US start-up Grove Labs wants to bring food production into urban homes. We caught up with its CEO and co-founder Gabe Blanchet at SXSW Interactive in Austin, Texas.
As more of us choose to live in cities, we become further separated from the food that sustains us. Gabe Blanchet thinks that ducking out of urban agriculture is no longer an option for earth’s rapidly growing population. To find a solution, he founded Grove Labs, an advanced domestic agriculture system. At the SXSW Interactive conference, Blanchet talked about his technology, goals, and philosophy.
smart magazine: Mr. Blanchet, what exactly does Grove Labs do?
Grove Labs: We build living ecosystems that go inside people’s homes and help them grow fresh food all year round. At Grove, we believe that everybody can grow their own food.
smart magazine: How did it all begin?
Grove Labs: Grove started when my roommate in college began growing a lot of his own food in our shared dorm room. We were harvesting fresh salad every day out of an aquaponic system – that’s when we realized: If we can grow our own food indoors all year round, then everybody else can, too. Grove is a way to combine design and technology to help everyone garden in their own home.
smart magazine: Is there a bigger message to Grove?
Grove Labs: Our goal is to reconnect people with their roots. For ten thousand years we’ve been an agriculture-based society, but in the past few hundred years we have relegated that to huge monocultural fields, often hundreds or thousands of miles away from where people live. Grove brings that back in a way that aligns with how people move back into cities. Right now, 50 percent of all people live in cities. By 2050, this number will rise to 70 percent.
smart magazine: How does the system work?
Grove Labs: We use a growing methodology called ecoponics where you cultivate an ecosystem of beneficial bacteria and microbes that help the plants to grow in a natural and organic way. Aquaponics is one version of ecoponics. In aquaponics, you actually have fish involved in that ecosystem. You take it a step further by adding fish to the microbes and plants, all living in symbiosis and feeding each other.
smart magazine: Doesn’t this take up a lot of space?
Grove Labs: It takes room to grow your own food. Some people just have a windowsill where they grow a few herbs; others maintain an ecosystem the size of a refrigerator that they can harvest pretty much every day. But if you want to grow all of your own protein, you can set up some kind of pantry – a living pantry called Grove – where you can grow 50 to 100 percent of your family’s protein.
smart magazine: Is there a scientific basis behind all of this?
Grove Labs: Right now, agriculture on this planet is unsustainable. The current generation of pesticides, especially those used on large monocraft fields, is destroying the earth. There’s a lot of nitrification of the soil. And then the soil and water run off, creating huge algal blooms in the ocean. On the other side, we are not necessarily producing the healthiest food, especially when it ends up being shipped thousands of miles from the place of production to the place of consumption.
smart magazine: It seems there are a lot of obstacles to overcome …
Grove Labs: There are a ton of different problems, but they’re all so easy to solve. The solution is multifaceted. We need people to start growing their own food. And that’s where Grove is playing a big role. But we also need urban farms, peri-urban farms, and a decentralized food system where food is grown closer to the point of consumption. The solution is not everybody growing 100 percent of their own food, and it’s not concentrating all food production in massive fields that are thousands of miles away. It is somewhere in-between.
smart magazine: So what can we expect in the future?
Grove Labs: In the longer term, I imagine that everybody will grow some of their food at home. The great thing is that people are already shifting towards this direction. The focus on sustainably grown food, healthy food, and healthy living is really intensifying in the US. So we are in line with all the trends. Grove is just one more tool that people can use to live more sustainable lives.
Watch our video “One fine day in Austin around SXSW” featuring Gabe Blanchet, Transitmix inventors Ainsley Wagoner and Tiffany Chu, and Igor Siddiqui of isssstudio.
Header image: Daniel Brückner
All the other images: Grove Labs