The Effects Technology and Our Perceptions Have on the Future of Food

This has been a great year for “Tech and…” events with our partners at General Assembly. We have discussed the impact of technology on transportation, urban development, healthcare, and even fashion. Our last panel of the year proved to be a grand finale, with a lively conversation about food and technology. The depth of knowledge and diversity of experience in the panel made this one of our best panels of the year.

The Tech and Food panelists

Josh Pollack, owner of Rosenberg’s Bagels is an entrepreneur and restaurateur (crushing the bagel scene here in Denver) who strives to sustainably source his food while educating his staff and the public about the true value of food. David “Moose” Mooseman, who was an NFL player and former chef, saw gaps between farmers and chefs and how they connect. He developed ToMarket  as a way to get farmers and chefs communicating directly, taking out the middlemen that increased cost and complexity. Greystone Technology, a technology services company, provides outsourced IT across many industries including the restaurant industry. Peter Melby is the co-founder of Greystone and over its 16-year history has seen rapid evolution in how technology impacts business. Megan Cornish has a masters degree in Global Security and studied the impact of food security on global security. She has worked in public policy and government to influence how we address food issues. Megan is now the VP of Government Affairs with Food Maven, a company cutting down on food waste by providing high-quality local and oversupplied food – lost food – at about half price to restaurants and institutional kitchens.

Megan kicked off our Tech and Food panel with two seemingly simple questions:

Did you eat food today?
Did you grow the food you ate?

Megan quickly drove home the point that food, while necessary for our everyday existence, is rarely a part of our consciousness.

We should think a lot more about food.

Food and food insecurity have played a role in some of humanity’s most important events. The fall of the Roman Empire. The dark ages. The genocide in Rwanda. The Arab Spring. Countless revolutions and upheavals around the world were driven by food scarcity and insecurity. And although we see constant abundance in the United States, we know that food instability creates political instability which affects our health and wellbeing. The potential for food insecurity to change history makes it one of the most pressing global concerns.

While much of the conversation focused on our food systems, insecurities, sustainability, and the technology that will help us move forward, there were two major themes that all of the panelists hit on. The first, which Megan touched on when she kicked off the event, is the expectation of abundance. In this country, we expect to have access to produce year round – no matter if it is in season, where it came from, or how it got there. When people want tomatoes, they expect to go to the store and they expect that store will have tomatoes – no matter if it is tomato season or not. Along with this expectation of abundance, there is an expectation of cost. People expect to pay very little for healthy, nutritious food. They are willing to sacrifice healthy and nutritious but not the low cost. As Josh mentioned, people don’t want to pay extra for a locally sourced, organic tomato in a salad.

The second major theme is that there needs to be more education around our food systems: where our food comes from, what it takes to get to our plate, and what it is that we are eating. Josh made a good point about the lack of education about where our food is coming from, “just because people buy their food from Whole Foods, they think they are buying sustainable foods. There is no education beyond that point.” Josh works hard in his restaurants to educate his staff so that they can, in turn, educate their customers on where that smoked fish they love so much came from and how it got to the restaurant. While technology has enabled Josh to do things like see a salmon the moment it is caught, still on the fisherman’s boat, before he purchases it, people still have to realize why it is worth paying more for than salmon.

So where does technology fit in?

Food production and distribution have been impacted by technology as much as any other industry. From applications that tell a farmer exactly how much fertilizer to use and when to use it, to applications that help farmers get the best prices for their products, access to data has made farming more productive and profitable. Tools that connect producers directly with chefs, like ToMarket and the tools Josh uses to see and purchase his salmon, create an opportunity for small operations to sell on a market that values their products. Platforms like FoodMaven ensure that food supplies are distributed to those who can use it, reducing cost and waste. Future technologies, like autonomous delivery vehicles, will have an even greater impact. The logistics of food delivery is a significant part of the cost of food, any cost reduction here will have a significant impact on the overall cost of food.

The social internet has been a blessing for small-scale, local food. It allows people to research where their food is coming from, where the farms are that have the products they want, and to have conversations about food. Social media platforms, such as Instagram, give producers the ability to show their farms and fields, to demonstrate to the public why their product is cleaner, healthier and more sustainable than corporate food production. When that chef takes a trip to the pig farm or to pick produce from the farmers market for that week’s meals, the photos they take give people a connection to the food they eat even though they do not produce or prepare it. The internet has also provided a way for people to learn how to grow their own food. Urban Farming is on the rise and gives people a chance to learn how things grow while empowering them to take more control over what they eat.

Despite the positive impacts of technology, our ability to produce healthy food sustainably is dependent upon the consumer. Alleviating food scarcity, providing access to high quality, nutritious food for everyone in an increasingly populated and urban world requires a mental shift from price to value. We must learn to understand the value of our food, our health, our planet appropriately. Huge thanks to Megan, Moose, Peter, and Josh for helping shift our minds from price to value!