The growing interest in local food and food safety has spurred a small community of technologically minded entrepreneurs to create a range of food-oriented social applications. Their goal? To open up the food chain from the farm to our mouths and make it possible for the average person to know more about where her food comes from, how it was grown and the provenance of ingredients. In a politely subversive way, these entrepreneurs also want to allow individuals and groups to sidestep the agribusiness system and access food through farmers markets, co-ops and food-buying collectives.
While food tech is a small niche today, food itself is huge: The U.S. market for food was over $1 trillion in 2009, according to the USDA. Right now the food market is mainly controlled by a few large corporations. However, the activities of food-oriented entrepreneurs, grounded in web-based social technologies and collaboration with local food movements, could represent an alternative to established agribusiness in much the same way that social media countered and disrupted established media in the early aughts. The invention of low-cost, web-based social-media publishing led to the creation of alternative sources of information, which has destabilized the publishing world and has led to the retrenchment of older media businesses such as newspapers and magazines. In a similar vein, the creation of low-cost, web-based software to allow members of an emerging alternative food system to connect and share information openly could challenge the dominance of older food-production and food-distribution businesses.
Today’s food chain: a closed system
There is very little information available to consumers today about their food, aside from the ingredients and nutrition information on the package. With the exception of specialty stores or brands, the length and complexity of food chains make it costly — if not impossible — to gather information about food and carry it to the people who eventually eat it. The companies that are sourcing fruit from growers in China, Mexico or even California, for example, have little to no incentive, thanks to costs and potential backlash, to reveal what chemicals are used on the food or how the land is cultivated.
While government agencies like the USDA are providing some data — such as the geographic data in the farmers markets databases at data.gov — this information does not really get into the details about the food passing through those farmers markets or even conventional grocery stores.
However, the growth of farmers markets in the U.S. is an indicator of people’s desire to eat more local food: In 2010 there were 6,132 operational farmers markets, representing a 16 percent increase over 2009 levels. And going to the farmers market gives consumers the ability to ask the farmers about their food, how they plant and how they treat livestock.
Danielle Gould, the founder and publisher of the website Food+Tech Connect, has written a great deal about people’s desires to open up the food chain. She also touches on an additional aspect of closed food chains: agribusiness’ control of patents and other intellectual property. She’s used the term “open-source agriculture,” comparing food initiatives to the likes of Linux and Wikipedia, which were also sparked by concerns over intellectual property. As she recently said, “From equipment to seeds and research, agriculture is a staggeringly closed and consolidated industry.”
However, some of these proprietary and closed information systems are now being countered by the USDA and startups, which are both gathering and distributing information about food. Companies like Wholeshare, FarmsReach, ShopWell and Farmonic may be the leaders of a food-tech revolution. How? We take a closer look at one company, Real Time Farms, in the next section to see how it is using technology to “open-source” the food industry.
Real Time Farms: opening up the agriculture industry
Real Time Farms is an Ann Arbor–based food-tech startup trying to crack open food data so consumers can know about the food they’re eating. The company’s tagline, “Know where your food comes from,” could be the motto for the entire open-food movement. Most of the value proposition for Real Time Farms is about data, some of which it has gleaned from open-government databases. But the company is attempting to amass the most comprehensive database about food available, with the participation of farmers, restaurants, distributors and artisanal food makers.
For example, it will soon launch extensive farm profiles that will allow consumers to know both their food and the farm it came from, at a level that has formerly been impossible. These profiles will include information on growing practices, pest management, soil care and maintenance, water management and so on. The intent is to make this information available so that other entrepreneurs, agencies and nonprofits can use the data and thereby improve their own efforts in food education.
Real Time Farms is also working with restaurants to change the way consumers think about their meals. The company builds what it calls “storytelling software” to generate highly detailed menus that trace every ingredient back to the farm from where it came. Imagine reading a menu and seeing where the pork was raised, the potatoes and asparagus grown and the eggs laid. Real Time Farms is directly implementing some use cases into its own software, such as the ability of a restaurant to pull the provenance of ingredients from the database, based the food-chain relationship between the restaurant and a farmer or farmers. Other use cases can be implemented by other developers who can access Real Time Farms’ data through published APIs.
Prior to choosing a restaurant, on Real Time’s site consumers will be able to access real, up-to-the-minute rich data on the deep history of the food in their community restaurants. This is a real shift: Instead of choosing based on reviews, type of cuisine or price, consumers will be able to choose where they want to eat based on data about the food sources. And this plays to a variety of different interests or concerns that people have about food (how it was grown, how many miles it’s traveled, etc.). In this way, consumers can make food choices that align with their individual values.
Real Time Farms will be opening up its data via a public API, so anyone can analyze, use and create additional tools. As co-founder Cara Rosaen says, “We consider ourselves very much a for-profit social venture. We think open-source data is good for business and for our social mission — it’s a win-win for everyone.” Restaurants have been signing up to work with Real Time Farms, specifically those that want to differentiate themselves by being able to show the story about all of their ingredients to a food-savvy customer base.
Benefits for farmers
At the other end of the food chain, farmers could benefit from better information, too. Melanie Cheng is one of the first entrepreneurs to push ahead, with an open-food startup called FarmsReach that is researching what barriers are stopping a
more efficient, regional food system. FarmsReach has determined that farmers lack good information about the marketplace, which makes it hard for small- and medium-sized farms to compete effectively. At the FarmsReach website, the company states that regional farms “just need a more efficient marketplace, but what we found is that the more urgent need is to help farms prepare for market: specifically, tools to assist with pricing, packing, food safety compliance, planning, and group purchasing.”
Although there are major obstacles for regional food systems to scale all along the supply chain, according to Cheng, “the biggest issue that has debilitating ripple effects down the chain is that farms need to better prepare for market.”
This preparation can take several forms:
- Pricing. Farms need to price more intelligently and competitively. According to Cheng’s research, farms often guess at prices, operating without knowing those from other local farms or conventional suppliers.
- Packing and packaging requirements. It turns out that different distributors and institutional buyers have their own requirements and preferences for food packing; not matching these requirements means that farmers cannot sell through those channels.
- Food-safety regulations. Food-safety regulations exist for state and national governments as well as corporate and institutional buyers. These regulations have to inform the production and handling of foods, as well as any related certifications, such as organic, kosher or halal.
- Planning. Farmers need to plan crops based on demand instead of guesswork. Knowing how much bok choy or strawberries to plant needs to be more of an economic exercise and not just based on anecdotes or the Farmers’ Almanac. FarmsReach will aggregate information about market demand from distributors and grocery chains, for example, and provide that information to farmers.
Cheng see FarmsReach as being part of “open-source agriculture,” and she says that in upcoming releases, its market data, which is geared toward helping farmers make better judgments, will be open and available to all. However, the company won’t be open-sourcing its applications, which lines up with Real Time Farms’ approach.
An open social framework
The food-tech movement is just one element of the exploding interest in safer, higher-quality regional and sustainable food. But it may end up being the driver that turns the current fascination with food into something more than recipes and restaurant reviews. By gathering and sharing information about farms and markets and connecting the players in the web-based food information chain, these entrepreneurs may be building the Twitter, LinkedIn or LAMP stack for open food.
In only a decade, social media has gone from being a tech hobby of a bunch of fringe self-publishers to having a hand in the worldwide destabilization of newspapers and print media. The world is even more ready for a socializing of the food chain today, when farmers follow market prices on cell phones while driving tractors and networked consumers check ingredients or search for farmers markets on their smartphones. Today, socializing the trillion-dollar food market may only take 5 years, not the 10 it took to refashion print media down to its foundations.