It’s Time For Tech To Help Us Understand What’s In The Food We Eat
It’s never been easier to find information. Technological advancements have allowed us to quickly dig deep into just about everything we’re interested in, and advances in artificial intelligence and machine language have made information even faster. Yet with all this information available to us, we still can’t answer the most fundamental question of what is actually inside of the food we eat.
Data is available for virtually anything we tune our senses to. Apps tell us the names of the songs we can’t get out of our heads, show us the names of the constellations overhead and recognize millions of products just by barcode. Consumers have multitudes of information to help them make the best, most personal choice.
The supply chain has also become smarter with informational tools. Projects like the Organic Cotton Traceability Pilot show the path cotton takes from farm to consumer (in the form of a T-shirt, for example), and startups such as Dust Identity have created authentication technology that uses diamond dust to link physical items with their digital history. Both technologies aim to guarantee transparency throughout the supply chains.
In many parts of our lives, consumers and companies already have more data — and, therefore, decision-making power — than ever before. However, our understanding of food, and thus the choices food retailers and consumers make about food, is incomplete.
Interrogate Your Food
Currently, there’s no easy way to measure and understand the nutrient values of our fresh foods. The only way to accurately measure nutrient density is to send a sample to a laboratory. This is prohibitively expensive and time-consuming, it destroys the food, and the results are rarely aggregated. Government nutritional databases such as the USDA or the U.K.’s NHS have set national guidelines for the nutrition labels, but the systems of measurements are not universal and remain disconnected from one another. As our food distribution systems often span continents and oceans, that’s no longer practical.
For these big government agencies, it’s not feasible to regularly update the data even though some of the information might be out of date by 20 or more years. The data is not informed by changes in packaging or shifts in shipping times and shelf life — all things that are relatively subjective from an orchard through the supply chain to a sales outlet. Soil quality, irrigation regime, crop load and pest control are examples of additional factors that can affect the nutritional value and flavor of produce. The data is intended to provide a broad stroke of information across a category, not the precise nutrition level of, say, a Honeycrisp apple. Point is, the data supermarkets use to stock produce and price food have little or no correlation to the actual nutrition you are eating.
Food Tech Innovations
Overall, there’s no lack of innovation in the food sector. In fact, technology is an essential tool in global food security. FoodTech is one of the fastest-growing segments in venture capital. AgTech is helping farmers find new ways to use their lands, be smarter about water and irrigation and more. Drones fly over our crops, collecting aerial data to determine factors as diverse as crop damage and stand counts. CRISPR gene-editing technology is used to increase crop yields in tomatoes and other plants, and in cities like Detroit, hydroponic vertical farms operate out of massive former warehouse spaces. The list goes on, and the sector is rife with innovation that has answered long-standing questions and has a positive impact on our food systems.
We Can’t Fix What We Can’t Measure
Yet despite the prevalence of food in our lives and the many technological advances that exist, knowing what’s inside the food we grow, sell and eat remains a mystery to us all. We need a standard way to measure nutrition so that growers, retailers and consumers have a common awareness of food. Imagine if our real-time knowledge of food was on par with other informational apps — that we had as much knowledge about the nutrient value of a box of strawberries as we do about that song on the radio. If information is power, and it’s my experience that it is, consumers would know whether $7 for a box of blueberries is justified. Food buyers could stock better food and price it more accurately, assured that the quality of food on shelves matches what is in advertisements.
The result is greater supply chain transparency, providing social as well as economic benefits. Consumers and governments have been demanding more visibility into supply chains, and doing so can help companies build trust with consumers. Supply chain transparency can also enhance an operation’s ability to react faster when problems arise, such as shipping disruptions or commodity price fluctuations. It’s an increasing priority for many enterprises, as many consumers and governments now either demand or expect to know where food comes from.
Future Of Food
As a longtime food entrepreneur and student of how the global food system operates, I’ve been driven by the desire to understand food. Right now, a piece of the puzzle is missing—standardized, dynamic information about the nutritional density of foods moving through the supply chain today, not 20 years ago. Given the speed of technological advancement and growth of investment in FoodTech and AgTech, I’m excited to see the latest thinking on transparency and progress on a number of fronts.
In future articles, I’ll expand on these ideas to explain how growers, retailers and consumers are beginning to use more accurate information in their decision-making processes and also delve into how measuring nutrition might soon become mainstream. I expect it’s only a matter of time until we can all make better, less-fragmented decisions about the food we grow, sell and, ultimately, eat.
By, Greg Shewmaker, Forbes Councils Member – Just trying to understand food and our food system. Co-Founder of TeakOrigin
Forbes Technology Council