Photographer: Holly Hildreth/Getty Images

Kimbal Musk and Dan Barber Clash About the Future of Food

Musk envisions an urban hydroponic future, but Barber believes in the power of soil.

Kimbal Musk, co-founder of farm-to-table restaurant group the Kitchen, board member at Chipotle, Tesla, and SpaceX, and younger brother to Elon, thinks hydroponic vertical farming—that is, soil-less, indoor, LED-lit agriculture—is the future of food.

Dan Barber, renowned chef, restaurant owner, author of bestseller The Third Plate, and crop rotation evangelist, strongly disagrees.

In August, Musk announced a new venture called Square Roots. He hopes it will get millennial city dwellers to become farmers—who grow their goods in shipping containers. In his Medium post, he described “campuses of climate-controlled, indoor, hydroponic vertical farms, right in the hearts of our big cities.”

Chef Dan Barber, Kimbal Musk and Elly Truesdell speak onstage at The Next Kale and Quinoa panel at The New York Times Food For Tomorrow Conference 2016 on Sept. 27, in Pocantico, New York.

Chef Dan Barber (left), Kimbal Musk (center), and Elly Truesdell speak onstage at The Next Kale and Quinoa panel at the New York Times Food For Tomorrow Conference 2016 on Sept. 27, in Pocantico, N.Y.

Photographer: Neilson Barnard/Getty Images for The New York Times

Musk's vision calls for containers with hydroponic vertical farming technologies, controlled temperatures, artificial lighting, and soil-less nutrition. At the New York Times Food Conference on Tuesday at Barber’s Blue Hill at Stone Barns in Pocantico, N.Y., Musk explained how lights inside the containers can be dialed to yield particular flavors and, most of all, how it can bring young people into farming industry. The influx of young blood is badly needed. The average age of farmers climbed from 50.5 years old in 1982 to 58.3 years old in 2012.

Musk is hardly the first to champion vertical farming. Frequent travelers may have noticed the aeroponic model at Chicago’s O’Hare airport, where such herbs as purple basil and chives grow alongside vegetables, including green beans, Swiss chard, and Bibb lettuce, year-round. Companies like Vertical Harvest in Jackson Hole, Wyo., FarmedHere in Bedford Park, Ill., and Alegria Fresh in Irvine, Calif., are also betting on versions of the new technology. A 2015 report by New Bean Capital, Local Roots, and Proteus Environmental Technologies hailed indoor agriculture as "the next major enhancement to the American food supply chain."

Proponents boast about the water saved, the pesticides avoided, and the faster growing times in an environment in which seasons don’t matter.

Not everyone, though, is on board with dirt-less farming.

“It’s not making me hungry,” Chef Dan Barber told the audience at a panel on new food trends. Barber is a preacher of the power of soil. He often explains how crop rotations—growing not just wheat, but also legumes, rye, and lesser known plants—not only provide tables with more diverse foods but improve the flavor of the primary crops, such as the wheat itself.

“I’d rather invest intellectual capital into the soil that exists outside,” said Barber, though he added that he doesn't know much about vertical farming. Still, he wants to see more excitement about what goes on underground, instead of growing food above it. “When Kimbal says you can dial in the flavor and colors you want, I don’t know that I want that kind of power,” Barber said. “I’d rather have a region or environment express color and flavor.”

Elly Truesdell, the Northeast regional forager—a fancy term for buyer—for Whole Foods Market, agreed with him. “I’ve never had a piece of produce from a hydroponic grower that tastes as delicious to me [as the soil grown version],” she said on the panel.

Both Musk and Barber agree that the current corn- and soy-centric agricultural system that grows more feed for animals than food for humans is broken; they just see vastly different solutions to the problem.

Even Musk isn’t pretending that shipping containers are already producing the big league results he's promising. “We buy 99.99 percent of our products from soil-grown foods,” he admitted of his restaurants.

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.
    LEARN MORE