TED Talks to the Windy City | Bleader

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Ben Roche and Homaro Cantu
  • Planet Green
  • Ben Roche and Homaro Cantu

The Internet is not available at the Museum of Science and Industry.

Well, OK—that's not entirely fair. There is Wi-Fi to be had . . . once you talk to three different volunteers and one of them trots off to track down someone affiliated with the largest science center in the Western Hemisphere, who can then relay the 26-digit password that the volunteer will then kindly text to your nonsmart phone.

I thought this was funny on Wednesday night, given the forward-thinking context in which I was trying to connect: the first in a series of TEDx Windy City events, a local spin-off of the high-profile TED Talks in California. TED Talks started out in 1984 as a celebration of cutting-edge thinking in technology, entertainment, and design, and now address just about anything the TED brain trust dubs an "idea worth spreading."

The theme of the evening: "The best ideas since sliced bread"—a slogan particularly appropriate to the inaugural slate of speakers: vertical farming guru Dickson Despommier, "food desert" researcher Mari Gallagher, and Moto's molecularly gastronomic chef Homaro Cantu and pastry chef Ben Roche.

While I waited for my text, I checked out a smallish expo of food- and farming-related exhibits and was happy to spy — among usual suspects like FamilyFarmed.org and Purple Asparagus—an exhibit for Industrial Harvest. I went over to say hi, and noted to Sarah Kavage, who wore a light dusting of flour, that she had the messiest display of anyone set up in the MSI's Rosenwald Court. She grinned proudly.

The whole evening was hosted by NBC 5 entertainment reporter LeeAnn Trotter, who, after some introductory remarks, confessed that she'd never heard of TEDx, or TED, until she was asked to moderate the evening's panel. That was actually fitting, because for all the flashy audio-visual whizbangery and smooth rhetorical skills on display—if you've ever watched one of the TED Talks videos you know what I mean—the three presentations (and two videos) on the program were all pitched to a pretty low point of entry. But maybe perhaps that's unavoidable when you're given a strict 18 minutes in which to make your case.

First came Columbia University emeritus professor Despommier, who also spoke last month at the Cultural Center on the benefits of urban skyscraper farming, an idea that's caught the world's fancy lately thanks largely to Despommier's work.

Mostly, though he talked about garbage. "We don't know what to do with our own waste," he said. "We are choking ourselves to death." Slides of the North Atlantic Garbage Patch flashed on the screen above him, followed by a lot of alarming statistics. Cities, in their current configuration—input-heavy and output-light—are unsustainable. To turn things around, we need to take a cue from nature.

Natural ecosystems are flexible, resilient, symbiotic, and sustainable; they repair themselves, he argued. Why, then, can't a city behave more like the natural world? Why can't a high-rise be a farm, or vice versa? Hydroponic agriculture creates no agricultural runoff, enables year-round production, prevents against crop loss from severe weather events, and is water efficient. Vertical farms create jobs, repurpose unused property, and provide fresh food to city dwellers.

Living Tower by SOA Architects
  • verticalfarm.com
  • "Living Tower" by SOA Architects

A montage of fantastical, intricate drawings and schematics for vertical farms from around the world—Doha, Beijing, Inchon, Chicago—followed: modular growing cubes, towering spires draped in green, a cardboard prototype built by a bunch of third graders.

"Let the earth repair itself," Despommier concluded. His book comes out next week.

Gallagher's probably best known for her research into—and coinage of the term—food deserts. A "food desert" is an area in which residents have little to no access to healthy, affordable food; residents of a food desert are more likely to die prematurely, develop type II diabetes, and be obese; to turn a food desert into a "food oasis" we need to figure out how to get grocers to invest in underserved areas.

But she did offer one bright note: A report just released on her website finds that in 2010 the number of Chicagoans living in so-called food deserts decreased by 58,652.

After the break the dynamic duo of Cantu and Roche, stars of Planet Green's Future Food, took the stage as more volunteers moved through the audience with armloads of white cardboard boxes packed with a pair of lemons, plastic pipettes of coffee, some papery "printed food," and edible packing peanuts (which I tried, and which were disgusting). Taped to the top of each box was a little red pill made from an African miracle berry and cornstarch.

The pair have been talking up this berry for several years now; here's a segment on it from Planet Green. It contains a glycoprotein that, when eaten, attaches itself to your taste receptors. In English: it changes the taste of food, rending acidic things sweet.

With this magic pill, Cantu and Roche plan to change the world. Among other applications, they've developed the berry tablets into into a treatment for cancer patients nauseated from chemotherapy. In 100 percent of the cases so far, patients who took the pills have regained their appetites—and gained weight. In other communities, Cantu said, the pill could do away with the need for refined sugar, leading to innumerable health benefits. And in the developing world it could turn otherwise unpalatable plant matter into something tasty—in impoverished areas, a twig could taste like dinner.

I ate the red pill, and sucked, as instructed, on my lemon wedge. It tasted, as promised, like lemonade.

These two put on the best show of the night, talking up the other innovations they've concocted in the lab: "hamburger" made from beets, corn, and barley; "tuna" sushi made from an unspecified array of vegetables; a five-course meal made entirely from foraged plants; "carbonated fruit," or grapes infused with Co2 which, Cantu claimed with a flourish, could help us "eat our way out of global warming!"

"Chefs problem solve creatively," said Roche, "and they're always interested in innovation—and in flavor. You want guys like us on your side because we like making tasty food as much as you love eating it."

"Well, I've learned a lot," said Trotter, thanking the speakers and mangling Despommier's name.

Look for two more TEDx events in 2011.

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