We all make assumptions about what we eat. We assume that our food won’t kill us because the people who grew it, trucked it in, and prepared it were careful. (I’m still alive to write this, despite some dicey take-out the other day.)
What about these larger assumptions: We assume that the mass production of food makes it cheaper and better, enabling us to feed everyone. We assume that the application of science and tech make for a more bountiful harvest of nutritious food. Do you think those assumptions are true?
Future of Food
This week, we launched this website. It is home to a podcast series and eventually will generate a book that asks these questions and provides answers. Oh, those assumptions from a few paragraphs ago? Mass producing food hasn’t enabled us to feed everyone. One in seven people in America faces hunger every year. They cope by buying inexpensive, unhealthy food and by watering down drinks.
Though tech has been our go-to solution for many problems when you apply tech to food you don’t always get the outcome you want or assume. Mass production of food — whether it is industrial farming or fishing — has depleted natural resources and resulted in plenty of unhealthy food. The practice of commodity farming — in which big farms grow one crop like corn or soybeans — has moved the place where our food is grown farther and farther away from the urban centers where most of us live. Our food travels more than a thousand miles on average to get to our plate. Only certain kinds of food can make that trip. Sometimes it is genetically engineered to be tough and last, at the cost of flavor and nutrition.
Would you rather eat a tomato that you grew yourself, or was grown locally, or would you rather have something that came from a long way away?
Future of Food aims to make that an interesting, vital question, and also to answer it.
Understanding the Food on Your Plate
What if small and local were a better way? In one of my early podcasts in the Future of Food series, I have a conversation with Krystine McInnes, who is a new kind of farmer. She is building a repeatable model for a micro-farm — a farm that can be small, local, and serve a specific community. Her vision of this includes tech. She is creating a dashboard to track pricing, reporting, customer relationships, and worker wages. Tech is not the enemy here. But Krystine is smart about holding on to the heart and soul connection to food.
In another podcast, I talk with Tinia Pina about the problem of food waste. Here’s another assumption: You might think that food waste occurs most often when you scrape the leftovers from your plate. You make breakfast for your kid like I did this morning, and he chooses not to eat much of it. You toss it, generating food waste. I make his lunch also. I cut the cubes of cheese to his precise specifications. When he chooses not to eat them they become food waste. (Unless I eat them, transforming into a superhero called Daddy Garbage Can, who may be well known to other fathers out there.) Some estimates have it that 50% of all produce is thrown away in America, about $160 billion worth annually. To get your mind around that, consider that even conservative estimates have it that the average American family throws away $40 worth of food each month. (The high estimate is close to $1000 worth of food thrown away.)
I can’t just blame my kid (or yours) for this problem.
Food waste also occurs at distribution and processing centers where “ugly” fruit and vegetables are tossed because imperfect food won’t sell in the supermarket. Supermarkets might also over-buy food, fail to sell it all, and have to throw it away. Restaurants over-order and encounter the same wasteful problem.
What brings me hope is that there are a lot of smart people working on the problems of food waste, of better using food resources, and educating kids about the value of fresh food that you can grow yourself. In the podcast series for Future of Food, I’m lining up interviews with entrepreneurs who have created indoor farms that operate year-round no matter what the weather, with activists who are using community gardens to educate children to feed and sustain themselves, and with startup founders who are successfully marketing plant-based burgers. I’ll be interviewing founders of companies who believe we will be eating crickets for protein and algae instead of kale.
As you may have figured out by now, the podcast is a way of building the book project in public. The stories of inventors, activists, and innovators will inspire me, and I hope you too, to seek better ways to eat that conserve our resources and sustain us. You can follow the journey on Instagram and on futurefood.fm.