Ever wondered why a tomato in Spain is redder than a tomato grown in the Netherlands? The question seems rather silly because the answer lies in the lessons we learned in middle school science -- Spain has a warmer climate, and the crops get more hours of sunlight. It’s not only the amount of light and water that impacts the development of a crop; factors such as humidity, airflow, light spectrum, CO2 absorption, and pH of the soil are equally important. The adjustment of one growth factor can influence the shape, size, color, smell, taste, texture, and even the overall nutritional value of a crop. Chloé Rutzervald imagined a future where we could customize our own crops using these very growth factors -- an oddly simplistic replacement to the harmful processes and effects of Genetically Modified Crops.
Welcome to the Future Food Formula.
A food and concept designer, Chloé also goes by the title of ‘food futurists’ owing to her fascination for the future of food and her work in the intersection of science, technology, and design. The Future Food Formula 2.0 -- an improved version of her original project of the same name -- was an interactive installation that shed a new perspective on the method of vertical farming. Based on the idea of “growth recipes”, each crop is grown in a vertical farm in an indoor growth facility that controls environmental factors like light, temperature, moisture, and carbon dioxide among others. “The amount of these factors, these parameters are written down in a so-called ‘growth recipe.’
Each crop is grown in a vertical farm in an indoor growth facility that controls environmental factors like light, temperature, moisture, and carbon dioxide among others.
When I first read about this, I was very fascinated about this concept and I thought if you can change the appearance or the flavor or the color of a crop by simply adjusting the light or the color of light it receives -- you can basically design your own crop.” The installation was designed to bring this idea closer to consumers and to introduce them to the concept of creating their own growth recipes, in order to represent the effects in real-time. “When they put up the red light, the light intensity and the amount of water and the CO2 for example, you get a very bulky tomato. It grows very fast, and then also, if you would slice it in half, the installation tells you it's, for example, really sweet, it has a certain amount of calories and it's quite like fluffy, so it's not very dense. It directly shows the consumer what is happening. It's based on actual scientific research, but with a layer of speculation to also tell the consumer something about what might be possible in the future.”
Chloé found it rather difficult to simplify the project in its initial stages; from framing it as a genetic modification that only depended on growth factors to looking it as a breakthrough in agriculture, Chloé started her work from a mere speculative idea. “In the beginning, it was mostly speculation or more fantasy-like; wondering if we can create new kinds of crops by experimenting with these growth recipes. I formed the idea of what I wanted to do, and I thought, ‘oh, it would be cool if it’s this weird installation where you can adjust the water in real-time but, it was too complicated. Then I thought, ‘oh, I could also make it as a software or as a virtual or digital platform.’” Collaborating with a 3D modeler and software programmer from RNDR (previously known as Studio Loose), and gaining knowledge from plant physiologists, Chloé was able to turn this speculation into reality. “And then I worked towards the first prototype of the future food formula, and it was based on an eggplant which was quite difficult because eggplants don't really grow in a vertical form. So it was still quite speculative because it was very difficult for me to tell the scientists what I was looking for because they had no idea.”
In the beginning, it was mostly speculation or more fantasy-like; wondering if we can create new kinds of crops by experimenting with these growth recipes.
The difficulty to simply and comprehend the idea across all stakeholders was exactly the area that Chloé intended to target with her project. She meant for the project to form a bridge from research and development to production and consumers -- to make this technology feasible and accessible to everyone involved. On a tangent, she has also targeted the negative connotations that usually cloud the usage of modern technologies by showing the consumer the ease and benefits of using techniques such as vertical farming for instance. “There are a lot of advantages, one of them that you don't need so much an agricultural land because you can build in height. But this idea came to me when I visited Vitro Plus where there is a giant vertical farm where they grow lettuce. What he told me was that his lettuce is much crisper, and they don't use pesticides; they regrow if you just cut them from the outsides. But on the package, when he is selling his lettuce, he cannot say it was made inside a vertical farm. Of course, that was in 2016 and now things are changing, but at that time he told me people would find it scary if they knew it was not from land or from a farmer but, from a vertical farm.” Coupled with her fascination for the concept of growth recipes, tackling this taboo also became a driving force for her project. She decided to make an installation that explained the workings of vertical farming and growth recipes in order to take away the fear and replace it with inspiration that could open up the possibilities of new food technology. “For me, it is very important that you do something for a reason or that you work from your own vision or an idea to contribute something to society.”
Chloé observes that this passion for bringing change is not limited to her, but rather a trend that can be observed in designers worldwide. Moving away from aesthetics, designers are now thinking about a sustainable future where change is more easily accepted. Circling back to her own project, she is candid about her inspiration and aims for the installation. “It is not about, say, for example, food waste or hunger or obesity. It can be, but for me, this was the purpose. I can imagine many things that you can add to the story, but its core for me is very different. Often my all my projects, I really start from my own questions or fascinations or from something I really don't understand, so it's often also a personal exploration to find answers to questions. It’s also about my own fascination. I know that if you combine that with social issues, it is easier to get it into the outside world or to make it a bit bigger. And I'm not sure if that's always the right reason, but yeah, that's what often happens.”
I would really like to see it in a supermarket or in a place of education where it's not just there for exhibition, but is really next to a whole range of products created with a vertical farm.
With future food formula, Chloé envisions a future where consumers can take matters into their own hands, literally. “I would really like to see it in a supermarket or in a place of education where it's not just there for exhibition, but is really next to a whole range of products created with a vertical farm and perhaps even an option where you can make your own growth recipe and grow it on demand for yourself, so as to personalize your vegetables in a very like natural way. You can directly see what will probably happen on this installation. Just print the receipt, and open the growth recipe. I think that would be super cool.
This interview was conducted as part of the research for the Embassy of Food 2021. Curators Annelies Hermsen and Chloé Rutzerveld selected seven projects and spoke with the makers designers about technology, food waste, health, education, protein transition, non-food and packaging. Collaborating with Next Nature Network, these interviews were edited and published. The Embassy of Food is made possible in part by the DOEN Foundation, Prince Bernhard Cultuur Fonds, Albert Heijn and the Dutch Design Foundation.