Since 1974, the average number of items in a grocery store has increased from 9,000 to almost 44,000 today (1). However, 75 percent of the world’s food is currently generated from only 12 plants & 5 animal species (2). So while the product range has grown wider, the range of crops grown to produce those products has become more narrow over the last 40+ years. This is a food system dominated by monoculture.
Despite the groundswell of sustainable innovation happening in food today, much of our industry is still devoted to making more and more products from the same, small set of agricultural inputs. The majority of our industrial food system is based on monocultures that drain nutrients from the soil, require artificial fertilizers, and are more susceptible to dangers such as pests, weeds, and other disease.
The legacy model of a food megabrand depends a lot on sourcing the same food product in massive quantities, with uniform character and low price. Monocultures are perfect for meeting the needs of a large food brand, but to what end? Every time we put one of these products in our shopping carts, we tacitly reinforce a production model that denudes our soil and deepens our dependency on artificial fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides.
Does this mean that sustainable agriculture and building a large food business are mutually exclusive? This is a question that keeps me up at night.
In my food innovation lab, The Future Market, one of the many ways that we tackle questions like this is to create concept food products. Have you ever been to an auto show and seen how car manufacturers create concept cars that paint an ideal vision of the future? Our concept food products are like those concept cars, only for the food industry. The goal of building these concept products is to spur a new line of thinking as to what kinds of foods might exist if we massively rearranged today’s food system.
So can you practice sustainable agriculture and have big business at the same time? We began to answer that question with another question: What would the food industry look like without monoculture farming?
That question led us to create our latest Future Market concept product: Three Sisters, Polyculture Polenta.
Three Sisters is a brand of instant polenta with corn, beans, and squash as the main ingredients. They come in four flavors but the bulk of the product comes from those three crops which are planted together and work synergistically to support each other and the soil. It’s a food brand built on polyculture, instead of monoculture.
The Three Sisters crops have been planted by the Native Americans for over 6,500 years to sustain themselves and their soil. Growing these crops together is one of the oldest forms of polyculture, an agricultural technique where multiple crops are planted together to mimic the biodiversity found in natural ecosystems.
Here’s how the Three Sisters work together: first, corn is planted first and creates a sturdy scaffold for beans to climb up as they grow. Second, beans bring valuable nitrogen into the soil that fuels the growth of the corn and squash, the third crop. The squash foliage covers the ground, blocking out the sun which inhibits the growth of weeds, creates a living mulch to keep soil moist, while the sharp hairs on squash vines help deter pests. It’s a beautiful system that we think the majority of food products should be based on. The good news is there’s many more crop combinations aside from corn, beans, and squash, that fall under the polyculture category.
Our hope with Three Sisters is to show that a mainstream brand can flourish while also reinforcing a more sustainable way of producing food.
The future of food is food that’s good for people, planet and profit. There are many ways to accomplish that, but I believe that building food brands and business models on a foundation of polyculture, not monoculture, is the key to a better future of food.
1 The Evolution of the Supermarket Industry: From A&P to Walmart, http://bit.ly/1ZvOBoN
2 UN Food & Agricultural Organization, http://bit.ly/1qeEDMb