Technology itself is neither plague nor panacea for our sustainable, inclusive food future. It is always humans who choose which innovations to pursue, and how to use them. The revolution of digital technology presents this challenge in new and old ways, and our choices must be guided by clear morals that view food production and consumption not as just another opportunity for profit, but as fundamental to the survival of our species and the planet.
Empowering small farms, sustainability and farm-to-table are among the most important principles that must guide innovative digital initiatives seeking to make the food industry more sustainable and democratic. These exciting projects harness the digital world's ability to connect people and organize information to change the way we consume: from apps that avoid food waste to online platforms that connect customers to local farmers to virtual tools designed to foster production that protects biodiversity, and help circumvent the international corporations who too often block the redistribution of wealth to smaller, more sustainable farms.
Here are some of the forward-thinking digital projects keeping the way we eat exciting, efficient, healthy and humane.
Avoiding Waste, Connecting Farm-To-Table
Preserving natural resources requires more than good will. Those pushing for a more sustainable food system must know how best to measure, allocate and repurpose the resources at hand to avoid unnecessary waste and pollution. Digital applications and smart systems are using data collection and management to keep a lid on overconsumption and overuse:
• Beat The Expiration Date: More than 27 million tons of food waste is generated every year — in Japan alone. To save resources, Taichi Isaku, a member of Slow Food Japan, created an app called Tabete which connects users with store products on the brink of expiration, so they can quickly be bought and consumed. The popular app came in handy during the COVID outbreak, when many closed restaurants were able to save the food they would otherwise have been forced to discard. Isaku was a feature speaker at the October 16 panel "Edible Cities, Cities of the Future" as part of the ongoing Terra Madre digital conference.
The "farm-to-table" philosophy is driven by the goal of connecting locally grown ingredients with nearby customers, fighting for all citizens to have nutritious and sustainable alternatives to pre-packaged foods — and avoid harmful emissions from transportation. Online platforms have been particularly helpful in this area, using their ability to boost communication to keep small growers in business all over the globe:
• France: As a country particularly keen on terroir, France is seeing a boom in mobile apps that help citizens consume local products. One website, Mangeonslocal-en-idf.com, not only shows a map of markets that sell locally-sourced goods, but also highlights restaurants that work with nearby farms. Other startups, such as La Ruche qui dit oui, allow locals to purchase their groceries from neighboring farms online — and, now in the time of COVID, have them delivered to their door.
• U.S.A.: Another interesting way the digital world has helped connect small farms and locals is through crowdfunding. Steward, an American crowdfunding platform that specifically aims to help small sustainable farms, has reported an enormous spike in demand since the pandemic as increasingly conscious consumers seek to buy direct.
Empowering Small Farmers, Informing Us All
Mobile apps in particular have been a digital weapon of choice for boosting the business of farmers in small and isolated economies, allowing them to both gain visibility and sell their goods more efficiently. Here are two examples in Africa:
• Stay informed: While Uganda's agricultural sector has seen many positive developments in recent years, many of these changes never reached the poor, smallholder farmers located in areas where food is particularly scarce. In order to spread the word, Slow Food Uganda has been working with Agricultural Innovation Systems Brokerage to provide mobile-based services to this demographic. Their platform facilitates space for these farmers to communicate with the government officers charged with disseminating new agricultural findings and techniques, even enabling them to ask questions in their local language.
• Opening up the Conversation: The digital revolution has also helped keep Slow Food's signature event Terra Madre going during the pandemic. What is normally a week-long gathering of artisanal food producers — organized thanks to the commitment of the City of Turin and the Region of Piedmont — has gone virtual. Though nothing can replace the precious in-person human connections, the ongoing series of digital conferences and exhibitions is available for everyone to attend on the dedicated Terra Madre platform.
Terra Madre is an event organized by Slow Food, Regione Piemonte and Città di Torino.