What’s for dinner tonight? Choosing whether to dine on fish, vegetables or pasta is no longer simply a question of taste. Nowadays, it has to be a careful choice, made also on the grounds of personal responsibility. Put simply, it is becoming an informed decision which goes beyond our personal preferences and whims.
From seasonal, low food-miles greens, grown on the farm of a local producer, to the meat of animals which have not been fed hormone supplements or other drugs, to choosing species of fish which are not running the risk of becoming extinct - for those of us responsible for feeding a household, life is now full of tricky choices. And this is before we even start think about whether the food is going to be good for us: calorie and protein content must also be taken into consideration, along with best-before dates and any additives, such as colorings and preservatives, that go into the packaged food we buy.
This is why a new generation of food producers, entrepreneurs, techies and consumers the world over is working, through projects both small and large, to create a sustainable food supply chain where everything is open and transparent. And thanks to their efforts, an even more underground, obscure and deconstructed movement is gathering followers – at least for now.
The Open Food movement. This is an ideology which can enable, for example, a small southern Spanish turkey farmer to talk to an IT engineer from Silicon Valley, so that together they can find the best solution for improving the food supply chain for his poultry – and thereby also improving the food that ends up on the tables of the residents of his local area.
Even Boston’s MIT, via its Food and Agriculture Collaborative working group, has got involved: it has created a map which allows consumers to follow the supply chain that the food on their tables has passed through.
In this way, beyond simply consuming our food, we are all invited to stay informed with regards to the route to our tables that that tin of Mexican beans we just opened has taken, or where the metal used in the packaging of that roast chicken bought from the rotisserie was mined, or how damaging our first-born’s graduation party dinner (the one which involved relatives coming from overseas, and where we served those imported Catalan lobsters) was to the environment.
Elsewhere, the big supermarkets have in recent years begun to track their enormous supply chains, both for food and other goods, using ‘intelligent’RFID labeling systems, which can store an almost infinite amount of structured information.
Wal-Mart has promised that within a year, 50% of its goods will come supplied with labels which feature a radio link, which can help us to gain greater insight into where these products came from: provenance, ingredients, nutritional value and use-by date can all be viewed, along with hints for recipes we can use the product in when we get home.
This was at least how things were going, until someone came up with a genius idea in 2011, again involving RFID labeling, which will probably find its way onto the market in the coming years: a student at London’s Royal College of Art has been studying automatic communications systems that can send information on the contents of a specific meal to our PCs or smartphones at the exact time that is it put on the table in front of us. It does this through the use of a small wooden tray on which the meal, labeled using RFID technology, is placed.
Information on the dish we’re about to enjoy is then read and sent directly from the tray (which includes a computer chip and is connected to a wireless network). So what did go into this Greek salad we’re about to eat? Maybe the lettuce in it is past its use-by date? How many extra calories will we have taken on once we’ve eaten it? Where were those juicy Kalamataolives, poking up between the tasty cheese and cucumber pieces, grown?
All this information and much more, according to the creator of theNutrismart, can be transferred from the mysterious salad bowl to the iPhone sitting next to it in just a few seconds. Faster, even, than you can say «bon appetit».
This English student’s idea can also be used in many other different applications, and the Open Food movement knows this perfectly well. For example, it could help those of us who suffer from allergies, or glucose intolerance, and have a hard time finding out what the ingredients in packaged foods are. Also those of us on a diet who need to know if they’ve chosen an highly calorific product, and for when we’re not sure if our food is out-of-date or not and need find out before we take a bite.
Eating well, and eating to help improve the food supply chain, are the new mantras of a generation formed of a wide cross-section of food lovers who also want to be friends of the environment, and for whom the internet can now be a great source of information.