Ending Anonymity in Food

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When you buy a bell pepper, where does it come from?

In the United States, it might have a sticker that tells you its country of origin. But do you know which variety it is, or how it was fertilized? Or even when it was grown?

Massachusetts Institute of Technology graduate student Elizabeth Greene thinks that many of the wrinkles in the world’s food supply are caused by a lack of communication.

Each farm knows what it grows and how it grows them. Each distributor knows which farms they do business with. But as fruits and vegetables funnel into the world’s massive food distribution system, the details are lost, and a restaurant’s supplier buying vegetables on a loading dock really has no idea where they came from or how responsibly they were grown.

Photo: Elizabeth Greene

“What if [farmers] could even connect with the end consumer rather than being six or seven degrees removed?” said Greene in a follow-up interview conducted via e-mail.

What if produce in the grocery store was labeled with its precise variety, with detailed information about its origin, how it traveled, and how sustainably it was grown?

There are lots of existing technologies, such as mobile phones and the Internet, that could be used to help information travel along with the food. “We have the tools to solve this; this isn’t going to require some radical new invention,” says Greene. Someday those peppers could be tied back not only to their country, but their farm, and how they were fertilized, watered, and stored.

“The term ‘organic’ is a proxy for actually having data about the food that you’re buying,” says Greene–it’s a substitute for actually knowing how the food was grown.

She thinks that not only could this information tell us what we’re eating, and help us support sustainable and local agriculture, but that it could help address world hunger.

Malnourishment is “in part a result of farmers getting a small piece of the dollar paid for their product,” said Greene, and distributing weather, ready buyers, responsible practices, and global market prices — not just the local price — could help farmers get top dollar for their food… thus letting them feed their families and bolstering already-low economies.

“Most farmers [in developing countries] have access to mobile” phones, said Greene, which could be used to directly connect restaurants with individual farmers.

Also, these farmers don’t have a neutral source of data about how best to use fertilizers or pesticides. “Because they make such a small margin on their crops, farmers in the developing world have an incentive to push their yields as high as they can. They get most of their information about what to plant and spray from their seed and chemical companies,” said Greene.

Seems like there are lots of reasons to communicate about our food as it gets from farm to table. So, what’s the catch? Cost, for one–the tech required has to come from somewhere. And it’s quite possible that big players in the agrochemical or food distribution markets won’t be thrilled to change.

But a more insidious barrier might be the difficulty of talking about food. It’s a very emotional issue, “and it should be,” says Greene. Everyone needs to eat, and many people care about doing it.

“We are thinking in binary terms: food is organic or conventional, local or global, healthy or unhealthy.” But an organic-certified product might be shipped across the country–is that better than a locally-grown crop that failed organic certification on a technicality? Or because the farm couldn’t afford the certification?

“If I’m buying blueberries and could find out in an instant that one pint was a dollar more than the other because the more expensive blueberries were grown with fewer synthetic chemicals, or could see that by paying a dollar more here I am saving a dollar in long-term health costs, I would able to make an informed decision about my food.”

Chris Combs, National Geographic News, from South by Southwest in Austin, Texas

Human Journey

Forty years in U.S., UK, and South African media gives David Braun global perspective and experience across multiple storytelling platforms. His coverage of science, nature, politics, and technology has been published/broadcast by the BBC, CNN, NPR, AP, UPI, National Geographic, TechWeb, De Telegraaf, Travel World, and Argus South African Newspapers. He has published two books and won several journalism awards. He has 120,000 followers on social media. David Braun edits the National Geographic Society blog, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society's mission and initiatives. He also directs the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship, awarded to Americans seeking the opportunity to spend nine months abroad, engaging local communities and sharing stories from the field with a global audience. Follow David on Facebook  Twitter  LinkedIn