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2. Food Routes

Published onApr 16, 2020
2. Food Routes
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A group of friends in Austin recently gathered around the dining table to share a meal. As consummate meat eaters, these Texans don’t mess around when it comes to their BBQ. But this time, they confronted a “clean” burger, one made out of plants, not a Texas Angus. Stubborn by nature, but somewhat curious, they took their first bites. After a pause, they eventually agreed: “Not bad . . . pretty good . . . I could eat this if I had to.”

Engineers in a California lab who made that burger possible had performed a miracle. Called Impossible Foods, the company managed to make a burger in a lab without even a wink in the direction of a cow. Are we now watching as the makeup of the food on our plate becomes unrecognizable? Just because it fits between two hamburger buns, is it meat? And is that white liquid you poured over your cereal milk, or something else? And if so, what happens to all those Texas Angus? And how will these new foods impact the broader food supply chain? If we all drink milk made from almonds, how will we reconcile the dairy substitute’s dependence upon water in California, where water is a scarce commodity? In spite of our desire for simple, clean ingredients, are we really leaning toward greater complexity?

It’s Personal

The connection between what we eat and where it comes from has become a global obsession. It’s either Michael Pollan or Dan Barber or the too-affable server in a local restaurant that tells us where our food comes from these days. It’s not as if we never wanted to know before—we did. We just weren’t interested in every morally and ethically laden detail about our food’s routes from its roots to our dining rooms.

Why this obsession, and what does this story have to do with where our food system is going next? Mostly, the motive behind this prevalent curiosity is about trust, one of our four ingredients mentioned in chapter 1. Our earliest ancestors raised, grew, harvested, and prepared their food themselves, so there was never a question as to where it came from or how it was prepared. But the moment we invited others to process, pack, and store our food, we lost track of what happens between farms and our plates. Mostly, we lost trust in the system as the invisibles crept between the farmer and us. We imagined the worst, and in some cases the worst was happening: animals were abused, crops were sprayed with toxic chemicals, and somehow our food became less nutritious and flavorful. Now we want to gain back the trust for those who make our food. After all, food is personal. In some cases, intimate. At its most extreme, knowing more about our food can be a matter of life and death.

Our Complicated Relationship with Our Plates

This is where the optimizers collide with the murky and intangible aspects of our food system. Our food evokes emotional responses tied to our own origins. While the previous chapter explained how optimization of the food supply chain is rooted in quantifiable, measurable goals, this chapter will add to the irrational side of the global food supply chain. Yes, there are still a lot of optimized and measurable aspects to our food production system, but the system is highly influenced by some of our feelings about people and places. That’s what makes food logistics so complicated. And as University of Texas at Austin psychologist Dr. Art Markman points out, we humans really shy away from understanding complex systems.

This collision between optimization and the more social and cultural meanings of food means that humans won’t leave our food supply chain quietly. They may not entirely give up their participation in the making and distributing of our food, in spite of all the rational, quantifiable, optimal reasons for leaving the system to the machines that will eventually know more than we do. Leaving the field for computers isn’t a slam dunk. Or is it? What makes the engineering of our food supply chain so problematic? Ask Natalia.

In 2013, I visited a piroshky shop in Moscow and met the owner, Natalia. She was as excited about her new shop as any entrepreneur and took me on a tour of her bakery, which was located in an abandoned aircraft factory. She spent her childhood cooking pastries with her grandmother and eventually became an engineer, working on space acoustics equipment transmitters. Natalia remembers the smell of sweet, baked pastries in the mornings as the piroshkies emerged from a long night in the oven.

After four years of building her business, she now manages a team who begins their ritual baking process during the early morning hours and supplies most of the businesses in the surrounding areas. As she shared one of her fresh piroshkies with me over a cup of steaming, fragrant tea, she described how she felt about her business. To Natalia, the piroshky business evoked a sense of belonging to a larger community. It also provided her the means to share her love of childhood piroshkies. All of these associations were baked into her pies.

Just as Natalia was developing a plan to launch her business in the United States, trade sanctions between the West and Russia closed down any aspirations for an expansion outside of Russia. Russia became the target of trade sanctions as a result of its actions in the Ukraine. Some of Moscow’s restaurants could no longer get European cheeses, among other items. And Natalia wouldn’t be able to seek out the European butter that made her piroshkies so light and flakey.

Playing on a surge of nationalism, President Vladimir Putin made a campaign out of Russia becoming independent of outside food, including European butter. Russians began sporting T-shirts emblazoned with “Eat Russian!” Food sourcing can become part of a political campaign and be a powerful symbol of national and ethnic identity. There is nothing rational per se about buying Russian butter and cheese for her piroshkies, but Natalia is Russian after all, and supporting the growth of a Russian butter and cheese maker would bring together several emotional connections among food, identity, politics, and local pride. One Russian cheese maker has named one of his cows “Sanctions” in honor of the boost those restrictions gave his business.1

The emotional connection we have with our food, whether bound by politics or national and ethnic identity, is common and evident in the Texan obsession with BBQ, the Japanese with sushi, the Australian with Vegemite, and the British with fish and chips. You can find enthusiasts who will go to the ends of the earth to evangelize their beloved food. Our identity, not to mention our survival, is connected to our food, as evidenced by those Texans who long for Longhorns. This makes optimization unreasonably complicated, because it means we have a built-in conflict between how we want our food system to function and how we allow it to function in order to balance this tension between optimal sourcing (what’s rational, measurable, and cost effective) and irrational sourcing (what’s convenient, popular, or expedient).

Food in Its Place

Geography, the environment, politics, economics, and technology influenced who grew our food and where they grew it. As soon as urban landscapes began to industrialize and people began to leave farms for jobs in cities during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, urban reformers began to think about the connection between food, cities, and geography. Urban reformers in Europe and the United States observed the shifts in urban landscapes and sought a redesign of the placement of food relative to cities. We’ve been curious about where and how our food is produced for a long time.

We used to live close to our food because most of us lived on the farms where it was produced. Eventually, we moved into cities for jobs and became accustomed to public markets and backyard gardens. Some of us kept our own pigs and chickens for a while as we brought our rural habits with us. But eventually, we began to rethink the connection between food and cities.

This movement of food from rural landscapes into urban landscapes, back out to rural landscapes, and now back to urban landscapes reflects our changing notions about who should produce our food and how. We send food out of cities when we want public sanitation and a removal of blood and animals from our modern life. We remove food production when land in our cities becomes too expensive for farming and requires too much space to feed everyone in the city. We bring it back into the city when land values can support the economies of scale and the revenues generated and costs saved by having food produced close to consumers. We have been a capricious world, pulling up our roots and moving food away and closer, depending upon economics, politics, and geography.

One of the first cities to feel this tension over where food should live was London. During the nineteenth century, London was gathering in rural populations as the Industrial Revolution was transforming labor from handwork to machine work, and Londoners watched with both horror and fascination. The fascinated filled books and journals with observations and statistics that depicted a modern London with all its improvements. But as London led the industrialization and modern urbanization of cities, it also represented a rethinking of the relative locations of food and cities that transformed urban landscapes around the world.

The key issues in the battle to remove the world’s largest live cattle market, Smithfield Market, from the middle of London to the suburb of Islington were traffic congestion, public health, land values, and the arrival of new technology. Pressure from these modern developments pushed food outside the city where the environment was more salubrious, land values were lower, and traffic congestion didn’t impede food or people from reaching their destinations. By the mid-nineteenth century, urban landscapes everywhere were beginning to change, and urban reformers had begun to leave their marks in the form of modern ideas about how to mitigate the detritus left behind by the Industrial Revolution. Not everyone got a factory job, and the numbers of urban poor that suffered from malnutrition or died from cholera increased throughout the nineteenth century. Doctors hadn’t yet made the scientific connection between urban sanitation and public health, and so food markets and butchers were blamed for the rise in urban deaths. Removing those activities that filled the rivers and streets with food detritus seemed a good move in order to improve public health. And making land occupied by food markets and food production available to developers was a way to increase rents and tax revenues. These pressures on urban landscapes continue today, but economics and consumers are shifting priorities, and some of the costs and benefits are following. Bringing food production and processing closer to consumers is a way to increase trust, and we may be willing to accept higher food costs as a tradeoff.

Beginning with the earliest battles over our food’s roots, trust between consumers and producers of food was just one of the issues caught in the debate about where we live and where our food comes from. Technology is another force that reoriented food production and its relationship to cities. London’s transport revolution brought railways into the urban landscape above and below ground and began to connect the countryside with the urban spaces. Railways increased land values in London and bridged greater distances along the food supply chain to hungry urban dwellers. Cattle markets moved to the suburbs by the late nineteenth century, and railroads brought the meat from countryside slaughterhouses into the urban public markets.

Before transport technologies improved the movement of people and their food, rural sellers and shopkeepers who remained in small towns survived with fewer products and higher prices. The arrival of transport technologies that connected farms to cities during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was preceded by other technological advancements in agriculture that were the results of discoveries made during the Scientific Revolution of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. A gradual increase in food productivity followed and continues until the present day. Food became a commodity and joined coal and other high-volume products that enjoyed economies of scale. Sellers of food commodities had control of the market since consumers had no other options. The small-town shopkeeper lost his competitive advantage and eventually disappeared. With the increases in food production, there were good reasons for production to stay outside of cities where land costs were high and concerns about urban sanitation and public health remained. We see this cycle today, moving food and its related supply chain back and forth, toward urban centers and away from them.

Our industrialized food production system, based upon scale and automation until now, has also caused dislocations of both supply and demand. Making more food, and thus lowering the price and increasing its availability, has been good for society, but we’ve lost trust and transparency in the process. By the turn of the twentieth century, progressive thinkers everywhere began to challenge the rippling effects of industrialization and factories. Sinclair Lewis was outraged at the meatpacking industry in his book The Jungle (1909), published a few years after Rudyard Kipling provided a vivid description of Chicago slaughterhouses. In England, in an effort to reintroduce humans to their rural landscapes, the urban reformer Ebenezer Howard began designing cities that incorporated farms and launched the garden city movement in urban design.

Science and Technology: Friend or Foe?

Concern over unseen and unsavory food production practices continued to grow, and a new pushback emerged during the late 1950s that was a harbinger of the environmental movement of the 1970s. With the increased yields of agriculture had come concern about the impact of chemicals and intensive farming practices on the environment. Self-identified hippies and “back-to-the-landers” promoted organic farming, “health” food, and a return to grassroots agriculture as a solution. Still, however, during the 1950s and 1960s, scientists and agronomists like Norman Borlaug used technology such as hybridization to continue on the path toward increased yields, especially with wheat in developing countries. Art and science, the human and mechanical, were engaged in a contest for control of our food system.

The idea of genetically modifying food for nutritional and productivity purposes was central to these scientists’ research. The Green Revolution, as Borlaug’s work came to be identified with, introduced synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and crop hybridization as tools of the new cultivators. An illustration of how words evolve to have entirely different meanings, “green” in today’s culture excludes many of the practices introduced during the Green Revolution. What will “green” mean in a digital food system?

By the time World War II rolled around, cities were aware of the relationship between military conflicts and food security. Cities began developing plans for securing food supply chains in case they were cut off from food supplies. Their concerns continue today as cities develop food policies, promote green landscapes, and encourage local food production. We’re once again rethinking the relationship of food and our cities, and this time we’re thinking digital. Gradually, we’re bringing food back into cities bit by bit, bite by byte, and, eventually, nibble by nibble.

So what changed that allowed the return of food markets and production back into the heart of our cities? Are there new developments that offset land values, public health issues, and the high costs of distributing food through urban space? Or will urban agriculture and farmers’ markets eventually boomerang back out of the cities once again? Or is our emotional attachment to food overruling our desire for optimization?

Food and the City

The relationship between food and cities is a long story, and its ending is still not in sight. The association is emotional yet engineered, inextricable yet fluid. We want our food close to us, yet food production is a messy business that’s costly and dependent upon scale. The placement of food in relation to the cities where we live affects its cost, safety, and environmental impact. Distance, geography, economics, and transportation infrastructure weigh in as food finds its place in our cities, and a sense of place related to food informs where and how our supply chains work.

Today, we label our preference for food grown nearby the “local food movement,” and describing the return of food to our cities as a “movement” is particularly apt. Food logistics is all about movement. Self-conscious movement is an obsession of chefs these days. Menus tout local sources and take great pains to list all their suppliers. Chefs and grocery stores become storytellers, often including photos of the families who harvest their produce and maps that prove the proximity of the purveyors. During an interview with one of our star restaurant owners in Texas, I noticed a map on the wall that illustrated all the farms that provided ingredients to the chef. This story appears on menus, websites, and similar wall charts these days as chefs work to satisfy consumers’ demands for locally sourced food.

While farmers should be encouraged as entrepreneurs and small business owners, they struggle to find the time to build and operate local businesses, connecting with customers like this chef. Two of our beloved local farms in Austin announced they were closed or dramatically downsized just this year. Farming is a 24/7 occupation, and giving up farm time to market produce is often impractical.

And the pain points for traditional, land-based food production are enormous. One of those Austin farms faced over $100K of storm damage from a winter storm. Crop insurance, subsidies, climate changes, government regulations and trade policies, labor, and . . . weeds. All of these friction points make food production in general more and more stressful and unsustainable. They are almost deal-breakers for the creation of a local food system.

Still, the pressure to get food from local producers is real, and it can have unintended consequences for everyone. Direct-to-consumer sales (the term the USDA uses to describe farmers’ markets, the direct sales of food from farm to local chefs, and community-supported agriculture) aren’t nearly as simple as they might sound. For the farmer, selling and delivering food to customers requires access to trucks (sometimes refrigerated trucks) and drivers. But these trucks are often partially filled, consuming energy for a high cost per calorie. Chefs like the one across the table from me that day are taking deliveries from up to thirty trucks a day, each with a locally produced ingredient. The expansive carbon footprint cannot be sustainable. But the customers don’t see this side of the supply chain. They only see the distance between farms and tables. And distance is both a rational, measurable concept and one that’s entirely in our heads.

What does “local” mean? For some, local means small, personal, human. Because food is both personal and produced by big food companies outside of our towns and cities, we often struggle to reconcile our sense of personal ethics with our perceptions of the institutions that manufacture our food. As a result, we tend to measure our feelings by the distance between the producers and our plates.

Local and global food systems are caught in a contest for jobs, nutrition, cultural identity, and environmental integrity. And this is not a new conundrum. As far back as the fourth century, observers noted that cities needed diversified sources of food in order to provide food security if trade was cut off or if local crops were infested or damaged by weather.

Food at Scale

Bigness has come to mean badness. Profit commandeering principles, people sacrificed for efficiency, truth traded for image. Coffee beans picked and dried by slave labor. Vanilla beans harvested by food mafias that sell on the black market. Smallness implies trust, humanity, and transparency in our minds. A family that farms in Vermont or a Nigerian goat farmer. And since humans don’t work well with complex systems, the simple idea of “big is bad, small is good” sits in the sweet spot for most of us as an operating principle for choosing who we want to produce our food and where we want them to be relative to our cities. Those who distrust big food companies believe small farms are more transparent and trustworthy. And consumers who worry about food security feel that having food grown nearby is a wise strategy for cities that may be cut off from long-distance supply chains. These contentious perspectives of size sit in a landscape of space and distance. The big guys are far away, and the little guys are nearby, even if only in our imaginations. Hence the demand for local food.

Ethical sourcing, sustainable practices, and food justice are all concepts that imply that our food supply chain needs to be held accountable. So we lean into our food supply system, trying to see who is growing, processing, and shipping our food. In our collective minds, “ethical” has become synonymous with “local,” and the sustainability of our global food supply chain is often cast in terms of distance.

The more complex, systematic way of looking at where our food comes from is found in such issues as the costs of shipping food over long distances. We consumers think that long distance travel for food is unsustainable, not to mention bad news for our tender tomatoes, which must be bred to withstand vibrating long-haul vehicles. It must cost more, damage the food, require chemicals to extend shelf life, and consume fossil fuels that end up polluting our environment. But is this really true? Are we trying to solve the right problems? And are these problems of real concern to those of us who eschew complexity? Can technology solve for bigness and create a food system that is transparent enough that we feel a close personal connection that’s not measured in terms of miles or kilometers?

To understand the complex question of whether long or short food supply chains are better for us and the environment, we need to settle on a way to measure distance. After all, no one can agree on the definition of “local.” Local in Texas is not local in Belgium. And where do we draw the line? Is food from Northern California considered “local” to Southern California? Since food is a perishable commodity, does a short trip to your plate make it fresher? Do the farm and its owner become part of our family if we can somehow “know” them by their proximity to our tables?

The USDA defines “local” as a measurable distance between food production and consumption that is four hundred miles or less.2 Anything sourced from a longer distance would not be considered local. Of course, four hundred miles feels like five when you’re in Texas, but in Rhode Island you can buy “local” food from any of the adjoining states. Keep in mind that the complexity and value of a food supply chain relates to how many intermediaries there are between a producer and consumer. So, it’s not necessarily all about the measured distance between you and your food.

One big wrinkle for the local food movement is selection. Buying local can only support consumption of food that grows naturally in your community. The region that feeds a city or location is a foodshed, and the truth is, we may live in a foodshed with cranberry bogs instead of coffee plantations. Think of New York City’s foodshed as a large circle that radiates from the city into Maryland in the south and up to Boston in the northeast.3 All the producers within that region are considered to be part of the New York City foodshed, where oyster beds, apple orchards, and maple syrup all live together. Urban food systems policy planners are continually looking at production within a foodshed, often requiring that a certain amount of available food in the city or state come from within that foodshed or providing financial incentives to local farmers.4

But limiting our food sources to that four-hundred-mile radius will lead to smaller menus and higher prices. The ideal—or optimal—geographic sources for our food are dictated by climate, cost of land and labor, abundance of resources, and nearby transportation networks.

Where our food comes from is also in relation to the size of our city. New York City can keep a multitude of producers relatively nearby because of the size of the market. New York’s population of almost 9 million hungry inhabitants can support more producers than Abilene, Texas, with its population of almost 125,000, even though it’s surrounded by a spacious landscape.

All of these factors, considered together, lower the cost and impact of food production, especially when you add scale to the mix. You can grow more per acre if the land and place provide ideal growing conditions. This is why you find oranges in Italy and in Southern California. Certain geographical areas become sites of specialization, combining suitable growing conditions with knowledge, practices, and relationships that yield higher-quality raw ingredients at lower costs. And, though not always the case, global distribution is often more sustainable and cost effective than forcing growth in unnatural environments. For example, bananas once grew in Iceland, but the cost of creating favorable growing conditions without significant financial incentives made local banana production unsustainable.

Of course, global food can become local if the conditions are right. Sometimes it’s the movement of people that locates certain foods in a geographical area. Italian immigrants to the United States in the late nineteenth century brought Italian cuisine and a tomato supply chain to the Italian neighborhoods. A report published 2016 by the Royal Society indicated that almost 70 percent of the world’s crops started out in locations other than where they are grown today. For example, tomatoes grown in Italy started out in South America, and the origin of potatoes (the scourge of Ireland) is Peru.5 The report explains how countries that remained isolated maintained their own diverse native food lines, while those that were visited during the Age of Exploration experienced the greatest influx of crops, both as recipients of foreign crops and as exporters of native crops to the countries that sent the explorers. People bring food with them wherever they roam.

The Cost of Moving Food

The cost associated with moving food across long distances is usually the first calculation when determining the merits of local food production. Remember those local farmers’ trucks that were travelling, half empty, to restaurants? If we consider cost per calorie again, driving that same truck in from a farm farther away, but filling it to the brim with orders from a dozen restaurants at once, is often a more budget-friendly solution. Empty space anywhere in the food supply chain isn’t a good thing, whether in warehouses, on store shelves, or inside a tractor trailer.

The costs associated with transport make up about 10 percent of the total cost of a product, and they’re driven by many variables—not only fuel.6 Transport costs in winter are different than in summer because of the requirements to maintain controlled temperatures throughout the supply chain. And if transport costs go up by 10 percent, the cost of the product goes up about 20 percent. Besides the supply of a food commodity, fuel, and labor costs, the supply of ships plays a role in determining the cost to move that commodity. More grain, but not enough ships to move it, results in higher charter bids for those ships that still sail.

One study about transport and local food argues that a consumer who drives to a grocery store several miles away to buy vegetables will produce more carbon emissions than all the activities related to shipping the same vegetables from a much longer distance through a complex supply chain.7 Other studies argue the contrary—the longer the supply chain, the greater the carbon emissions. But carbon footprints aren’t the only impact distance has on the sustainability of our food supply chain. Fuel costs, transport modes, seasonality, and handling practices all weigh in for arguments on both sides.

Transport costs don’t appear on our food labels yet. That’s coming, but now our desire for knowledge about where our food comes from is evident in the food labeling debate. One example is the drive to state a product’s origin on a food label. That’s not a problem for most food producers, processors, and sellers, but what about meat that comes from animals raised in Colorado, fattened in Texas, and slaughtered in Kentucky? Or fish that is caught in New England and processed in Thailand? What part of that supply chain is local? And local to whom? How do customers think about the multiple circuits and stops that ingredients make on the way to our tables? How do our emotions play out over such a complicated itinerary? Will a localized production system simplify things or make food more costly and limit the variety in our diets?

There are plenty of reasons to embrace global food rather than relying solely on local supply. Growing food not suited to our local environments may be more expensive and less efficient—not to mention less healthy and delicious. Coffee bushes produce small, less flavorful cherries outside of their natural environment, and they cost more to produce because of higher infrastructural and labor costs. What’s more, a year of eating locally may lead to nutritional deficits if we live in a climate bereft of bananas. Those who don’t see locally grown food as a necessary ingredient for a sustainable food system believe we should rejoice and benefit from a diverse food supply.

But making a calculated comparison of transportation costs for both local and global food is challenging: fuel costs vary, and it’s almost impossible to determine whether trucks and containers are carrying full loads. Comparisons would need full assessments of environmental costs and a way of measuring the differences between the crops and proteins transported. The USDA has data for energy used for agricultural production, but even that data is conflated with measurements for direct and indirect energy usage. The USDA data states that agricultural producers consume 2 percent of the energy resources in the United States, and they use most of that energy to power equipment and machinery. According to the Giannini Foundation of Agricultural Economics at the University of California, a local system to provide the same per capita amount of corn to its residents would have to use 26 percent more land, 23 percent more fuel, and 29 percent more total inputs than the global system currently in place.8

Our instinct may be to look for local solutions, if for no other reason than to support our local economy.9 But as soon as you convert non-crop land to food production, you impact local biodiversity. Another study by the Leopold Center argues that local and nonlocal food is price competitive for in-season food. During strawberry season, local berries often compete with nonlocal berries in price and quality.10 And to add even more complexity to the local versus global debate, at least one academic, James McWilliams, a historian from Texas State University, points out the need to consider Life Cycle Assessment (LCA), the total carbon footprint of food production, to make sense of the pros and cons of local food.

How can we think about this whole local and global framework in the future? And how can we anticipate the location of our food supply with smart food logistics? It could be that pure distance will no longer weigh in as the leading consideration for evaluating what constitutes “good” or sustainable food. On one level, distance will become more abstract. Unable to juggle all the calculations for sending an item through a supply chain, we will opt for a simple way to view distance. Both perceived and actual distances will shorten. Our anxieties about the quality and character of our food system may be lessened by a new, technology-enabled sense of trust and transparency.

The desire for control over our lives makes us want more information about our food and those who produce it. Isn’t that why we place so much stock in trust and transparency? Isn’t this just what we’re seeing in every other aspect of our culture, from ride sharing to finance to politics . . . to logistics?

One way to seek control over our food is to grow it ourselves. Three decades ago, my family ran a farm in Maine. With a short growing season and a languishing agricultural ecosystem, sustainability in that climate was elusive. But like most all farmers then, we were resourceful. We raised heritage sheep and pigs, toting clipboards along the icy pasture perimeter while we posted colored smudges on the fleecy backs of our flock of Cotswold sheep and affixed numbered tags to their ears. This was a routine practice (still used by many farmers today) that enabled us to keep track of which sheep were bred and when. Capturing this flock intelligence enabled us to plan our lambing season and predict the genetics and yield of that year’s lamb crop.

Those clipboards found their way into metal filing cabinets after we hand-entered the numbers into our desktop computer. Aside from planning that year’s lambing season, there wasn’t much else we could do with our data. But there would be now; farmers are capturing much more data, using it smartly, and finding that there may be a future in farming after all.

Technology has shaped how we grow and produce our food ever since the first fire warmed a haunch of bison. But the speed of technological evolution went into high gear when a convergence of technologies enabled changes in transport, preservation, safety, and agricultural productivity. These moments in technological evolution created “revolutions” in the food supply system, moments when agricultural productivity sharply increased and food became safe to eat and able to reach consumers within days, not months, of harvest.

The world is pretty good at increasing food productivity. We now produce more per acre than ever before due to technological innovations. According to the USDA, global agricultural productivity continues to increase, although slower on average than during the initial decades of the industrialization of agriculture. So while we feel certain that these technological evolutions will continue, we are less certain of what it means to live in a digital world. Nowadays, a relatively small number of farms grow most of the food we eat, and this trend comes with both good news and bad news. Having been successful at increasing yields ever since the eighteenth century, farmers have demonstrated that they know how to get more from their land than ever before. For example, although the number of dairy cows has steadily declined since 2010, dairies have found ways to produce more milk per cow.11

The bad news is, some economists argue, that productivity gains from the technology that has existed since the Industrial Revolution are at their end. As with all mature technologies, many agricultural technologies are winding down their impact on output from soil-based agriculture which is a bit worrisome for those of us who see the need to feed a growing world population with its variable and often capricious diets. To achieve the productivity increases needed to feed all of us in 2050, it seems we need another technological revolution, similar to the industrial one, to ignite significant productivity increases. Thus, the digital revolution, agtech, and foodtech. The new optimizers: Big Data and connectivity.

The New Production Optimizers: Agtech

The convergence of Big Data and connectivity is uprooting our traditional outlook on food production and the places where it occurs. Instead of Central California or China as the source of our lettuce, we now consider other locations closer to our tables. Aware of the limitations and stresses on our current food systems, individuals, companies, and governments have been rallying resources to address the limitations of growing food using traditional practices in traditional locations. Technology will continue to increase productivity, and it is now beginning to help us address environmental sustainability as well.

Agricultural technology, “agtech,” addresses the known inefficiencies and unprofitability of farms, and in some cases it has allowed us to reconsider where farming takes place. In 2017, investors poured more than $1.5 billion into technology-infused solutions for agriculture.12 The number of deals for everything from soil sensors to driverless tractors is impressive, but it will take a while to see the results of these ventures, as smart irrigation and new seed germination technology are somewhat confined within growing seasons. Investors hope technology will increase farm productivity, sustainability, and nutrition with the assistance of Big Data, the Internet of Things (IoT), and the ability to track and trace raw materials throughout the system.

When food companies acquired digital tools in the 1950s, they waded into processing in much the same way society waded into general computing. Before chips got cheaper and network speeds got faster, most farmers were unable to afford the software and hardware to make their farms work smarter. Even during the 1990s, when my family ran a farm in Maine, only large farms with revenues over $500,000 could afford computer systems to optimize their operations and gather useful data. Now, with ubiquitous personal computing, food producers have a chance to utilize data to increase productivity and profitability—and even fabricate new foods.

On the ground, precision agriculture, the use of digital technology to improve agriculture, is making traditional farming more productive. It’s “precise” because it considers variable soils, crop characteristics, and irrigation requirements. All of these factors and more create the opportunity to maximize productivity through technology while utilizing sustainable practices.

Drones, for example, are becoming useful tools for farmers who want to improve the visibility of their crops. AgEagle makes a drone that can survey a farmer’s fields to provide images that improve field management and crop health. Some companies make tools that enable farmers to integrate weather data with irrigation systems and other farm machinery so inputs and practices can be implemented according to precise requirements. Farm equipment manufacturers are making “smart” machines that capture data and use it in ways that enable tractors and harvesters to process more calories with less energy. Drones, smart machines, and robots are all coming to agriculture to make raw ingredient production more sustainable and productive. Blue River’s Lettucebot thins lettuce using precise applications of chemicals. Using water and artificial intelligence, Taylor Farms in California has robots harvesting heads of lettuce. This means the food supply chain—or part of it, at least—will operate from the same production sites but with greater predictability and, potentially, less waste and labor.

Imagine a meter of soil with its own pesticide and irrigation. The mass treatment of land leading to runoff and waste could be eliminated. Farmers are now collecting on-farm data that will enable practical and useful agtech solutions like this one. Big Data on weather history, soil conditions, and plant nutrient requirements now make it easy for a farmer to increase productivity while saving on labor and material costs. With the surge in data-gathering sensors and smart vehicles, agriculture on the ground might be able to survive the coming demographic changes that will shape increased demand. With the new digital tools, farmers have the opportunity to become more productive and profitable outside the traditional farming model, as an engineer or producer developing a new operating system.

The Data Dilemma

Agricultural data, though, is fraught with inconsistencies and incompatibilities. There is no data standard for several reasons. Equipment manufacturers regard their data-gathering methodology as proprietary, and as we’ll see later in the book, the traditional food-manufacturing culture reinforces the notion that supply and supply chains shouldn’t be transparent since transparency may expose competitive advantages. There is a movement within the industry that supports open systems, but those who support the proprietary model argue that data is valuable and needs to be regarded as a fungible asset. In other words, if farmers fail to keep their data proprietary, they may lose the potential to leverage its value in the market.

Agricultural equipment manufacturers and related companies already offer data collection for selected activities on the farm. John Deere’s tractor technology enables farmers to use GPS and weather data to precisely target areas of the field for specific, relevant treatment. But that data doesn’t neatly merge with the data collected by other devices, and it won’t capture crops that aren’t harvested by a sophisticated tractor. There are plenty of advantages to selling data or making it available, at the farmer’s discretion, to third parties. For example, an insurance company may use data to offer reduced premiums to farmers avoiding certain risky practices.

Farmobile is one agricultural data company that operates within the proprietary model. As a startup working closely with farmers and equipment manufacturers, Farmobile intends to connect the data-gathering sensors on a farm so both the farmer and the equipment manufacturers can improve performance of the machines and the humans that operate them. Matt Kamphoefner, the VP of sales and business development at Farmobile, sees on-the-ground data gathering as a way to enable farmers to become smarter, owning their own data for improved performance. Kamphoefner intends to develop a data standard for the information a farmer collects on his or her farm. He refers to “automatic electronic field records” (AEFR) that a mobile device will capture in real time and integrate into a portable database that the farmer could monetize. Kamphoefner envisions a time when a farmer can download, for a fee, a “playlist” of agriculture data as a way to see how a crop performs on a specific farm.

But Farmobile’s position on proprietary data contrasts with MIT CityFarm’s efforts to create an open data systems platform for farmers. Caleb Harper, director of the Open Agriculture Initiative, believes transformative improvements in food production can be achieved by applying data and technology. MIT’s OpenAg engineers, software developers, and data scientists have job titles that mirror the digital world, not the world of soil scientists and agronomists: Farmer of Electrons, Farmer of Boxes, and Farmer of Software, to name a few. Harper’s title is, predictably, Farmer of Farmers. The project’s enclosed tabletop growing systems become “food computers,” and larger versions, the size of shipping containers, become “food servers.” The warehouse-sized versions become “food datacenters.” The project has spawned a language for food production that may reflect the emergence of a new agriculture that brings together an interdisciplinary group of experts from both the digital and nondigital agricultural communities. The Open Ag group offers imaginative ways of talking about this mash-up, such as “on-demand, fingerprinted food.” Or “digital farms” and an “Open Phenome Library.”13

MIT’s history as a land grant university has been defined by its reputation as a leader in science and technology. But not until the surge of consumer interest in all topics related to food did MIT discover the opportunity to leverage its knowledge of the digital world to solve problems in the analog world of plants and animals. Returning to its roots, you could say. Now they host conferences with the Culinary Institute of America and engage with chefs and farmers to explore how to become part of the food movement. Of course, MIT isn’t the only academic institution hard at work in the field of agtech and food tech. UC Davis, Cornell, and Texas A&M are all developing programs and producing research on the topic of digital farms.

At MIT, Harper’s project would like to increase the number of farmers by providing data to improve outcomes for agriculture. He uses closed aquaponic and aeroponic growing systems, sensors, and software to control, measure, and digitize the process of growing plants. The data gathered in these growing systems would be shared, for free, on platforms that farmers or anyone interested in farming could access. Calling the process “food computing,” Harper refers to the data for specific growing conditions as “recipes” that other farmers could use to install in their growing systems, whether vertical or horizontal. Traditional farmers may find Harper’s ideas too abstract for and antithetical to the belief that farming is as much an art as it is a science.

Not everyone in the traditional agriculture community is wild about MIT’s approach to reinventing the food system. It’s way too soon to know how the competing platforms of open and closed data systems will form the future of food production. But it is clear that farming is on the cusp of yet another revolution.

And as we enter that revolution, we’re upending not only agriculture and industrialized food, but also our common conceptions of where food comes from. Traditionally, we got food from the sea, from the ground, and from beasts that foraged on the ground. We still do, but now food producers are also appearing on floating farms, on city rooftops, inside shipping containers, and on our kitchen counters. What’s happening here? For one thing, land costs determine where food grows, and an acre in New York City can cost one hundred times more than an acre in Iowa.14 Land is so costly in cities that prices are expressed in dollars per square foot, not per acre. In 2000, farmland in Iowa sold for $1,857 per acre.15 In the same year, land in Columbus Circle, at the center of New York City, sold for approximately $2,300 per square foot (nearly $100 million per acre).16 The idea of growing carrots on land that costly would be prohibitive if land costs were the only factor. But they aren’t. People want to see their food growing, and the idea of using urban spaces in new ways—like all those ugly, flat rooftops in cities—is appealing. Not to mention that transporting carrots from Iowa or central California must add up.

Growing Food Everywhere

So today, not all farmers work the soil to produce food. Vertical and enclosed urban farms are sprouting up all across the world. One of the companies building these growing platforms, Controlled-Environments Agriculture (CEA), as the new soil acres are called, is Gotham Greens.17 It has built growing systems in Brooklyn, Queens, and Chicago. Founded in 2009, Gotham Greens operates on the assumption that food production need not occur on traditional dirt farms. Its large, commercial-scale greenhouses sit atop buildings in urban landscapes and grow leafy greens using LED lights powered by solar panels. Because they are enclosed, these urban farms are protected from pests and other environmental conditions that open-air farmers contend with every day. And Gotham Greens and other such companies want to go big. These farms produce hundreds of thousands of pounds of leafy greens, berries, and herbs for urban customers, some of which are grocery stores like Whole Foods and even, surprisingly, Walmart.

Growing plants in greenhouses isn’t all that innovative, but locating the greenhouses on rooftops in dense urban areas to shorten the “Last Mile” delivery might be an improvement. These new ventures illustrate how where we produce our food directly impacts the supply chain and food logistics. The idea certainly appeals to advocates of local food production, and any efforts to improve food production are laudable. And the use of these farms to produce leafy greens and other foods that suffer in transport makes sense in terms of high-value products that will forego their large carbon footprint on the way to market. One logical use case for these farms are those regions in cold-climate zones, such as in Norway where vertical farms produce strawberries. In the Netherlands, vertical farms can overcome the lack of arable land for crop production.

One wonders, though, if Gotham Greens’ urban rooftop gardens depend too heavily on urban rooftops—after all, there are only so many rooftops to take over, even in New York. And the flipside of closed growing systems is the risk of contamination or invasive insects that would have a field day in one of those self-contained greenhouses. And while it would undoubtedly be a problem on a private balcony garden, in a commercial outfit like Gotham Greens, contamination would spell disaster. The risks of monocultures are not specific to corn crops in the Midwest or in China.

A contained growing environment is also the platform for Freight Farms, a venture started in 2009 by Jon Friedman and Brad McNamara that combines some of Harper’s ideas with the idea of growing food in shipping containers. Not stuck on a rooftop, shipping containers are mobile and scalable, as long as there’s room to spread them out or stack them up. In growing containers spread throughout the United States, Freight Farms uses hydroponic systems (water instead of soil) and LED lights to grow plants. Its sensors collect growing data that farmers can view through the Farmhand mobile app.18

AeroFarms, an urban farming company founded in 2015, uses aeroponics, as one might expect from its name.19 Aeroponics joins a list of growing technologies that don’t rely on soil on the ground: hydroponics, aquaponics, and aeroponics. “Ponics,” from Latin, means “work.” Instead of working the soil to grow plants, these modern farmers work water and air. Hydroponics grows plants in water using root systems to pull nutrients into the plant. Aquaponics also uses water, but it adds nutrient fertilizer from fish raised in the water. Aeroponics uses water not by immersing the root systems in water but by suspending the root systems in a humid environment where water sprays fill the air with moisture. All three of these systems are used for greenhouses and vertical farms in cities.

Located in New Jersey, the state still called the Garden State, Aerofarms produces indoor, enclosed farms that can be built inside homes, offices, warehouses, or just about anywhere else. Its growing units can be stacked or spread out, and the company is keen to use industrial spaces such as old nightclubs or paintball factories. Schools can buy their systems as educational platforms and perhaps even for food production.

At SXSW in 2017, a Los Angeles startup brought its farm to Austin. Called Local Roots, the company promises to produce food year-round, “undoing the commodification of the food industry” and “eliminating supply chain risks” by building a network of farms.20 Using its “Terrafarm” solution, Local Roots sells its produce through restaurants in Southern California. SpaceX uses a Terrafarm to produce its greens. These innovative gardens may seem like an ideal solution, but they’re still fighting back some nasty weeds. Over the past few years, early leaders in the field, including PodPonics in Atlanta, FarmedHere in Chicago, and Local Garden in Vancouver have shut down. Some had design issues, while others started too early, when hardware costs were much higher. Gotham Greens and AeroFarms look promising, but they haven’t raised comparable cash hoards or outlined similarly ambitious plans yet. By the time you read this, they may be installing acres of growing platforms in your city. Vertical, container, and other enclosed and moveable farms are appearing faster than we imagined, even though few are close to profitable and crop diversity is limited.

Once considered a novel and small-scale option for food production, these new urban farms are quickly gathering momentum. Initiatives launched in San Francisco and cities around the world are making plans for ways to integrate food production into their master plans. In the Netherlands, an urban farm project called Fresh Care Convenience was announced in 2017 between Phillips Lighting and a large fresh food company, Staay Food Group—the construction of Europe’s first large-scale vertical farm.21 Several grocery stores in Germany are adding indoor farms designed by Infarm, a startup located in Berlin. And in Texas, two indoor farm companies are setting up farms, one in Abeline and another in Lockhart. These two ventures illustrate how these projects benefit from private/public partnerships. Both cities view the farm projects as sources of economic development and provide incentives in the form of subsidies and land. The Brightfarms project in Abilene will be the first hydroponic farm in Texas, a state known for its droughts. These ventures also enable food production in unexpected places: a shrimp farm in Nebraska, Rock Creek Aquaculture, shortens the supply chains for seafood from oceans far away and provides some local jobs. And Plenty, headquartered in South San Francisco, combines LED lighting, hydroponics, tech funders, and vertical farming to explore how to scale these ventures so that they are both environmentally and economically sustainable.

For now, these ventures are sticking to the leafy greens and herbs that are well suited to these platforms. But what happens when the market is saturated with culinary lettuce, but customers need squash, potatoes, and radishes? And will all these contained, vertical, urban farms be able to scale? Will they produce food at prices competitive with supermarkets like Costco and Walmart, which are both major players in organic food markets? Looks more like a reality than ever before, though if any of these ventures that depend upon scaling to be financially sustainable succeed, they will need to consider what to do with a surplus of food. Will they require transport of produce out of the city once they’ve brought seeds and inputs into the city for the purpose of growing food? Chances are these friction points will be addressed as engineers and consumers discover whom they want as food producers and where and how they will shop for food. And none of these ventures has yet to fully calculate an ROI for the long term.

Even traditional greenhouses may indeed fill a much-needed gap in the supply chain sourcing world, especially during times of climate change. They aren’t new, but they are now full of sensors and LED lighting systems. Growing food in resource-deficient environments might be the biggest opportunity for the supply chain. All of these ventures promote the idea of farming with less water, no pesticides, increased productivity over land-based farming, and tighter control over the growing process and environment.

Handheld Farming

Many of these new “farms” integrate mobile devices for produce monitoring. Say you have a microfarm in your apartment connected to sensors that send growing conditions. You might learn your lettuce needs water, so you send instructions to your microfarm to adjust the micro-irrigation system to the proper levels for that type of plant. Or you’re a commercial farmer, and your smartphone tells you that there is too much moisture in the field at the far end of your farm; you decide not to irrigate that day. Is this handheld farming the future? Will growers miss the grounding experience of sensing moisture with their own hands? New farmers don’t think so.

The future of such systems could get complicated once you consider what success might look like for these ventures. Imagine that Freight Farms’ containers become backyard food production houses scaled for personal food, with enough produce year-round to feed a family or city block. Would that eliminate the trips to the grocery store? Solve for food deserts? Or will the novelty of these solutions dissipate, leaving behind only the routine of tending to one’s own garden?

Not only are we growing food in new places, such as shipping containers, but we are also intrigued by—though not yet sold on—the idea of producing our own food at home. Even in our own kitchens. A number of startups, such as SproutsIO, are offering personal growing systems that fit in a condo or home kitchen with the ingredients for growing herbs, greens, and even tomatoes. Using technology similar to that of vertical farms, these new systems offer apps so you can monitor the moisture content of the soil in your kitchen garden. SproutsIO even allows personal taste profiles to customize the SproutsIO growing system. In the long term, moisture, produce, and personal taste profiles may be monitored by Alexa or a smart home monitoring system similar to Nest. Let’s not consider what might happen in a power outage. And what about when we go on vacation? Will our pet sitters be willing to keep our lettuce alive, too? As the novelty wears thin, we may opt for convenience and keep having others grow our food for us.

The New Farmers

We’re not all born farmers, or at least not since we began to move to cities. But farmers are about to change, not only in the skills they possess but also in the tools and platforms they use to produce raw materials for the supply chain. Most of the teams that work in these new farms don’t come from traditional agriculture. They are young and rarely have degrees in agronomy from land-grant universities. Instead, they have a background in digital technology and come to the world of agriculture with some fresh ideas.

Farming may just be the next cool occupation, combining maker culture, social enterprise, and the desire to get one’s hands dirty. From protein to plant life to fish, these innovations in food production will change the food supply chain in many ways. Urban farms—whether aquaponic or aeroponic, in shipping containers under bridges, or on rooftop greenhouses—will almost eliminate the Last Mile. But in turn, storage facilities, processing companies, and transportation infrastructure will need to adapt to these new production sites, and the next generation of farmers may just be the team to make it happen.

These new farmers won’t look like any we have known in the past. They will be younger and more diverse. They will grow food wherever they can find room, and they will use technology and data in ways never imagined before. Jennifer Farah, founder of SproutsIO, is developing a personal farm, an indoor garden system that personalizes produce with flavor profiles that you manage from your mobile device. Automatic seed refilling and Wi-Fi connectivity allow these farms and the new farmers to operate outside traditional agriculture.

These new farmers will be receptive to transparency and motivated to adopt new, digital tools. They may make more money selling data from their operations than from food, which they will produce in higher quantities with less land and labor and fewer inputs. Some will have engineering degrees with experience in business and science sprinkled throughout their LinkedIn profiles. And some will grow food in farms that would have been unimaginable a decade ago.

Caleb Harper at MIT, Jennifer Farah of SproutsIO, and Eric Ellestad of Local Roots Farms may be our new farmers. Eric, like other modern farmers, has a degree in the sciences and business. Jennifer has a degree in architecture. These are entrepreneurs who are coming to food production as engineers, scientists, artists, and savvy businesspeople. They are risk takers, a different sort of breed than the traditional farmers who have learned to play it safe. It may take generations to restructure the economics of farming, but the fourth revolution of agriculture may provide the needed tools, optimized by those accelerators—Big Data and connectivity.

Changes in the way we produce food are occurring on the ground, and they’re not necessarily driven by governments, policies, or traditional food institutions like agricultural organizations and universities. Some innovations are coming from engineers and biologists who promise to solve the problems related to animal slaughter, energy, and the environment. Some of the new initiatives come from nonprofits or private investor groups that are not mired in government bureaucracies or traditional ways of thinking about food. Farmer-entrepreneur-scientists have found they can eliminate the traditional farm platform altogether through lab-grown steaks, replacing ranchers’ corrals with petri dishes.22

Are there consequences of this shift? Sure. The old institutions that hold our knowledge of agricultural science may soon be untapped or ignored, causing these new entrepreneurs to make avoidable mistakes. If it becomes too attractive and lucrative to run a digitally based urban farm, will we lose even more land-based farmers and thus lose some diversity in our agricultural industry? How do we keep both soil and soil-free growing systems in an ecosystem that provides a resilient food system? How will we feel when the sleek features of a robot replace our image of a farmer? And what will happen to those traditional farmers standing in their fields? Will some adapt these new digital tools and learn to use data from scanners and sensors? Already in debt as a result of buying outdated farm equipment and awaiting payouts from crop insurance, will those farmers be able to invest in the new technologies? We might consider a transition plan, one that brings along the deep knowledge of traditional farming while training and financing those farmers who want to migrate their farms into the digital age.

From Lab or Fab to Plate

It’s not just the soil-grown, farmer-nurtured food that’s undergoing a revolution. Memphis Meats and New Harvest are two young companies that grow meat in laboratories. Actually, they culture it from animal cells to grow “real” meat. Uma Valeti, the CEO of Memphis Meats (located in the San Francisco Bay area, not Memphis, Tennessee) is a cardiologist who leads a team of scientists developing what they call “clean” meat—meat they allege is more sustainable and free of harmful ingredients while addressing concerns about animal welfare in our food system.23 Isha Datar, a cellular biologist, founded New Harvest, another startup that wants to produce meat, milk, eggs, and other animal products. Both companies run nonprofits so they can receive donations during these early stages of research and testing.

These first efforts to bypass traditional farm models are expensive: Memphis Meats’ first burgers cost $325,000 to produce.24 In 2017, the company rolled out its first lab-grown poultry, with one pound of lab-grown chicken costing $9,000.25 The theory is that these costs will come down as those products are produced at scale, but it’s unclear when that will occur. As this book goes to press, prices for lab-grown meat and plant-based meat are steadily going down and these products are becoming available through fast food chains and grocery stores.

Mosa Meats, located in the Netherlands, is a collaboration with scientists at Maastricht University. Their team hopes to have an affordable burger grown from bovine cells within the next five years. Without the need for animals as a source for meat, these companies argue they can scale up production fairly efficiently. They don’t need more animals, just a few more cells. These new ventures are working on finding the sweet spot between cost and taste, which isn’t easy since you can buy hamburger meat at your grocery store for about $2.50 per pound.

But cellular agriculture is just one of the ways food production is changing hands. As an alternative to growing meat from animal cells, other scientists are creating meat-like proteins from plants. The possibilities seem endless, but two startups, Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat, have taken the plant idea to our plates, as they did for our Texas dinner.26 Available in some supermarkets, these plant burgers differ from the meat-free staple, the veggie burger. The biochemists that engineered the new meat have been able to create the visual, textural, and sensorial characteristics of real meat. As long as you don’t have your heart set on a marbled T-bone steak, the plant-based meat burger is pretty good and an improvement over years of veggie burgers. And if plant burgers seem too old school, you can find your protein in bugs. Insect protein is on the rise as the new industry seeks a way to scale production.27 Called microlivestock, insects as a substitute for animal protein still meet resistance in certain cultures. If large-scale insect production and processing improves and innovates ways to integrate the protein into our diets so that the bugginess of the food product is subtle, then perhaps, maybe, we’ll accept Impossible Bugs in the same way as we now accept Impossible Burgers. If bugs are too down to earth for our tastes, algae grown in space will develop a new vertical supply chain. As with fish farms, these new protein producers will shake up the supply chain, begging the question about the future of fields for grazing and feedlots for fattening.

Hand-in-hand with lab-grown protein come questions about another controversial lab-based food activity: genetic modification. Technology, mostly digital and biochemical, is providing new tools for improving our food production systems. While farmers have been successful at increasing productivity, these new tools enable farmers, or food engineers as they may soon be called, to control the quality of our food. Until now, genetic modification has been a farmer’s method of selecting stock that improves the overall herd. A farmer selects breeding stock on the basis of rate of weight gain, vigor, and carcass quality. But these improvements occur over successive breeding cycles that take years to fully realize.

Engineered Food 2.0

New companies such as Ginko Bioworks work in the biotech industry to genetically modify organisms shamelessly and with impunity. While Monsanto struggles to redeem itself from decades of bad PR, lawsuits, and regulatory imbroglio, these new companies seek ways to genetically modify our food with the intention of improving the environment, enhancing food safety, or increasing agricultural productivity. These social values make GMO food digestible by many who previously viewed the practice as harmful to society, not to mention animals and humans alike.

The arguments both for and against genetic modification of food have complicated the adoption of the technology and obscured the science that supports the process. While we continue to debate GMO foods, a newer technology called CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats) has gained attention for its ability to create similar improvements without introducing genes from other organisms, as in genetic modification. CRISPR essentially allows a scientist to edit an RNA gene sequence, which is different from GMOs. The potential for CRISPR is not yet fully explored, but many producers feel it may very well transform food production. Genetically designed food, edited through CRISPR, could enable oranges to grow in Alaska, wheat to become pest resistant, eggs to contain more nutrients, and bread products to be completely gluten free. All this change at the production level is bound to shake up the supply chain, shift production locations, and make seasonal foods an outmoded concept.28

Genetic editing of seeds may lead to food with higher nutritional value at lower unit sizes. And in the livestock world, breeders are now working on smaller livestock with more nutritional value. Three companies are working on small chickens because large carcass sizes cause chickens to outweigh their performance as animals. A condition of oversized poultry called woody breast has caused the poultry industry to reconsider the strategy of selecting broiler stock for growth rates and breast size.29 Making food grow too fast causes the protein to become rubbery; smaller chickens just taste better than the big, fast-growing variety. Since they produce less meat per chicken, though, it’s likely that the small chicken will cost more, putting those tasty nuggets out of reach of many customers.

Aviagen has copyrighted poultry types with brand names such as Yield Plus and a catalogue called the Specialty Male Portfolio.30 In addition to Yield Plus, Aviagen is producing a slower-growing brand to respond to the demand for small chickens. In January 2017, the company announced its appointment of a manager of the “slow-growing poultry market segment.” Other breeders, such as Hubbard Breeders and Cobb-Vantress, are working on these new, slow broilers. The poultry supply chain will need another year to accommodate to this longer production cycle.

All these efforts to change where, how, and who produces our food have an effect on our food supply chain. When Tyson moves to produce lab meat instead of chickens, our protein supply chain will lurch in a new direction along with the humans who currently work in its livestock facilities. And the growing acceptance of tech in food production, including GMOs and CRISPR, makes this transition possible now more than at any time in past.

While these innovations may dramatically increase our ability to produce large quantities of food at the standards consumers demand, the implications for the food supply chain are hardly clear at this point. How will our plant protein world find enough space to grow all the plant material needed to make enough protein for our growing population? And what happens when our palates become accustomed to these lab meats and the need for livestock dissipates altogether? Land use will most likely undergo a significant reallocation from grazing space to something else. National parks? Housing? And will the only place schoolchildren see a Longhorn heifer be our local zoo? These new ventures, if successful, will probably move on from beef to other proteins such as chicken and pork. The impact of lab meat production upon agricultural biodiversity is as yet unclear and unexplored. But one thing is for certain: supply chain designers and logistics managers will have to restructure the flow of protein to our plates.

Food Deserts to Food Oases?

Another, more welcome consequence of the arrival of digital food production may be the disappearance of food deserts. Space, distance, and proximity all play into the idea of food deserts. The term emerged as a way to describe a lack of access to healthy, nutritious food, usually in poor and minority neighborhoods. You may live in a neighborhood with a grocery store that lacks fresh produce; that’s a desert maker. The USDA defines a food desert as an area where at least 33 percent of the population lacks either a vehicle or a grocery store within a mile of their home and/or a car. In some situations, like in mid-Texas, the distance may be longer.31

The first mention of the concept of a food desert appeared during the 1990s as urban planners and urban policy makers began to notice the lack of access to food for certain demographics.32 The Food Poverty Eradication Bill, the Farm Bill, and the Healthy Food Financing Initiative are all examples of government efforts to address food deserts during the past two decades. International, federal, state, and local studies exploring food access have gained visibility and raised public awareness. This is certainly a supply chain issue, if you consider that food isn’t being supplied to the areas in question.

But the desert has complications. The reason deserts aren’t easily filled with healthy food sometimes has more to do with transportation, pricing, lifestyle, trust, and community relationships than with mere proximity. In more than a few cases, healthy food stores are built in deserts only to find that they lose money and customers. Federal programs such as the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program (SNAP) and Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) attempt to solve for the economic reasons that healthy food isn’t accessible in some areas.33 In early 2018, the United States was considering a change in its SNAP program so that low income families would receive boxes of food instead of money. Who knows, maybe we’re about to see a new curated food box join the many other food boxes on the way to our doors.

New research is emerging that offers more holistic assessments of food deserts and incorporates a range of solutions to improve access. One of these studies uses mapping software as a tool to represent the geography of food deserts alongside resident behavior, regional mobility, and demography. The most impactful solution presented in the report was the addition of a grocery store in combination with the willingness of a resident to walk at least a mile, or 1600 meters.34

One solution is to mobilize grocery stores, put them on wheels or rails, and move them right into the deserts. One startup in our Challenge Prize competition, Grit Grocery, does just that. A new take on Meals on Wheels, these mobile grocery stores could even target the mobile inventory for specific ethnic cuisines. A sort of personal grocery store, this solution is not so much about where food is produced, but about the distribution of food (more about that in chapter 5). Some efforts to bring food production into communities are a result of the desire to bring urban populations closer to their food as part of a larger educational and social mission. In the same spirit of traditional community gardens, these social projects are likely to remain as we seek a refuge from our digital food and yearn for the human side of our food.

Technology—knowledge about science and how to apply it to food production—has always been present in our food system. But the speed of innovation has increased, creating anxiety for some of us who worry that we are unaware of the consequences of the technology we allow into our lives. The replacement of humans, both physically and mentally, by hardware and software is also worrisome to those of us who wonder what will be left for us to do in the future. Surely we will have new jobs and a higher purpose to fulfill in the world. Or perhaps not.

Farmers today can produce enough food to feed the world now and in the foreseeable future. As the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) testifies, we can grow enough food by investing in technology, putting more arable land into production, and increasing the intensity of agriculture.35 Then, central to the premise of this book, we’ll be able to distribute all the food we produce to all those that need food.

Farming in the Digital Age

Farmers on larger farms are being held accountable for damage to the environment and the harmful effects of industrially grown food. The idea of growing food with practices associated with factories evolved from being the sine qua non of traditional farming to the bête noire of modern farming. As our cultural values changed from admiration of technological progress to longing for romanticized rural practices, we began to use the adjective “industrial” to imply lower quality food. If consumers had their way, today’s farms would maintain their technology-supported levels of productivity while returning to traditional, rural practices and delivering only natural, “unprocessed” food. This is enough to challenge the emerging generation of young farmers, and they have three principal issues to address as they look for solutions.

The first is the consolidation of food production. Most of the farms today are small. About 90 percent of all American farmers run small family farms and earn less than $350,000 in gross cash farm income (GCFI).36 What’s more, the FAO estimated in 2014 that 1 percent of all the farms in the world control over 65 percent of the land used for food production.37 This amalgamation of companies that make and supply our food is continuing, contributing to dependence upon a few farms for most of our protein and to control of food production by global companies. Some of this aggregation is a result of poor economic conditions that push publicly held companies to look for ways to increase stock values. Combining forces is becoming a strategy for improving profits.

The second issue is consumer demand. As demand and behavior change (recently, people falling out of love with kale and embracing meat broth), the supply chain has to find new supplies and producers and figure out how to get all the ingredients needed to reformulate or produce new food, all while providing the level of transparency that improves trust between those who produce and those who consume.

The third issue is the aging of American farmers. With the majority of the agriculture industry headed for retirement, who will grow our food in the future? How will they do it, and on what kind of farm? The number of farmers has been steadily decreasing since the early twentieth century, falling 4.3 percent in the United States between 2007 and 2013. And those who remain are not spring chickens. Between 1982 and 2012, the average age of American farmers rose from 50.5 to 58.3.38 Today’s farmers are old and ripe with wisdom and experience, but they’re about to retire or sell. That makes the Caleb Harpers of the world anomalies, or harbingers, depending upon your expectations for the future of farming. If we accept engineers as the new farmers and scaling of digital, non-soil-based farming in cities as the new platform, we may soon see a new, digital, distributed, scaled food production system that will replace the industrial, environmentally damaging farm of the past century.

The Smart Food City

Cities are also working on ways to include food systems and distribution in their urban plans for the future. In 2015, the city of Atlanta, Georgia, hired its first Director of Urban Agriculture, signaling a commitment to food systems as part of their urban infrastructure and planning process, and more cities are coming to the table. Officers in the area of sustainability are thinking more about urban landscapes that incorporate plans for producing, storing, and distributing food within an overall vision for the future. Other cities are looking at how food fits into their model for a Smart City. In 2011, Chattanooga, Tennessee, announced a competition for ideas about reimagining its food system, and they produced an assessment of all resources that could be included in a new Smart City food system. More cities are waking up to the idea that more than smart traffic management systems are needed to create smart ways to move things in our future cities.

The Smart Cities movement began in the 1970s with the use of demographic and economic data to find ways to address poverty within the urban landscape. Now, with the growth of digital networks, the accumulation of digitized data, artificial intelligence, and mapping software, cities are assigning “smartness” to a new vision for connectivity. At first these developments included transportation and network access, but now the connection of sensors, point-of-sale capture, drones, and robots all point to the increased interest in thinking about the food supply chain as another utility that could make food distribution to cities a smart move. Typically, urban planners designed cities that offered functionality for human transport—mass transit, parking systems, community gardens, and green spaces—but didn’t consider all these as part of an urban food system. Agritecture, founded by Henry Gordon-Smith, is a hip consulting company in Brooklyn, New York that develops food-smart cities.

As water and fuel have conduits into cities, why not food? Perhaps the smarter city will have all the inputs for an urban farm delivered underground with waste going directly to efficient bio-fueled generators. The really, really smart city will need planners across multiple disciplines, including nutrition, architecture, and computer science.

The dislocation of supply and demand will need a solution as we find ways to feed the growing global population. The practices of dragging the ocean floor and pumping inputs, fertilizers, and pesticides into our soil and hormones into our animals won’t satisfy our hunger or our new sensitivities for sustainability. Short of growing food on Mars, we will be finding ways to leverage digital technology to grow better, cheaper food in places we live and work. In some cases, the Last Mile may be no miles.

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