Indoor farming: Good for cannabis, not so good for food

Marijuana is a natural candidate for experimentation — and not just the kind that leaves New York Times columnists in hallucinatory states for eight hours. Because it’s often grown indoors, and growing it legally is just becoming legal in a few states around the country, the plant is almost begging to be messed with. And, if those experiments go well, they could affect more than just Mary-Jane.
That’s according to Fluence, a startup that builds LED-based lighting systems for legal cannabis growers and partners with researchers to study their impact. Want to know if a particular strain of marijuana grows best under one spectrum instead of another? Or how much money could be saved by switching from incandescent lighting systems to LEDs? Fluence wants to be the company to ask.
The company, which was formerly called BML Horticulture, currently has to run all these experiments from a research lab in California — and rely on data from other growers and researchers — because its home city of Austin isn’t the most pot-friendly place in the nation. (The company could relocate, but right now it’s content with keeping an eye on everything with remote monitoring systems.)
“We view this as just another plant. We’re looking at all crops that are considered high-value crops or crops that can better humanity, whether that’s lettuce, other types of leafy greens, or cannabis,” said chief executive Nick Klase. The company focuses on marijuana production because that’s where the money is, he said but it wants its research to affect other aspects of agriculture, too.
Most of its cannabis-related research is meant to figure out how to grow more crop while using less electricity than other lighting systems. A report from 2014 said that growing marijuana accounted for $6 billion of the country’s electricity cost throughout the year. Installing more efficient LED lighting systems could have a tremendous effect on the amount of energy used by these operations.
But Fluence wants to figure other things out, too. Klase told me that the company is experimenting to see if different colors of light affect plant growth, for instance, or if they promote the production of specific desirable compounds. “Our goal is to better humanity with this technology, so obviously that’s going to extend way beyond cannabis,” he said. “The nice thing is that most of the things effective on cannabis is relatable to other crops.” Sounds like a dream, right?
There’s no denying the interest in growing plants other than marijuana inside. Countless reports have talked about indoor agriculture and how it’s become more popular in the last few years. This is because it’s seen as more efficient; because people are interested in buying locally-grown produce; and because indoor farming might offer a solution to problems wrought by climate change.
It just seems to make sense, right? If tech companies make efficient LED lights, and it’s going to get harder to farm in many parts of the world, why not play god and grow something that might not otherwise succeed in a particular area? As it turns out, there are many reasons. Economics might be the most important to growers. There’s also the effect these operations could have on the environment.
Louis Demont Albright, a professor emeritus of biological and environmental engineering at Cornell University, cites both factors as the main obstacles to indoor farming. “Just in today’s economic climate, if you buy enough light to raise wheat, you spend $18 for a loaf of bread just for the electricity for the wheat,” he said. Farmers won’t be able to handle those costs without assistance.
All that light would also require growers to use electricity to power their lighting systems and the air conditioning used to prevent the whole thing from going up in flames. (That is not, as I understand it, what cannabis enthusiasts refer to as “lighting up.”) This would, according to Albright, have a worse effect on the environment than growing in greenhouses to take advantage of natural light.
“The idea that’s being proposed is a production system that increases the carbon footprint by an order of magnitude,” Albright said in an interview, “and it makes no sense to me that you would solve a problem by making it worse.” According to his research it’s actually better for the environment to bring produce in from around the world than it is to grow it locally with large-scale indoor farming.
Albright isn’t the only one who thinks that indoor agriculture might be wasteful. Some cannabis growers have even realized that growing all their crops indoors isn’t sustainable from a financial perspective. Here’s what Utah State University professor Bruce Bugbee told MIT Technology Review in the same report that covered the electricity used in the process of growing marijuana plants indoors:

Eventually, as growing marijuana becomes more accepted, some farmers may turn away from grow houses altogether. ‘I’ve visited growers in Colorado who’ve grown cannabis for 30 years and have always grown it indoors,’ Bugbee says. ‘The most progressive growers have run the numbers, and instead of warehouses they’re starting to build greenhouses.’ The plants may still be sheltered, but they’re open to view—and to the natural light of the sun.

There’s no denying the effect climate change will have — and has already had — on agriculture. And it’s the human way to think that technology can save the day. But if these professors and the many other researchers who agree with them are believed, indoor agriculture won’t be the panacea that some expect it to be. It’s more likely to be a short-term solution that will exacerbate a long-term problem.
“I think agriculture will move. Wheat may move from Kansas or wherever up into Alberta if it gets a few degrees warmer,” Albright said. “But it’s still going to be grown on the land.”

Uber teases foodies with standalone UberEats app

Uber is testing a service that will allow Toronto residents to order food from their favorite restaurants through a standalone application called UberEats.
That name might seem familiar. That’s because Uber’s been testing the service, which was previously limited to a handful of meals, inside the main Uber app. Now it’s giving users in one city a chance to determine whether or not UberEats can stand without being propped up by the popularity of Uber’s core service.
Not that the two can really be separated: Food ordered through UberEats will be delivered by Uber drivers who might be ferrying passengers at the same time. Uber’s strength lies with that network of drivers (at least until self-driving cars take to the streets) and their willingness to drive around non-humanoid objects.
UberEats is Uber’s first standalone app. Whenever the company experimented with other services in the past, whether it was delivering puppies or fiddling with a healthcare service, it did so as an addition to the Uber app people already use. Now, as the company told Wired, it wants to give UberEats room to breathe.
Toronto users can order food through UberEats between 10am and 10pm seven days a week. Right now the company is said to support the full menu of “over a hundred” restaurants in the city. The service’s Instant Delivery menu, which is available in the main Uber app, offers fewer options but much faster deliveries.
Deliveries from UberEats will be free until 2016. After that it’s not clear how much Uber intends to charge for the service, or whether it will be subject to the same “surge pricing” model that raises the cost of booking a ride with its main service when there’s inclement weather, high traffic, or, previously, emergencies.
UberEats is said to have taken three months to develop. So while the app seems like the realization of everyone’s belief that Uber will eventually move essentially anything, it’s hardly a bigger commitment than its other experiments. If you’ll pardon a food pun: Let’s not mistake an appetizer for the main course just yet.

Clear Labs uses kickstarter to fund ‘consumer reports’ for food quality

Have you ever spent a little more money on a supposed “premium” brand of hot dogs? You know, the ones that claim to be all-natural and contain 100 percent beef? The truly unnerving thing about hot dogs is you still don’t quite know if spending a few extra bucks means you’re getting something more healthy. It’s something food analysis startup Clear Labs aims to do something about, and today has launched a crowdfunding campaign to make it happen.
It’s often weird when venture-backed startups turn to crowdfunding platforms. Somehow it feels like someone double-dipping a potato chip: There’s no law against it, but it’s hard not to feel a little grossed out when you see it happen. Clear Labs, a food analytics company hoping to raise $100,000 on Kickstarter shortly after receiving $6.5 million in funding, knows this might be the case.
“As is typical for most venture-backed startups,” co-founder Mahni Ghorashi told me, “we raised just enough to hit our milestones and get the company where it needs to be for the next round of financing.” The costs of making the consumer-facing reports Clear Labs will make when the Kickstarter campaign finishes weren’t included in the financial model the company used to fundraise.
First, a little more about the reports themselves. Clear Labs was founded to analyze on a molecular level the foods people might find in grocery stores. The company is currently focused on selling its services to members of the supply chain, but it’s introducing a Clear Food division that will tell consumers about all the potentially gross things they’re picking up off the grocery store shelves.
This will be a costly endeavor. For each report Clear Labs needs to buy foods, catalog them, run it through a series of tests, then analyze the results against its own database and several public domain databases it uses to inform its findings. When all this is done the company will assign different brands a Clear Score ranging from zero to 100, which is supposed to indicate the accuracy of the brand’s labeling in terms of ingredients, nutrients, and other information.
Clear Labs estimates this will cost $10,000 per report; the campaign will fund 10 of these reports, which will be published once a month, after which the hope is they’ll be funded in other ways. (The idea is that revenues from the business-focused side of Clear Labs will be able to subsidize reports after the first 10.)
“After these first 10 reports, we kind of see consumers demanding more and more transparency in the industry and having a bigger say in what does the industry adopt,” Ghorashi said. “The cadence might slow down a bit, given that we’re not crowdfunding additional reports, but we still hope to keep the initiative going and to provide value to consumers on an ongoing basis.”
Ghorashi and his co-founder, Sasan Amini, also say the consumer-facing reports could help Clear Labs land more enterprise customers. Turning to Kickstarter is supposed to make consumers even more interested in learning more about their food; backers will be able to choose the categories examined by Clear Labs, and having a little skin in the game is a sure way to keep people’s attentions focused.
There’s also the potential gross factor associated with each category. The first report focused on hot dogs — probably the most disgusting foodstuff on Earth — and claims made by different brands. It found that many “vegetarian” dogs aren’t, that a small percentage of hot dogs contained human DNA, and that hot dogs supposedly made from something other than pork do, in fact, contain pork. (That’s the kind of shit — possibly literally, in terms of the human DNA — people like to gross each other out with on Facebook and viral email threads.)
Clear Labs will have to overcome the stigma of a fairly-well-funded startup turning to the masses for even more money. But once it does that, it’s not hard to see the company’s reports becoming popular among people curious about their food.
“We’re super excited to launch Clear Food on Kickstarter and start to measure consumer demand,” Ghorashi said, “and we believe the data we’re going to publish over the next six to 12 months will grab consumer attention, and the attention of industry as well.” That’s probably the understatement of the year.

What’s in your food? Clear Labs nabs $6.5M to help the food industry find out

While a large portion of people in the U.S. may have a fascination with the quality of food that goes into their bodies, the process for testing that food is pretty inefficient, costly, and hasn’t changed much in decades.
“Traditional food testing methods require you to know what it is you’re looking for prior to testing,” and is limited to one component per test, Clear Labs CEO Sasan Amini told me in an interview. Because of this, he said, much of the food industry only performs tests on food as a reactionary method.
That’s something his company Clear Labs aims to fix with its Clear View molecular food testing technology, which launched in beta recently. The tech can take a single sample of food and provide an analysis on all ingredients, accuracy of those ingredients, and of course the quality of the food itself. The company told me Clear View uses genomic sequencing and analysis, which is the same tech used in clinical trials to personalize cancer treatments.
While that tidbit is interesting, I don’t know how relevant it is to Clear Labs ability to make money. That didn’t stop the startup from closing a $6.5 million round of funding today, led by Khosla Ventures and Felicis Ventures. Also, the startup does have a promising business strategy, which includes focusing less on safety testing for bacteria and other harmful substances while targeting large consumer food brands and companies.
Since Clear View can give you a breakdown of everything that’s in a particular type of food, Amini said he sees a bright future getting the marketing departments to rally in support of testing a whole line of products to improve sales. One example he gave would be a well-known food brand doing analysis on all existing lines of products to find out which naturally do not contain gluten. Theoretically, this data could be used to form a whole new line of gluten-free products without spending much more than packaging design and advertising.
Additionally, Clear Labs provides its clients with access to a database of food analysis to help them make decisions about the food they produce. You won’t be able to check out individual competitors products, as all the data is anonymized and reinterpreted into useful stats by the Clear Labs team.
Amini said Clear Labs plans to launch the full version of its food analytics and database platform in the first half of 2016.

How DNA barcoding can prevent foodborne illness outbreaks

In 2012, when several hundred people fell ill in the U.S. amid a salmonella outbreak, the Food and Drug Administration was quickly able to isolate the exact strain of salmonella that had found its way into the contaminated sushi-grade tuna — and then trace it to the exact processing plant where the fish originated in India. (Not surprisingly, the FDA found 10 sanitation oversights, four of which were considered egregious.)

Then in 2014, the FDA managed to prevent a listeria outbreak from going beyond seven illnesses and one death when it traced the strain of the pathogen to soft cheeses manufactured by Ross Foods, which has since been shut down.

Both findings are thanks to DNA sequencing, which is helping not only to identify which species of animals we might be eating, but even which strains of foodborne pathogens might be present in our food.

The implications are broad. Knowing at a genetic level what we are eating isn’t just good for our health (think food allergies, high mercury levels, etc.) and for our wallets (how much are we really paying for tilapia?), but also for the animals (some of which are endangered or illegally hunted).

DNA sequencing is typically carried out in one of two ways: whole genome sequencing and partial sequencing. Both approaches are getting faster and more affordable every year, and may some day be able to be performed by regular consumers on tablets or smartphones.

When it comes to identifying one species from the next – i.e. determining if we are about to bite into beef or bush meat – we turn to DNA barcoding, first proposed back in 2003 by a Canadian researcher. By looking at a very short genetic sequence from one section of the genome, much in the way a supermarket scanner looks at the black stripes on the Universal Product Code (UPC), we can know with far greater certainty what sort of creature is before us than naked eye investigations of colors and shapes. To do this, partial sequencing is almost always sufficient.

One massive project, Barcode of Life, which was launched back in 2004, is a “DNA barcode reference library” that looks at a 648 base-pair gene region used as the standard barcode for nearly all animal groups. It’s in the mitochondrial cytochrome c oxidase 1 gene (“CO1”), and while looking at this region of the genome doesn’t work well in plants, where it evolves too slowly, it’s being used to identify 500,000 non-plant species.

But when it comes to identifying strains or subtypes of pathogens – say, of salmonella – whole genome sequencing is key. And this approach could soon be sped up by another large open-access database called Genome Trakr, which is organized by the FDA, the University of California, Davis, and Agilent Technologies with the goal of sequencing the entire genomes of 100,000 common foodborne pathogens. By distinguishing between precise strains quickly, outbreaks will ideally be cut off before spreading far and traced back to the source to prevent further contamination.

The project was launched in March of 2012, and is free for researchers and public health officials alike. And it’s continually expanding. Project director Bart Weimer, a microbiologist at UC Davis, said they’re now working on mapping 10,000 more genomes from China, with other collaborations in other countries in the works as well.

“A good library is essential,” Dr. Mark Stoeckle, a researcher at Rockefeller University who led high school students (including his own daughter) on a DNA barcoding mission in 2008 to sniff out mislabeled fish being sold in New York City (later dubbed sushigate), recently told me. “DNA sequencing is getting much cheaper, and not only cheaper but the ability to do it with a smaller machine … We’re not there yet in terms of as small as a cell phone, but one day I’m going to open the business section of the New York Times and someone will have done that.”

Such is the vision of Anthony Zografos, who founded DNATrek and has been inspired to create actual synthetic bar codes for foods. He recently told Scientific American that smartphone apps may eventually be able to tell us if the food we are about to bite into is what it says it is, or if it is contaminated.

Extracting DNA sequences from plants, DNATrek uses a colorless, odorless, tasteless material that can be mixed with, say, natural oils, and then sprayed on foods. They’re basically invisible bar codes readable by polymerase chain reaction testing. “When an outbreak occurs, polymerase chain reaction technology can read the DNA code in about 20 minutes in the laboratory, allowing immediate trace-back rather than weeks or months,” he said.

In the aftermath of sushigate, Dr. Peter Marko, a professor at Clemson University who used DNA sequencing back in 2004 to show that red snapper is often mislabeled, told the New York Times that “the technology is allowing us to ask questions that really would not have been possible in the past.”

Perhaps just as exciting is that as sophisticated as it is, the tech is now easy enough for a group of high school students to use. Pretty soon it may downsize so much in both price and equipment size that it will indeed be accessible to anyone with a smartphone.

On the way to $220M in funding, Instacart quietly changed its business model

In its early days, grocery store delivery startup Instacart made its money two ways: Through delivery fees and product markups. It charged customers more for individual groceries than their in-store price.

But in the last year, the company shifted its revenue strategy. It is allowing some grocery store partners to price their own goods on Instacart. In return, the grocers pay Instacart a fee to service their locations.  It explains why for some grocers the products cost the same on Instacart as they do in store, but for others the price is more (or, confusingly, less).

“We don’t want to be in the pricing game,” Instacart’s head of business Nilam Ganenthiran told me. “There’s exceptions, but that’s generally true. Retailers outsource their e-commerce to us for a fee.”

Although there’s variations in how each partnership is structured, Ganenthiran said the fee, charged to grocery store retailers, is now the company’s “primary model.”

Instacart never made any official announcements about its change in business strategy. I didn’t find out until questioning Ganenthiran about its profit margins. As a result, earlier this week when Instacart received its spate of news coverage over its $220 million funding and reported $2 billion valuation, some outlets misreported Instacart’s business model.

“There has been a perception of the markup model being our primary economic engine due to how we started 2.5 years ago,” Ganenthiran told me. “Our model actually has been evolving.”

Most publications didn’t realize that. The Wall Street Journal went so far as to write an additional story, separate from its funding brief, breaking down a potential Instacart profit on a typical grocery store transaction. The numbers didn’t look good, suggesting Instacart might make as low as $1.40 on an order of 15 basic items.

But since Instacart’s revenue isn’t primarily tied to product markups anymore, that may not be representative of its profit margins.

Instacart wouldn’t tell me whether its grocery store partner fee is calculated per item, per order, per customer, per month, or some other variant. It also wouldn’t disclose how much that fee is. Neither would Whole Foods when I reached out to them for comment, and Safeway didn’t respond. Without knowing what grocery stores are paying Instacart, it’s hard to deduce the company’s potential profit margins on each delivery. “There’s different strategies with different partners,” Ganenthiran explained.

In theory, it’s much smarter for Instacart to charge grocery stores a fee than for it to eke out profits on product markups. That kind of partnership makes grocery stores more amenable to improving Instacart’s efficiency (like offering the company its own personal checkout line). It also shields Instacart from the risk of variable food prices. Ganenthiran said, “Most grocers are past the tipping point where they understand consumers want this service.”