For most Americans, technology has cast a cold, grocery store glow on our food supply. If any of our produce has ever seen sun, it was long before we met it—and quite possibly halfway across the globe.
But tech can also bring green things indoors, undoing some of the separation it’s created between us, our food supply, and the outside world. Over the past few years we’ve seen multiple high-tech indoor garden systems—like the connected countertop microgarden SproutsIO and the fully automated, mini fridge-sized Urban Cultivator indoor garden system—attempt to reconnect Americans with what we eat.
“Welcome to the kitchen of the future,” declares the Urban Cultivator’s website in large, black font. Indeed, containing the farm-to-table experience within the walls of your kitchen seems like a logical direction for food-related tech.
But if you buy the Urban Cultivator, the kitchen of the future looks much like the kitchen of today—just with a sleek, glass-front box installed under the counter, brimming with greens. It uses the same hookups as a dishwasher, and you can tap buttons to trigger automatic functions that keep your plants fed, watered, and lit so they can thrive. The idea is that you can harvest the greens right before you eat.
According to the Urban Cultivator’s website, “Our mission is simple: we want to provide for each and every family access to healthy and organic herbs, vegetables, and microgreens, while reducing our carbon footprint.” The font is bold, declarative. “It’s a fresh new world,” it says.
That’s a beautiful sentiment, but it turns out the fresh new world charges an exorbitant admission fee. Ultimately, an automated kitchen garden system is a luxury—a $2,800 luxury, plus the added costs of water and electricity, in the case of the Urban Cultivator.
Other garden systems may have a lower upfront cost, but still tend to bump up the numbers on water and electricity bills. They’re cool and stylish, and they offer fresh, hyper-locally grown, organic produce, but for most families they’re completely out of reach.
And if these systems are only accessible to a select few, they don’t accomplish much on a larger scale. To address the overarching issues of food accessibility and produce-related environmental challenges, well, we’re going to need a bigger boat.
So am I just calling out Urban Cultivator’s mission statement? Kind of, yeah. After all, it touts a prohibitively expensive product while paying lip-service to nutrition, access, and carbon footprint. But it does raise an interesting question: Where do we start if we want to pursue the promise of urban gardening?
It's true that most of our produce is farmed with pesticides and shipped from far away, at great cost to the environment. Many of us live in cities, and many don't have access to buy fresh produce, let alone the ability to grow it themselves. Urban gardening could be a wonderful solution to these problems—if approached correctly.
If the Urban Cultivator isn’t an answer, then what is?