My two worlds have collided this week: work and food.
At IBM right now, I’m deeply involved in the communications efforts supporting the “Smarter Planet” agenda. Basically, the premise is that the systems that make the world work – financial, food, health, water, traffic, etc. – are largely broken and need to be fixed. IBM’s point of view is that it takes technology, sure, but also policy and cultural change to really find solutions to these problems – to make them smarter.
This week, we’ve been focusing a lot on building smarter food systems. You can read through some of the content here for more background, but the essence is that as our food systems have become globally interconnected, it has heightened the potential risks associated with food safety, nutrition, affordability and availability.
Clearly, this topic of food interests me very personally. So allow me to be indulgent and offer some of my own perspectives on the topic. While many people far smarter and more qualified than I are working on this issue, I have but one point of entry to the topic: taste. Simply, I believe this country’s food problems can be solved with a greater emphasis on better tasting food. Trust me, I’ll explain. But first, some background:
I remember as a kid frequently driving to San Diego from my home in the Inland Empire – about 45 minutes East of Los Angeles. Anyone who has driven that stretch of the I-15 corridor to San Diego knows you pass miles and miles of rocky hills, largely covered by dark avocado trees. The avocado groves thrive in the warm hilly terrain and make the dry, often parched hills, look lush and verdant. Not long after one such trip, I went with my mom to a local produce market and was tasked with buying the avocados. Expecting to find avocados from some of the trees I’d seen on my last trip, I was surprised to find only avocados from Chile or Mexico.
If avocados grew commercially in abundance just miles from my house, why could I only buy ones picked from trees thousands of miles away?
Fast forward 20 years to my now hometown supermarket in Connecticut. It’s August, prime summer produce season in the Northeast, and yet all I find in my supermarket are tomatoes from California. (Ironically, it’s easier to find California grown avocados in Connecticut than in California, as this blogger also noted this week).
Clearly, something is wrong. How much money is being wasted sending food across the country when it’s grown around the corner? What kind of unnecessary energy is burned in the process?
With populations on the earth facing devastating food shortages, something feels wrong about shipping food across the globe to places fully capable of providing for its own.
Somehow we need to create an independent market for local agriculture that is capable of supporting the local population, as much as practical. We need market incentives that force supermarkets to make dramatic changes to how they source, distribute and market food.
How do we do that? the government’s solution, to date has seemed to hinge on farm subsidies. Just read Nicholas Kristof’s column from today’s New York Times to see the absurd results of those programs.
I have a different idea. Remember, I love food for food’s sake. So it always comes back to taste. And, I can’t help but think that peoples’ desire for better tasting food can, ultimately, help lead to the kind of systemic changes needed in our food supplies.
Trivial, you say? Well, let me explain.
Simply stated the closer food is consumed to the place it was grown, the better it tastes. That is an absolute rule.
So, as people yearn for better tasting food, they’ll ultimately yearn for more locally grown food. And as demand for locally grown food increases, demand (read: money) for local agriculture increases. And demand for local agriculture translates into incentives for supermarkets to stock local products. And stocking local products requires more efficient local distribution systems. Problem solved.
It all comes down to consumers’ understanding of what truly good food tastes like. For the most part, we’ve been complacent with two generations worth of mediocre food and have forgotten the link between local food and good food. But if we can begin to remember that linkage, the above scenarios begin to come true.
See how beautifully it all works out in the end? Who can’t get behind the idea of demanding better tasting food?
And that’s what I love doing. Hunting for great food, wherever it exists. And now it’s doubly good to know that my quests are contributing to a smarter food system.
Now, as a pay off for reading this post, a great little video from a colleague explaining why it’s important to know where your food comes from: