South by Southwest panelists discuss how technology and food can work together to make the world a better place.

You’d think in our increasingly artisanal society the food chain would be one fundamental holdout against what used to be called High Tech. You’d be so, so wrong.

Food information shared socially is, it turns out, a value-added condiment. We spoke via email to Rachel Weidinger, Nick Weidinger, and Stowe Boyd, the SXSW presenters of Seafood Watch vs Yelp: the future of social food on how technology and food can work together to make the world a bit better, or at least a bit better nourished.

Stowe Boyd (SB) describes himself as a social anthropologist, clairvoyant, and postfuturist. Most other people describe him as one of the pre-eminent anthropologists of the information age. He was originally scheduled to be a co-presenter of this panel, until SXSW put their foot down about how many panels one man can present. Rachel Weidinger (RW) is Director of Upwell and former Tech Souper. Co-presenter Nick Weidinger is her brother and a Researcher at the Institute for the Future. Upwell is a just-launched nonprofit marine conservation communications project organized as a social media agency whose client is the ocean.

Daily Dot: What is food tech?

Stowe Boyd: Food tech is a new generation of social tools based around the premise of opening up the food chain, and connecting together farmers, distributors, artisanal food developers, farmers markets, stores, and consumers in a different way that the closed food chain managed by today’s agribusinesses, grocery stores, and distributors.

Nick Weidinger: In short, it is information. Information about where food comes from, how it was produced. What effects it has on the community and environment. And whether or not it is nutritious for you. One big past example of food tech is the Nutrition Facts label that is required in many countries. Technologies like the printing press and a deeper understanding of science enabled the Nutrition Label. As we develop new technologies, like the internet and ubiquitously connected smart phones, we will likely see new and exciting developments in food tech.

DD: How will an open food system be social?

SB: An open food chain doesn’t have to be inherently social, but there are huge benefits when the various nodes in the food network communicate on a person-to-person basis.

RW: As the complex interactions of ecosystems and economies run up against each other, massive amounts of data are generated.  If the economic systems don’t exist to collect and analyze it, it can just drift away.  The Seafood Watch app has a feature, Project FishMap, that allows users to input restaurants, Yelp-style, where they find rated fish.  It’s a neat example of using human processing power to navigate an incredibly complex set of factors to find healthy, tasty food.

DD: Who controls food data now? How can we get it?

SB: There is a great deal of food data that is closed, and in the hands of multinational agribusiness and grocery store companies. The US government has a great deal of data that it is working to open up, like farmer’s market data. Today, however, we are seeing a number of entrepreneurial companies trying to build businesses around open food data, like Real Time Farms in Ann Arbor MI.

RW: Most food data is controlled by producers, and only parts of it are available to consumers. Some efforts, like Good Guide and Seafood Watch, allow consumers to access data beyond the simple bits required by regulation.

NW: The exciting thing about the future of food data is that tools are becoming available for consumers to create their own data. For example, some high school students just did genetic testing on sushi and found out that the species of fish is not always what is advertised.

DD: What tools are available for food tech?

SB: I mentioned Real Time Farms, but another interesting tool example is Wholeshare, which is a tool to help people forming food buying clubs, which is an annoyingly information-intensive activity.

RW: Portable DNA scanners, databases accessible via mobile devices like Good Guide, Locavore and Seafood Watch, smart deli counters, tags for fish showing provenance.

DD: Why is access to food data important?

SB: Ultimately, because more people want to know where the food on the table comes from, tracking where a pound of hamburger or a bag of rice through the food chain is essential. And the information is more than geography: people want to know what the cattle ate, or what chemicals was the rice exposed to, and how has the food been treated on its journey from the farm to my kitchen. A second factor is that data in aggregate can help farmers and others plan better. If there is an increased demand for kale this week, then farmers can plant more, and work to meet that need.

NW: A large part of our culture and economy is based on the production and consumption of food. The way it is set up right now works okay, sort of, but it can be better. Food can taste better, it can be more accessible, it can be better for us, and it can be produced in a way that is sustainable for generations to come. The only way to understand how our food system can be improved to to understand how it works now.

RW: If we have access to food data, we can imagine systems beyond what we currently have.

NW: We live in a consumer-driven economy. if there is a demand for a product or service, then someone is bound to start selling it.

DD:  And what do you mean by “disruptive” food system? Using these new tools will disrupt what, exactly?

SB: New communication tools are disruptive because people shift from using other, older systems. If we put food tech tools in place so that farmers can communicate directly with stores, restaurants, and even consumers it will sidestep the existing food distribution system and its propriety and closed data stores.

RW: If our only options for food data are controlled by those that profit from the sale of that same food, we’re in a tough spot.  Democratizing access and getting data collection tools into the hands of consumers could usefully disrupt our food systems much in the same way that social media has disrupted our media systems.

DD: Won’t this contribute to the disenfranchisement of the poor, as they have limited access to digital technology? Or is it going to be easy to access via phones, etc?

SB: I think this is a generational question, really, but the majority of young people of all income levels have smartphones, and I don’t think that food buyers will need more than that to participate in new food systems.

RW: There are already some cool ways of making sustainable seafood information widely available, like SMS-based Fish Phone.  The FDA’s mandatory labeling of RDA information is one of many models for democratizing access to data.

NW: and we are already at the point where mobile phones are accessible to the majority of the people around the world, and smart phone adoption is catching up quickly.

DD: Why is now the time for this movement?

RW: The past few months have been big for sustainable seafood tech.  Barriers to accessing and creating food data are dropping rapidly. Since I started speaking about the intersection of big data, mobile and sustainable food at SXSWi in 2008, tools I thought were decades off turned out to be just months away.

DD: Are the tools corporate or crowd-sourced, open source? Who has created them, and did they have this in mind when they did?

SB: There are all sorts of models, depending on the goals of the developers involved.

RW: Many existing tools are either grassroots hacks or made by nonprofit organizations.  Emerging tools can come from a from a wider range of makers, including tech startups, food entrepreneurs, and scientists.

DD: How did you get involved?

RW: I’m a gatherer by nature, and looking for tools that help me source the food I share at my table.  As we’re distanced from the means of food production, I seek out ways to stay connected to what I eat.

DD: What specific outcomes do you anticipate?

SB: The best analogy might be the social media revolution, which was pooh-poohed by the established media folks, and which has changed the media world totally. How would you measure that impact? Advertising revenues?

In the case of an open food chain, I think it will take five years or more to have anything more than a marginal impact on how US food systems work, but after that point, its possible that a great deal of US food might be managed through open food tech systems. For that to happen, the interest in local, high quality, and safe food would have to continue to grow, as it has in recent years.

RW: I predict that in a year we could fly into a new city and easily access safe, healthy, social-rated, sustainable seafood purveyors with smart phone apps. I also predict that in a year it’ll still be challenging to know if you really should eat that tasty fish taco, and what fish it really is made with.

Photo by Janet Kornblum

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