Future Food: We’ll Know The Full Supply Chain

Recently, I started watching Portlandia (a funny show you should catch – on Netflix), a satirical sketch comedy show which sends up over-the-top idealism, organicness, and tree-hugging rampant in places like Portland (although San Francisco is not without its share of the same – maybe that why I find the show so funny – I’ve been in places in the city just like the “Women and Women First” bookstore they lampoon in the first episode. Do they really have a professional Hide-And-Seek league up there?

But I digress. In the first episode, a couple in a restaurant is attempting to order a meal. They ask about the chicken. Now, in a typical restaurant, people might ask, “How’s the chicken?” or “Do you recommend the chicken?” or “Is the chicken popular?” whereas in Portland, they ask about how the chicken was raised, what it was fed, how many acres did it live on, and even though the server provides a full resume of the life of Colin the Chicken it’s still not enough information for the couple, so they decide to drive down to the farm (which is, of course, local) about 30 miles away just so that they can be 100% sure that the chicken was raised properly.

Of course, it’s a joke, but it got me thinking: in the world of big data and the internet of things, is there any reason why we can’t track the full supply chain of everything from origin to table? Imagine what that could do to track down the source of tainted food scandals?

I was on a hike with a friend of mine, and we were talking health, as we invariably do during our hikes, and he mentioned at one point that his body was starting to do some strange things. For example, he ate a handful of peanuts one day, weighed himself the next day, and gained 8 pounds! While I’m sure the peanuts didn’t fully contribute to the 8-pound gain, they may have a bit. So he said that he fed the nuts to his chickens. So I responded, “But didn’t you then eat the eggs of those chickens?” That gave him pause for thought.

Today’s reality is that we have very little insight into where our food comes from and how it was created. And in many cases, we don’t care. However, as the current boomer generation and following generations age, there is more demand for organic foods, free-range eggs and chickens, and grass-fed beef. This leads to the question: what’s next? Will we, like the couple in Portland, demand to know everything about all the food which is being brought to the table? Why not?

Think about it: all of the elements of the chicken salad which you are planning to enjoy at lunch will be documented and stored in the cloud at the fullest extension of big data and the internet of things. For example, not only will you be able to review where and how the chicken was raised, you would be able to drill back to the farm which grew the nuts it ate, the dairy which made the sheep’s milk it drank, and the farm where the soy it ate was grown. You can go even further back and determine the source of the water used at the farms and what the sheep ate. If not already trackable today, all of these will be trackable in the near future.

Consider the connections we can make once we wire this into our fitness tracking. We may realize that eating chicken raised on hazelnuts as part of their diet cause us 20% more weight gain than those without. We will be able to fine-tune our food choices and finally have the choice to only eat what supports our health goals and stop eating those that don’t.

Even further along, farms, as they are today, will cease to exist. There is simply too much drag and cost introduced into the process when food needs to be shipped too far. I foresee a growth industry in mini-farms and urban farming. Some of this is happening today, where we see some high-rise condo buildings with rooftop farms.

But if you ask me, this vision doesn’t go far enough. We should be able to see floors of both outdoor and indoor farming, possibly vertical, ideally providing enough food (at least vegetarian) for all the building occupants. I also see a huge untapped business model in providing these kinds of urban farms to individuals – using the latest in indoor farming tools and technologies to create personal farms, allowing people to grow enough food to sustain themselves a short walk, a bike ride, or an elevator ride away.