"By 2030, projections from the National Intelligence Council suggest that a world of approximately 9 billion people will require 35 percent more water, 40 percent more energy, and 50 percent more food."
(self-initiated, timeline: after-work hours)
Fresh water represents about only 3% of the overall water on our blue planet. As our world population increases, more resources are and will be needed to feed ourselves and generations to come. This National Geographic article containing the quote above, makes it clear that while technological and scientific advancements have been made in terms of maximizing yields and productivity, the race to supply everyone with food and fresh water may become more difficult as time goes on. (above, left: (In)Finite // UNESCO by Anna Kubelík)
Droughts have already started being serious issues for many food growers around the world. Projections (animated above) constructed by the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research, predict even more serious scenarios in the decades to come. While some regions will be better documented than others, the example of illegal bore holes extracting water from underground reservoirs in Spain, shows just how desperate our world population can become. It's clear that the US will not escape the effect of climate change and more droughts to come. It is not our planet but our own selves, that will need to seek ways to continuous survival.
In addition to droughts, food deserts plague the US. While thankfully many food deserts occur in the most scarcely populated areas and are in fact in decline (above: blue areas representing food deserts are overlaid on top of density population of the US), the fact remains: in the US, about 23.5 million live in a food desert.
Considering the fact that at least 80% of fresh water consumed in the US goes directly towards agricultural activity, how can we influence the system with the goal of consuming less fresh water while ensuring access to fresh produce to more people?
In order to understand the context further and find at least one potential solution, I think it's worth looking at the different crops grown in the US, and consider their water consumption, harvest frequency and overall use. Below are a couple of the most water intensive crops:
▪ because the plant requires flooding irrigation, Alfalfa can be one of the most water consuming crops
▪ depending on practices and conditions, it can be harvested between 3 to 6 times a year
▪ it is used for grazing, hay, and silage, as well as a green manure and cover crop
▪ 449 gal. of water/lb product
▪ yearly harvests occur mid September to October
▪ most commonly consumed steamed, but also used to produce alcohol
Now let's get more specific: not every crop will have the same value on the market. Some will thus be more popular than others, as most will be driven by profits. The two most popular crops in the US happen to also be some of the most water consuming crops.
▪ 216 gal. of water/lb of product
▪ yearly harvests occur late September
▪ animal feed, soybean oil for food/fuel
▪ 127 gal. of water/lb of product
▪ yearly harvests take place around September
▪ most heavily used as animal feed and for production of ethanol
And to get even more specific, these may be some of the most popular crops in the US, but they in fact are not the most popular crops directly consumed by Americans. Both crops aliment the production of meats, processed foods or fuel, but in terms of combating food deserts where fresh produce is unavailable, these crops don't make that much of an appearance. It's worth asking then, what are some of the crops most commonly consumed fresh in the US?
above: U.S. per capita loss-adjusted vegetable availability, 2019 (USA, Economic Research Service, Loss-Adjusted Food Availability Data)
▪ 34 gal. of water/lb of product
▪ yearly harvests take place during fall/early winter
▪ most commonly consumed fresh
▪ 26 gal. of water/lb of product
▪ certain varieties and conditions can lead to more than one harvest/year
▪ consumed fresh or canned
Directly comparing the water consumption of crops previously discussed, shows just how large the differences can be. Nuts such as almonds will use the most amount of water to produce a single pound of product. Corn and Soybeans, being the most popular crops, consume a considerable amount of water and the volume in which they are grown multiplies their importance even further. However, mushrooms consume as little as 1.8 gallons of water per pound of product (white button mushrooms), making them one of the least water intensive grown products on the market. In many ways, they are the solution.
above: variety of crops and their water usage (all values are shown as gallons of water needed to produce one pound of specified product, redrawn from The green, blue and grey water footprint of crops and derived crop products study, as well as The Mushroom Sustainability Story: Water, Energy, and Climate Environmental Metrics, and this interactive tool developed by Arjen Hoekstra & Water Footprint Network)
At this point it is crucial to mention, that converting the US population to a mushroom diet is not the goal. Adding to the variety of already existing diets arguably climate conscious or healthy isn't the mission either. The intent here, is to analyze and understand a food that clearly is in fact less resource-intensive than any other crop on the market, allows for a number of harvests per month, has good nutritional value, and yet is fairly unpopular in the US. So what are some of the most widely available mushrooms in the US supermarkets, and why are they worthy of our attention? All Nutritional Target Map values below are from Nutrition Data.
▪ about a month to grow and be picked
▪ FF: 4.3
▪ ND: 4.2
▪ about 1 month to grow and be picked
▪ FF: 3.7
▪ ND: 4.2
◀ KING TRUMPET
▪ less than 1 month to grow and be picked
▪ as most mushrooms high in Vitamin D, but also B3, B2, potassium and iron
LION'S MANE ▶
▪ a few weeks to grow and be picked
▪ used in medicine for its properties, but also deliciously "seafood-like" tasting when cooked
▪ mushrooms will start to appear 6 to 12 months after inoculation
▪ FF: 3.3
▪ ND: 2.3
▪ 3 to 4 months to grow and be picked
▪ FF: 4.1
▪ ND: 3.3
▪ as little as 2 weeks to grow and be picked - the Oyster mushroom is one of the fastest growing species
▪ FF: 3.8
▪ ND: 4.1
The fact that some varieties can be harvested many times per year, are nutrient rich, and can be potentially even home grown due to the lack of resources needed, makes mushrooms seem as one of the ideal candidates to continue fighting food deserts as well as contribute to a lesser consumption of water. So why aren't Americans eating more mushrooms?
Research + Analysis
right: U.S. fresh mushroom consumption (USA, Economic Research Service Vegetables and Pulses Yearbook tables)
As a matter of fact, since the start of the 21st century, Americans have been progressively consuming a larger amount of mushrooms. However, "97% of mushrooms produced in the US fall under the genus known as Agaricus" (most commonly known as White Button mushrooms). This variety's values are shown in this graph.
Interviews + Survey
In order to understand the general sentiment and view of mushrooms in the US, I went through Quora, read articles like this one, and most importantly I interviewed, surveyed and discussed with over 30 of my peers, friends, their friends and even complete strangers (all in the US). My goal was to get an overall idea of people's familiarity with mushrooms, how often they eat them, and how open they would be to trying new foods, in order to understand what strategy may be best to persuade more people into eating mushrooms more often.
Turns out that only less than 10% of people haven't ordered a mushroom dish in the last year while eating out.
Cooking mushrooms regularly at home was fairly equally distributed across the room. When asked how many mushroom dishes each would know how to cook at home, the results were divided in approximately three groups: less than 30% didn't know any or very few recipes, 40% knew one or two, 30% knew many.
When asked to identify mushroom species, the most recognized were White Button and Portobello mushrooms, with Shiitake and Oyster mushrooms being the closest to follow. Lion's Mane and Maitake mushrooms were the least recognized, while nearly 20% didn't know any of the varieties listed. This was especially interesting due to the fact that less than 10% said they haven't ordered a dish with mushrooms in the past year.
Around 90% have never gone mushroom foraging. Nearly 10% have tried growing mushrooms in their home using a growing kit.
Overall more than 50% said they consider themselves complete novices when it comes to mushrooms, and only 3% said they consider themselves very knowledgeable. While this didn't test their actual knowledge of mushrooms, it does show that more than half of those surveyed understand the size of the mycelian world and the amount of varieties they might not know.
It was fun to see that nearly a third consider themselves as very adventurous when it comes to trying new foods, with the rest remaining slightly above the middle of the "adventurous eater" scale.
About 45% said they would be very interested in having more mushrooms in their diet. Around 30% leaned towards an increase in their consumption of mushrooms, with the rest remaining less interested.
All of this led me to eventually ask each participant: what is it that you hate or love about mushrooms?
The most vocal was the minority (less than 10%) that truly disliked mushrooms, and the most common criticisms related to their earthy flavors and their overall texture: something that those with an appreciation for them actually praised. "Love the texture, hate the price" took me by surprise as White Button mushrooms tend to go for a fairly reasonable price around the US. Although if compared to potatoes (the most popular vegetable in the US) the price difference becomes obvious.
In short, the solution is to help people get more familiar with the product, find new ways how to engage the shopper and trigger curiosity evolving into interest that ultimately triggers more mushroom sales and consumption.
With good marketing, anything that contains a healthy dose of sugar is bound to be loved by the public. But given the overall phobia of mushrooms in the US, as well as the specific texture and flavors, marketing of this sort may fall on deaf ears as it ultimately requires far too much from the consumer: upon seeing an ad, the consumer then must retain the information and while at the supermarket on their next grocery trip, must remember to buy the new ingredient. So how else can one trigger interest in a product? One of the current and most common techniques is to include the possible different uses of a product on its labeling. In short: give a quick recipe idea on the back or side of a product's packaging.
The idea here is to capture the person's attention and curiosity in the exact same place where they go get weekly groceries to minimize the consumer's effort leading to a purchase and eventual consumption. How can this be done in a way that isn't intrusive yet still noticeable, novel and attention provoking? QR codes pointing to recipes and their ingredients as well as their location to help the shoppers get all they need.
This graphic needs to be simple and to the point, inviting and non-aggressive to capture the attention of a shopper in a blink of an eye. The phrasing of the main question needs to be both opinion seeking (people love to talk about themselves) but also suggest the discovery of new information (which the mystery of the QR code facilitates). Finally personifying the ingredient is intended to create a relationship between consumer and product. If "me" was replaced by "this", the question would be too common. Personifying the mushroom creates novelty that strikes as un-ordinary which in turn generates attention.
Moreover, the mushrooms aren't just consumed at the store, the experience continues at home. The marketing and UX product thus shouldn't be limited to only the place of purchase, but rather offer a continuation of the experience in the kitchen of the consumer. Once all ingredients have been gathered for a recipe, providing the possibility to revisit the instructions, save it or send it to customers' phones, is crucial to complete the cycle.
Furthermore, when on the fly, nobody wants to be asked to download an app to access content right away. To capture the consumer's attention in the immediate moment, it's key to redirect to a website that is designed for a mobile user and requires the absolute minimal effort. The end product here isn't an app. It's a mobile-centered website accessible via QR code.
In the same spirit, creating a shopping list with the location of the items in the store will further create less work for the shopper, maximizing chances of actual purchase. Novelty can also play a role: a website isn't printed media. It can be altered, edited, made better or changed over time. Adding different or novel recipes may be another strategy how to keep consumers entertained. Below are the final screens (extended to reveal all) exemplifying such a website.
Conclusion + Lessons learned
Desalination is already and will eventually become a major source of fresh water for many. This tomato farm in Australia already makes use of the process, and plants like the one just North of San Diego demonstrates the possibilities of this technology. It would be foolish to oppose something that helps us thrive and survive. However, still being conscious of products' water consumption and attempting to find an even more sustainable solution, is I think what made this such a fulfilling project, at least for me.
It's also important to note how limited my pool of interviewees was. In order for this project to gain importance, surveying a much larger percentage of the American population, doing study groups and trying this out in stores would be key to gathering more data and results allowing for more iteration and a better product or even strategy.
Thinking about how to market, sell and increase awareness about an amazing product currently fairly disliked in the US couldn't have been more exciting. The UX design of this project almost became less important because of it. And while that portion of it is still crucial, showcasing how through research the end product doesn't need to be an overly complex app was thrilling.