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Published onApr 16, 2020

In 1994, my family moved from Silicon Valley to Mid-Coast Maine. We left monotonous sunshine for capricious, complicated weather. We had just spent a year in England and returned to California inspired by Britain’s rural landscape. So inspired, in fact, that we moved to Maine and bought a farm. But not just any farm. We had seen the farms in England that raised historic, rare livestock breeds, and we decided to follow suit. Ours was a conservation farm with a mission to increase the populations of historic livestock breeds in North America. The move seemed like a random impulse, and it was, sort of. But it was consistent with our desire to trade the indulgent lifestyle in Silicon Valley for an unknown adventure in the liminal landscape that lies between Maine’s coast and its languishing agricultural interior.

With our two young children, we set up a working farm that would raise heritage livestock as a conservation project. The idea was to increase agricultural biodiversity by raising farm animals that represented genetics that were rapidly disappearing from farms around the world. More genes meant more resilience and redundancy for our food system. Rare livestock breeds survive in dwindling, fragile populations, but by increasing their numbers, we would strengthen and diversify the safety net in case the few commercial breed populations we all rely on ever collapse. Although many of our livestock breeds were no longer commercially sustainable, we thought they might be of interest to a few chefs who thrived on new, scarce ingredients for their menus. We were optimists.

We ran the farm for ten years, soldiering on during long, blustery New England winters. Grocery store managers and chefs in our town were skeptical. Our closest high-end restaurant bought lamb from New Zealand, but not from our farm three miles away. We did succeed on other fronts. We reestablished Gloucester Old Spots pigs in North America after the breed population had dwindled to only four animals. Now the breeding population is about two hundred in the United States. Still fragile, but at least still on the map. We also established heritage breed programs on many other US farms while introducing them to chefs in the Northeast.

After ten years of operation, the farm’s model—based on small populations of animals—was unsustainable, so we paused our efforts to bring attention to dwindling agricultural genetics. We eventually sold the farm, passing on the animals we’d raised to other farmers, who we had encouraged to conserve heritage breeds. Our project was too much too soon.

Today, heritage breeds are on the menu, and small farmers find the interest in local and sustainable brands helpful in terms of positioning their products. We have a greater understanding of our food system and a full-bodied language to describe it. When we operated our farm, no one talked of local or sustainable food. Timing is everything, as Daniel Pink says in his book When.

Ten years after closing the farm, I began teaching food history at the University of Texas at Austin. It was time to think critically about our food system, and it was finally time to find out why that restaurant in Maine wouldn’t buy our meat. The timing of this project was better, but finding the answer has taken longer than expected. We talk all the time about new ways of growing or eating healthy food, but we still don’t know much about how we get food to our tables. The answer to why restaurants don’t routinely buy ingredients from local sources lies somewhere between the farmer and the chef. In 2011, I organized a project called Food+City to explore how we feed our cities. This book is a product of our work at Food+City, digging into the “to” of “farm-to-table.”

You’ll find out about this invisible stretch of our food supply chain in this book, but here’s a hint about why our food doesn’t always travel in logical ways to from farm to plate: New Zealand produces grass-fed, uniform lamb all year long at a fraction of the cost of our farm’s lamb in the United States.

We are witnessing major changes in the way we grow, process, transport, and consume food. Each change that occurs within our global food system sends ripples throughout the supply chain, up and down, back up to the producer and back down to the consumer. These changes will result in getting better food to more people while lessening the waste and environmental impact along the way. Networked, digital tools will both improve our food system and challenge our relationship to food in new ways, not always with positive results. We need to recognize this tension and anticipate our response to the increasing use of technology in our food system.

Who are we? Mostly likely the readers of this book are able to afford to think about where their food comes from, the environmental impact of our global food supply chain, and the problems related to food waste. The food system at the heart of this book is not so privileged. We will investigate the global food supply chain in the broadest sense—feeding 90 percent of the world’s population, and not just the readers of Eater, the members of Slow Food, and those of us who Instagram our latest foraged dishes.

The food system at the heart of this book needs reinvention, maybe even a total redo, in order to provide enough healthy food to the entire world population now and in the future. We have an opportunity now to use the technological advances available to make impactful changes in the way we grow and distribute our food.

I’m a technology optimist, but I am cautious about how we use technology when it comes to our food system. The optimism comes from our experience producing our annual Food+City Challenge Prize, a competition for entrepreneurs who are starting businesses in the area of food logistics. Applications for the competition increase every year. That’s reason enough for optimism.

But as we move toward blockchains, robots, and engineered food, we should keep a wary eye on all the complications they engender—especially when food is involved. We can use technology to improve our financial system or to deliver curated content easily enough. But food goes into our bodies, it can kill us if we let it, and it is all very, very personal. We get all fired up over our grandmother’s apple pie or our town’s world-famous chili, in spite of the carbon footprint of the ingredients. Our food tells the world who we are. Will changing our food system change who we are? Or are we changing in ways that will shape the future of our food system?

The purpose of this book is to challenge our current assumptions about our global food system and to explore what the future might look like.

We’ve grown accustomed to talking about our food system in terms of opposing values: big food, small farmers, global food supply chains, and local food. Almost every narrative about our food settles into one of these tendentious camps. The latest technological advances are loosening up some of the barriers that have impeded progress toward change. We are challenged more than ever to reconsider our attitudes toward science, art, and what it means to be human.

We’ve been here before. When the industrialization of food occurred in the early twentieth century, reformers and consumers welcomed lower food costs and an increase in both the variety and the quantity of food. It wasn’t until later that the public realized the effects of a centralized food system that relied on synthetic chemicals and artificial flavors. We’re about to get what we wish for again: new digital tools will allow us to follow our food throughout the supply chain, and engineers will make new proteins that may make juicy steaks a thing of the past. Will it take us too many years to realize that transparency can be misused by bad actors, and the elimination of animal-based protein can result in an imbalance in our domestic food production landscape?

Our global, industrialized food supply chain has gradually changed the way we grow, process, and deliver our food. Industrialization brought us to a moment of reconsideration, and we’re there again—in an even bigger way—now that the digital revolution has arrived, causing humans to weigh the benefits and costs of being connected through our smart phones.

While we want healthy food we can trust, we also want personalized food and lots of choices. We want the peaches from the farmer next door, one hundred types of bread, fiddleheads from the forest, and dozens of coffee options. We want small, beautiful, slow food at the same time as we want inexpensive, fast, predictable food. The question of how to develop this all-inclusive supply challenges even the most nimble and precocious food systems planners. We will need computers, networks, and software to satisfy all of our needs and desires.

Could it be that the world already produces enough food and will continue to do so, and the critical problem is one of distribution? Might we make a dramatic reduction in food waste if we could just distribute more of what we already produce? Maybe these digital tools can help stop the bleeding of food within our global supply chain.

The subject of the movement of food is complicated by the challenge of gaining access to resources that are bound by confidentiality, intellectual property, and the connections between food security, transparency, and national security. Not everyone in the food distribution system is keen to have their protocols, sources, and future plans made public, particularly when their space is becoming ever more unstable and subject to disruption. As Amazon, Google, and Uber join traditional players like Sysco, US Foods, and Aramark, competition for new services makes the innovators even more guarded about their plans for the future. Traditional concerns about openness and collaboration make it more difficult to get closer to an understanding of how our food supply chain works now so that we can intelligently apply new digital tools to solve its many problems. This is changing, but trust on both the consumer and producer sides will come only gradually, nudged forward by an impatient market.

You’ll find four themes throughout all six chapters in this book: reliability, technology, trust, and adaptability. Our food supply chain depends upon reliable quantity, quality, and schedules. Without technology for production, processing, distribution, and transportation, the supply chain would fail to keep up with our growing, global, urban population. Without trust between the source, the consumer, and everyone in between, more of our food would end up in landfills. And without the ability to adapt to change and disruptions, our food supply chain would fail. Our supply chain operates on these four ingredients.

You may find this book’s overview of our global food supply chain incomplete. The focus of these chapters is to give a brief overview of how the food supply chain works while describing the changes occurring today and suggesting how they might impact us going forward. Treat this flyover as a primer to the mechanics and dynamics of the subject, and use it to find your way to more specialized books about supply chains and food logistics.

You will also notice the absence of the expected ethical criticisms of our global food supply chain. We’re increasingly aware that the food system can appear unjust, insecure, toxic, and exploitive, and that healthy food is simply inaccessible to much of the world. While these observations are valid, they are not the focus of this book. Instead, we’ll explore the unexplored, the invisible people operating to feed our cities around the world, the unknown impact of new technologies on the food system. This will be new territory for many of us.

Intended to introduce you to the people and technology that deliver our food from farms to plates, this book begins with a general description of how the food supply chain evolved and how it works today. You should feel uncomfortable with some of the material in this book. Yielding the image of verdant fields of organic tomatoes for enclosed, high-rise greenhouses controlled by robots may rattle many of us who feel grounded in soil-grown food.

Chapter 1 moves up and down the chain and back and forth through time, stopping along the way to reveal a little science and a little art and spontaneous adaptation. We’ll provide a summary of the basic elements that allow our food supply chain to feed cities around the world.

At no other time have consumers thought of the quality of their meals in terms of location the way they do now, so chapter 2 sets the global food supply chain in the context of geography and distance. This chapter explores where and who produces our food and how we think about the spaces between them. While we will consider the speed of food delivery, we will also explore the complete absence of food delivery in such areas now defined as “food deserts.” We’ll also review new foods, who makes them, and where our farms may be in the future.

We’ve become obsessed with distance—sometimes only perceived distance, but mostly the measureable distance between our plates and the source of our food. The idea of a “Food Mile,” cooked up by academic studies and government agencies that attempted to quantify the Mile, has turned out to have different meanings for different landscapes. Any given food product includes a number of micro-ingredients, some processing, and the additional journeys to packing, distribution, and storage facilities. All of these stops add distance.

Chapter 3 takes us to all the activities in the midlands of our food supply chain: processing, packaging, and storage. This chapter bridges the gap between the natural food movement and the realities of processing to ensure our food is safe and nutritious. We should admit that all of our food is processed at some point. Critics of our food system often decry “processed” food, but the challenge of serving safe food in a litigious world has raised the stakes for those who want organic, unprocessed food. Shelf life requires some respect since it allows for more food to remain in the supply chain and less food to go in the waste bin. How will we extend shelf life without synthetic additives? And while we resist hyperprocessing of our food, we seem receptive to protein produced in petri dishes, which is processing in extremis. This book will explore these new proteins but will save an in-depth exploration of seafood for a later project.

Packaging joins processing as another means for maintaining freshness and extending shelf life (and sending environmentalists into a frenzy, while we’re at it). The material between our food and our mouths is the protective layer guarding us against contamination and spoilage. Even more than a barrier, a package communicates its contents and carries the brand’s message from the producer. And those packages are communicating in smarter and smarter ways, with more and more labels containing digital information that conveys who produced our food and where.

Food settles in our landscape, stored around railroad terminals, ports, and industrial parks. Grain elevators, warehouses, and cold storage facilities are the silent partners of food logisticians who manage inventories and transportation networks. Some warehouses, such as caves or seafood pounds, are out of sight. Some play strategic roles, storing food supplies in crisis areas or in case of scarcity or environmental disaster. Others hold excess food supplies so prices won’t fall below profitability. Innovations like shipping containers have changed the way food is stored in transit, and technology plays a role in most solutions now, from extreme shelf-life requirements for the military to remote storage in space.

Chapter 4 covers the range of transportation networks that connect our farms to our plates. The routes and their hubs take different forms, from food banks to distribution centers. The location of these hubs is often contingent upon the presence of transportation networks; even the cattle drovers located their stockyards in close proximity to the railroads in the late nineteenth century. This chapter explores the four major networks—rail, water, air, and roads—and the networks of the future. Food stored on blimps or in space stations isn’t too far off.

Chapter 5 explains how the desire and need to follow our food throughout the supply chain has driven the new innovations around sensors and the Internet of Things (IoT). It illustrates how barcodes, scanners, RFIDs, and GPS technologies are merging to provide shippers and consumers a pathway back to the producer, sometimes in real time. Food fraud, security, and safety create an even more urgent need to develop cost-effective tracking technology to locate food contaminations and counterfeiters in the shortest time possible. The recent obsession with blockchain as the new “killer app” for the food supply chain may indeed create a new option for tracking and tracing the food in our supply chain. We’ll take a look at how it works and how some companies are testing out blockchain technology, arguably the most dynamic and potentially transforming link in our evolving future food supply chain. The arrival of new technologies such as blockchain and the integration of food supply chain data will transform the food supply chain. With more transparency and collaboration, the food supply chain will be smarter, faster, safer, and able to move more food to more people at less cost and with less food waste. Feeding cities will be less miraculous and more predictable, saving resources all along the way. This is the root premise of this book.

By the time you reach chapter 6, you’ll be ready to take the ideas discussed in the previous chapters to imagine two versions of your food universe: One is an evolutionary future that uses digital tools alongside our traditional food system to improve transparency, quality, and access. The second future is revolutionary, abandoning our current system for one that is engineered, networked, and nearly independent of livestock and crops grown in fields.

Choose your future food system. Will it be insects grown in urban farms delivered by robots? Or hamburgers made from cows outfitted with drones and sensors to improve their health and welfare? Or perhaps, once you’ve developed a healthy understanding of where food is and where it’s going from the first five chapters, you’ll be able to anticipate a universe we haven’t yet thought of. The important thing to know is that you’ll need to make some choices, and they may be more complicated and difficult than you imagine. Those who consume most of the food produced around the world will feel the ramifications of the choices we make now. Developing countries may be the first to feel the impact since they don’t have an existing infrastructure to uproot and replace. They can begin now to implement some of these new technologies, to use data to determine the fastest and cheapest way to deliver fresh food to remote populations. Let’s hope we get it right this time.

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