BROOKLYN, N.Y. — Danielle Gould is excited about biodiversity because you don’t even have to care about sustainability to like it — biodiversity just tastes delicious, she said.
“What does organic taste like? What does regenerative agriculture taste like? I don’t know. But what does biodiversity taste like? It tastes like the rainbow,” said Gould, founder of Food+Tech Connect, which held a sold-out event Feb. 19 in Brooklyn, N.Y.
After networking and sampling foods, more than 150 people surged into the auditorium to hear four biodiversity-focused food company founders explain their business models, technology and supply chains.
Launched in 2010, Food+Tech Connect uses its website, newsletters and consulting services to share about top food technology, investment and innovation trends. Food+Tech Connect events gather entrepreneurs, investors, executives, designers, technologists, chefs, farmers, journalists and advocates to network, collaborate, share best practices and explore the future of the industry.
While the conversation around sustainability typically focuses on how we grow our food, it’s time to focus on what we’re growing, Gould told the crowd.
More plant species mean more crop variety, which helps keep us alive, said Mike Lee, founder of The Future Market and cofounder with Gould of Alpha Food Labs. He pointed to the lesson from the Irish Potato Famine of the 1840s, when 1 million people died, in part, because the nation depended on one species of potato for most of its nutrition, a crop plagued by late blight disease for five years, according to Encyclopedia Britannica.
Today, 12 plants and five animals make up 75% of the world’s food supply, Gould and Lee said, which is confirmed by the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization.
Biodiversity is a nice concept and all, but an audience member asked: How do you get commercial growers to plant lesser-known produce and supermarkets to buy and stock it?
“You tie it to taste, and the consumer will follow,” Lee said, adding that “it’s important to get a lot of traction up front.”
One of the evening’s featured companies was Kuli Kuli, which could be the first brand to introduce moringa to the U.S. market. Kuli Kuli CEO and founder Lisa Curtis discovered the tree leaf in 2010, when she was a Peace Corps volunteer in a village in Niger in western Africa.
She bought the leaf from a neighbor’s tree when she complained of feeling sluggish on her vegetarian diet and combined it with a popular peanut snack called kuli-kuli. Commonly called the “Miracle Tree,” moringa is more nutrient-dense than kale and can be eaten fresh, cooked or dried without losing its iron, calcium, vitamins, antioxidants and the nine essential amino acids that make it a complete protein, according to the Journal of Ecology of Food and Nutrition. The energizing effect of the leaf inspired Kurtis to create the Kuli Kuli brand to help women in West Africa — and farmworkers from beyond — use more moringa locally and earn a sustainable livelihood by selling a portion of each harvest to the U.S.
Moringa is a climate-smart tree whose leaves can be harvested every three to four months without weakening the plant, Curtis said.
“A lot of people there consider it a backyard weed, a poor person’s crop,” Curtis told the audience. “We found we had to go really deep into our supply chain and show them how to access our export market. Improving agriculture can have such an impact on people living in poverty.”
Today, Kuli Kuli is a multi-million-dollar social enterprise selling moringa products in more than 7,000 stores, including Whole Foods Market, Target Corp. and Amazon. Through Kuli Kuli’s moringa supply chain, the company has planted more than 2.5 million moringa trees, created 1,300 sustainable livelihoods and has returned more than $1.5 million to rural farmers across Haiti, Africa and South America.
Nielsen data show that moringa is “experiencing explosive growth,” with a 460% growth increase between 2014-2017.
Another of the evening’s features, Row 7 Seed Company, just reached one year in business, said chief operating officer Charlotte Douglas. Founded by Chef Dan Barber, vegetable breeder Michael Mazourek and organic seed grower Matthew Goldfarb, Row 7 works alongside chefs and plant breeders to create, trial and distribute delicious new plant varieties that make an impact in the soil and at the table.
They’ve created new crops with names such as the badger flame beet that is sweet enough to eat raw, habanada pepper, beauregarde snow pea and several squash varieties such as centercut, tetra and robin’s koginut.
“We don’t patent our seed varieties,” Douglas said. “That would mean farmers can’t save the seeds and no breeder research can be done on it.”
Row 7 partnered with fast-casual chain eatery Sweetgreen, which bought 100,000 koginut squash seeds and created the Koginut Squash Bowl on the menu, crediting Chef Barber and Row 7 in the description. Sweetgreen added excitement to the origins of its fresh produce with a billboard ad in Times Square, Douglas said.
Another speaker was Chef Erik Oberholtzer, co-founder and executive chairman of Tender Greens, a socially conscious fast-casual eatery chain with dozens of locations in California, Massachusetts and New York. Oberholtzer emphasizes supply chain integrity, culinary innovation, food justice and community cultivation at Tender Greens. He’s the founder of The Sustainable Life Project and is an advisor for The Crop Trust, Berkeley Food Institute, California Restaurant Association, Food For Ever Foundation and Farmshelf.
Oberholtzer is trying to bring vaulted, ancient seeds back to life, although not all plants grow well or taste good enough once they’re grown, so it’s a slow trial-and-error process for growers, he said.
But by using a feedback loop from seed to farmer to chef to consumer, he wants the world to rediscover old foods to increase biodiversity.
“It’s a campaign of curiosity, an invitation to go deeper into food diversity, to really explore the rainbow of the planet’s food — the pantry of the planet,” Oberholtzer said. “It all comes down to flavor, at the end of the day. It comes down to craveability.”