and recognizes your voice, in order to sort out shopping lists and simplify online orders. There are also phone apps that allow you to remotely control oven temperatures, and for perfect results, can count not just the weight, but also the amount of calories in every ingredient.

As intriguing as these ideas may be – we might be guilty of ignoring the troubling facts: imbalances in global food supply, the inequity that is hunger and the unsustainability of global supermarket supply chains.

What if there was one answer for all of this? Well, that might just be in the making.

Known as the ‘Open Agriculture’ initiative at MIT in the USA, it is a vast digital database that profiles every aspect of plants as well as their performance. It uses aeroponics to supply each plant with the right mix of water, air and minerals. The results are astonishing – plants growing four or five times faster than what is possible in outdoor, conventional soil beds. By using data to ensure an exact recreation of the original growing conditions, farmers can grow plants anywhere. Think of how much one can save on transport and storage costs!

Lots of time and money will be needed to spread such clever ideas. In the meantime, there are great examples of making more of what nature has given us.

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The Arumdalu Lab is an excellent local example of some amazing herbs and vegetables as well as farmed freshwater fish – all in the heart of Bumi Serpong Damai in Tangerang, Banten. Arumdalu’s responsible owners are using hydroponics and traditional techniques to create a wealth of nutritious organic foods, and their research is used to sustain the Arumdalu Eco Luxury Resort in Belitung.

It’s a reminder that each of us can actually contribute to nurturing our natural resource base using ‘technology’ that has been around since mankind stopped hunting and started farming. Now that’s food for thought!

Petty Elliott

Petty Elliott

Petty Pandean Elliott’s fascination for food and cookery goes back over 13 years when she began holding modern Indonesian cooking classes for her friends in the UK. Petty participated in the BBC Masterchef competition in 2001. In Jakarta, she has been an active food writer for the past 10 years and thus far has published 2 cookery books. She regularly collaborates with leading hotels and restaurants to promote modern Indonesian food paired with wine and local cooking ingredients.