Yesterday’s Food 2.0 event in NYC was great: a wide variety of people discussing various parts of the emerging open food chain, from the seeds in the ground to dinner in our mouths.
We are headed for the food system equivalent of the bank meltdown.
My interests, as I said in the Open Source Food panel, are mixed. As a web anthropologist, I want to understand the way that innovations spread across this new community, and the role that social tools are playing in spreading ideas and forming a new foundation for a new and open design for food growing, production, and distribution. But I am also motivated — at a partisan level — to help develop an open food chain because of the threats that arise with the closed food chain we now have.
I made a closing argument — and not well — that I think is helpful for people to understand how important an open food system is. Here it is, somewhat cleaned up.
Today’s Food System Is A Lot Like The Financial System, Only In Reverse
The financial system that nearly led to a global financial collapse, and which has caused the largest recession since the Great Depression, is a sprawling, globalized mess so complex that it cannot be managed or understood. One thing we have learned is that the mortgage bond market is a textbook example of how lack of visibility can make a system dangerous to all those involved, even to those who make money from its instability.
Specifically, the housing market worked like this: Home owners acquired mortgages from lending institutions — banks, mostly — and those institutions turned around and sold them off to other institutions, and ultimately (often after many sales and repackagings), the debts were consolidated in to gigantic pools, and then reconfigured into new pools of bonds, theoretically by level of risk.
We know what happened: too much easy credit was offered to people who had high risk of defaulting. This was concealed by the numerous reshufflings of the actual obligations of specific people for specific properties into giant mass blogs of toxic risk. Regulators who were supposed to be monitoring the system as a whole, do not have tools adequate to police the system. In fact, the system is too complex to even determine what should have been monitored, aside from the unhelpful notion that everything should be watched. Those involved in the repackaging had incentives to conceal the actual risks, which they did by design and by actions. And then, when groups of debtors began to default (the mortgage holders, and various hyper-leveraged financial institutions), there was no way to unscramble the mess. Governments have stepped in to cover institutional bets, but we still haven’t see the last repercussions of the Econolypse, and the foreclosures continue.
Why is this like the food system? The world financial system — and the leverage it created — was based on the loss of information at every step in the system, along with implicit trust given to the theoretical authority of regulators and the presumption that large players don’t want to cause harm, necessarily. And the same situation holds in the world food system, with similarly scaled risks. The world’s food is hanging in the balance.
So, in the global food system, the risks inherent in food — not just food safety, but the environmental costs of outsourcing food production to distant lands with unregulated food production — are concealed by distance, and the unwillingness of the players to keep track of and share information. Where did this particular head of broccoli grow? What chemicals were poured on the soil there? Was this side of pork ever allowed to warm above 40º farenheit? The large agribusiness firms bundle together the risks in the food system, and parcel it out in repackaged lots, so when we buy some broccoli at the store — in general — we know nothing about it, really. An ‘enlightened’ chain might mark it as coming from Mexico, or California, but aside from that, we know nothing. And there is no real open marketplace, aside from the choice to defect from the global system and rely on local farmers, which is not a choice open to many. An open marketplace would mean that I could choose one head of broccoli over another based on information about them.
In the final analysis, long food chains with closed information cannot be safe, and create a situation where it is impossible to make informed decisions about the impacts of our food choices. And the companies that have come to control the global food market do not want to gather or provide that information. And it is difficult to imagine that our governments would start to compel them to do so.
The cost of food is rising across the world, as a result of growing populations and various short-term weather or long-term climate problems, depending on your view. This is the stress that is equivalent to the run up to the mortgage/bond disaster: players at every stage in the global food chain will have added incentives to guard their proprietary information and connections, to conceal high risk production practices, and to stockpile foods and information. We are headed for the food system equivalent of the bank meltdown.
The creation of an open food system will have to take place outside of the existing food system, by different groups, and serving the needs of people who have defected. And it needs to happen fast.
There are a vast number of issues related to the development of a food system where critical information is opened up for use by companies and individuals. Open in this sense means that common frameworks for sharing information evolve and are widely used. Food information will of necessity flow in parallel with the movement of food, and the activities surrounding its travel and transformation into food products.
I predict that there will be something like the LAMP stack for this new open food chain: layers in an application framework, or components in a communication framework. Also, this framework will be based on social networks: the relationship of the various agents in the food chain — farmers, distributors, food producers, grocers, and consumers — and their interactions.
The open food system will be social, and is as potentially disruptive to the established closed food system as social media has proven to be for the media world. Low-cost and low-friction software will mean that we can demassify food the way that social tools have demassified media. Supermarket chains might be a lot like newspaper conglomerates, in this model. Yes, we will still need to grow, produce and distribute food, but just as we have increasingly turned to the web to learn about — and influence — world and local events, so too we will turn to an open and social food system, managed online, to learn about and acquire food.
I will be writing more about the open food system, and its software, over the next weeks and months. This is just the start of something big.