The development and advancement of the food sector is essential for feeding an ever- growing population on Earth. Food production, sustainability, and distribution issues are part of various international agendas, including in economic development, security, and human welfare, to name a few. Furthermore, global population trends towards urbanization are spurring questions about the challenges and opportunities of feeding high-density communities. Internet technology can play a role in the advancement of food issues, helping the food sector to develop in a sustainable way, producing healthy and appealing food for a growing global population.
While the food sector is the largest single industry on the planet, encompassing roughly 10% of global GDP, it has yet to advance in many areas important to being a successful sector for the future. This includes transparency, quality control, and knowledge dissemination. The food sector is furthermore one of the few large sectors remaining that have not been transformed through the influx of new technology, in particular the Internet, and thus structural dynamics is not present to the extent as in other sectors.
While innovative uses of the Internet have been applied in some pockets of the sector, such as the use of sensor nets to monitor growing conditions for crops, most are isolated examples – exceptions, rather than the rule. In addition to a need to encourage new and innovative applications of the Internet to the sector, much more thinking is needed about how to move beyond “islands of application” in order to spur a broader, Internet-driven information infrastructure for the sector as a whole. Much more thinking is also needed in order to understand where a digitally overlayed food sector is heading. Algorithm based food decisions can be both a potential blessing and a terrible curse.
A wide discussion regarding the future of food, with a substantial knowledge of tech and data at the core, is therefore of the essence. Such a discussion will be followed by new policy frameworks and supported by digital solutions.
An open infrastructure with well-defined interfaces could for instance make it possible to track produce, giving necessary transparency to the sector. It could furthermore give rise to new opportunities of measuring and taking care of individual crops, plants and animals through online service solutions (sensors, data management and deployment instructions), with associated new business models. It would also facilitate the application of Big Data technology and best-practices analysis, giving rise to positive spirals as well as to the rapid identification of harmful produce or practices.
A proper digital infrastructure could even enable the tracking and control of individual grains, which can have significantly varying properties in terms of nutrients such as protein, gluten, vitamins and other attributes.
It is also the case that one could envision production and composition of food could happen locally in small kitchens by using 3D printers and protein based cartridges. These kind of changes could also have an impact on distribution chain of food products, while the boundary between recipe and CAD drawing for a hamburger that can be downloaded over the Internet is blurred.
A proper handling of the digital infrastructure around food would also enable man to fully take advantage of the “quantified self” – the movement to use technology to acquire and track data about oneself (such as food consumption, exercise, and performance). Knowing about oneself is only half the equation – in order to affect yourself you also need to understand what you consume.
On the other side, an improper handling of data can effect our biological existences. If an algorithm nudges people towards certain food products just because they have high margins, while not being the healthiest or most sustainable choices, then the power of digital can be outright dangerous.
Some key questions, besides a thorough understanding and an active policy discussion, include what technical infrastructure, processes, and applications are required to achieve the benefit of improved production, sustainability, increased transparency, and other attributes? Which parts already exist? Which parts would be affected? And which parts need to be developed?
And, which parts of a technical infrastructure for food would benefit from being opened and shared and which can remain proprietary. While at the same time thinking of all security implications.
As such, the purpose of the chapter is to be the home of this discussion around food and the technical infrastructure and to gather knowledge and insights into how the current Internet processes, protocols, and applications serve the interest of man in connection to food. And, if necessary, to produce input to new discussions, approaches, policies, applications, processes and technology to apply the Internet to the unique challenges and opportunities facing the food sector.