On the list of things that San Francisco is known for, food and technology are both solidly near the top. At our “Small Bytes” Tech Panel last Monday (co-hosted with General Assembly), we brought together expert panelists to discuss the current sweet spot where the two industries overlap.
Moderator: Lawrence Williams, chairman and CEO of the United States Healthful Food Council
As a kid, I would have imagined that by 2014, a panel discussing food and technology would be all about a pill you could take that would replace all your food, a "gun" that could perfectly ripen produce in seconds, or, ideally, a revolutionary discovery that made Gushers a complete meal.
The reality is a lot less Jetsons-esque. Aside from noting the ways temperature guns and temp-tracking-apps help guarantee food safety, most of the innovations around food and tech help us recover from the problems that earlier advancements, like microwaves and preservatives, spiraled us into; and somehow, that’s way more sexy.
Alon Salant brought up the two sides of tech, explaining how, yeah, there’s the part that encourages us to be head-down and ‘plugged in’ at the dinner table, but there’s another side that works to take the drudgery out of your life. That's one reason why Good Eggs focuses on logistics, offering food delivery and providing a more direct route to food producers to help build sustainable systems. Like Uber and AirBnb, tech has helped organize a very unorganized, messy supply chain, and the benefits are obvious to both producers and consumers.
It was noted that by 2030, one in three people will have type 2 diabetes, and believes that improving food access is a way to help. He explained that the food industry is filled with entrepreneurs, and La Cocina provides tools and space to help them thrive and make a living. His ‘jam’ example was especially eye opening: when you go to the store and see an $8 jar of jam, you’re all “WTF, that’s some pricey-ass jam.” But the reality is that only about $0.75 in profit actually goes back to the maker, so if you want to make, say $100,000 a year, you need to sell a TON of product. Being a small-scale food producer in SF is really difficult, and La Cocina is using tech to make it easier. (Relaxed regulations for “cottage foods” also helps, like being able to self-certify your home kitchen).
Krysia Zajonc explained how food technology doesn’t always manifest the way we imagine it will. “Navigating a drone by iPhone to deliver lettuce to the ghetto isn’t going to work,” she explained. Instead, things like battery-powered, movable fences allow for “rotational grazing,” allowing farmers to move livestock to different pastures in a matter of minutes instead of weeks, and that totally changes the way we raise animals. Another fun one was a new bug zapper that is able to identify the species of insect based on the ‘zap." This means they detect bug populations earlier, allowing us to use less toxic means of dealing with pests. There’s also an “open source seed initiative” that, like open-source code, ensures that no one can own certain seed varieties, because stop being seed-greedy, corporations!
The goal of the Department of Agriculture has always been to make cheap and plentiful food. Now we’re hoping to use technology to grow food business without sacrificing quality or sustainability. Occasionally, that involves kick-ass bug zappers, but it’s also somewhat of an awareness campaign; getting into the right mindset that explores how tech can provide the tools to move us into sustainable food production and distribution, instead of figuring out a way to eat lobster in Las Vegas.
Our next tech panel will discuss Future Cities on March 19th.