Food and Technology

by Marisol Pierce-Quinonez

Food and technology are often considered antithetical.  Whether you’re scarfing down a locally grown arugula salad or a big beefy burger, you’re probably more likely to think of the bucolic scene from which it came than the technological advances that brought it to your plate.  When food and technology are brought together in the same thought, phrases like techno-food get used pejoratively to signify all of the modern food advances filling our plates with slightly more nutritious junkfood.  However, simultaneously and much more quietly, a modern tech movement has arisen that is building a network to make good food more accessible from the individual to the national scale.

There are currently dozens of smartphone and internet apps designed to bring good food to tech-savvy consumers. You can now type in your location, the type of food you want and immediately get both directions to the best restaurant to go and the story behind the food they’re serving.  If buying food in bulk to cook at home is more your thing, beta versions of a wholesale purchasing app is now available by invitation.  Or if you want to grow your own, there are applications to aid you in planning your garden, sites to find a yard if you don’t already have one, and mobile apps with maps to fruit-bearing trees on public property.  But the food system is more than foodies finding their next fix: the modern tech-movement goes beyond consumer-oriented apps.  Food advocates and academics are using technology to connect the dots that make up the food system and are making good food policy decisions easier.

On the local policy scale, more regions are recognizing the importance of a regionalized food system and are using technology to help them pursue this goal.  Social media platforms allow local food policy groups to set up their own sites to bring together policymakers, practitioners and eaters into an online community.  Local Food Cleveland has built a strong network of advocates around their site and acts as a hub for local food policy action.  These platforms have the ability to crowdsource food policy: good ideas are picked up by other users on the network and can start to gain political traction.   Regions can also quickly learn what else is going on in the world of food policy, as Grown in the City’s open-source interactive maps highlight a few different aspects of food policy in an easily accessible format.

New technologies are also allowing policymakers to access large amounts of interdisciplenary data at the same time, which enables them to make decisions that take the entire food system into account, rather than individual parts.  Foodshed analyses, a strategy being pioneered here at Tufts under Chris Peters, use GIS to spacially demonstrate the land requirements of the diets of metropolitan regions.  Right now the technology only exists for New York and Michigan, but this information enables policymakers to quickly understand how much and what type of food is currently being produced in their area.  This has significant ramifications for local resiliency planning and can influence recommendations for food system infrastructure.

In the past, federal policymakers kept track of their own program-specific data: how many acres of farmland they had preserved, the nutrition status of the US population, the amount of vitamin D available in a particular type of milk.  By moving everything online and opening this data up to everyone, all sorts of sophisticated policy recommendations can be made.  The USDA’s Food Environment Atlas was released last year to much fanfare for the interactive maps that could show the state of the national food system.  Much more exciting was the fact that this data was all available for download, and the site continues to act as a datahub for food policy advocates.  Advocates are now using this data to produce visualizations that help rally support as they begin to mobilize around the 2012 farm bill.

So what will this techno future mean for food policy?  Predicting future technological trends is useless – just ask the flip camera.  However, the volume of open data and technical cloud computations currently available bode well for the future of data-driven interdisciplinary food policy. Resources like Food + Tech Connect exist to build bridges between the food policy and tech-savvy worlds, but as more and more data sources become available, it might even take a new class of food policy advocates to sort through it all. Now if only we could get that internet fridge up and running.

Mari is a third year AFE/UEP student who frequently avoids her work by drawing pictures.  She also blogs about the intersection of food systems and city living at www.projectstofinish.com

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