Green

How tech can fix the food system

Joscelin Cooper is communications lead for Engine.

The holiday season is a time of high contrasts: we indulge in gluttony and gleeful commercialism while also upholding the values of charity, altruism, and goodwill towards all. It is as good a time as ever to take a closer look at our global food system, and the inefficiencies that result in a third of the food produced going to waste, or nearly a billion people in the world who are hungry.

Malnutrition is felt acutely at home in the United States —  beyond those that go hungry,  three billion people worldwide eat poor diets that are either nutrient-deficient, or full of processed calories that cause obesity and disease.

Both the technology sector and government are attempting to reform our broken food system. The Farm Bill, which is up for re-approval in the House, has drawn attention to the bloated subsidies that the most well-off farming enterprises receive to overproduce corn, soy, and other fillers that are ultimately converted into the unhealthiest food products.

These subsidies have been accused of architecting the modern American diet, which has led to a spike in heart-disease, Type 2 diabetes, and other food-related illnesses. Much debate is also underway about budget cuts to greatly reduce the food stamps programs — programs that keep many low-income Americans barely above the poverty line.

The technology industry can have an important impact on fixing the food system both by inventing new systems and infrastructure to reduce food waste, and ensuring that healthy, affordable food is widely available. Here are a few people and programs making a difference:

Invest in fake meat

Khosla Ventures has invested in numerous food-tech projects to create healthier foods that reduce the environmental impact of heavy meat consumption. As people in developing nations become more affluent, demand for meat products has gone up. However, the planet cannot sustain this growing market. Around 15 percent of the planet’s greenhouse gases are produced by livestock farming. Raising livestock also uses a massive amount of water, and has a detrimental (in some cases, entirely destructive) impact on ecosystems.

Investor Peter Thiel has backed Modern Meadow, a company devoted to creating tissue cultures that are biologically ‘meat’, without inflicting the damage that meat production, transportation, and slaughter wrecks upon the environment. If the idea of lab-grown meat doesn’t already warp your mind, consider that the products will essentially be produced via 3D printer.

Reduce food waste

Startup Leftover Swap allows neighbors to share their unwanted surplus food. If you have one too many portions of lasagna, or over-ordered take out, you can list your uneaten food on the app for it to be snapped up, sharing economy style. Besides helping to build community interactions, Leftover Swap also seeks to put a dent in the massive amount of food we waste every year.

Foodstar has created a technology that allows people to be alerted when produce that is near-expiration, or that doesn’t meet ‘aesthetic requirements’ is about to be pulled from shelves. Shoppers receive a notification to buy the food at a steep discount. Leftover, unpurchased food is then composted, rather than heading to a landfill.

Teach people ‘old’ technologies

An integral part of reforming our food system is revisiting our relationship with food production, and the land, weather conditions, and age-old processes that helped feed our ancestors for millennia. Mark Bittman, in a recent column, extolls the benefits of ‘peasant’ food production, in other words, the opposite of ‘Big Ag’. Small producers can produce more food per capita, without the environmental impacts, and while retaining biological diversity.

Grow Appalachia is teaching people in this poverty-endemic area how to grow their own food by supporting community and backyard gardens, and local gardening and food-production education.

Anyone who has unearthed a potato planted weeks earlier knows the transformative delight of this seemingly humble task. The Nourishmat provides a solution for enthusiastic urban dwellers who want to grow things, but lack the space. Once unfurled, the Nourishmat only requires a 4×6’ space, special ‘seed balls’, and a bit of sunlight, water, and TLC.

Besides improvements in technology and public policy, building a healthier food system requires a cultural shift that may not occur overnight. Though printing a hamburger and harkening back to ancient, local gardening traditions might not seem to have much in common, they are both important, and innovative answers to a question that every human being must consider: What will I eat today?

Joscelin Cooper is communications lead for Engine, a San Francisco-based research foundation working with startups and government to create better public policy.