Food Tank, NYU Steinhardt, the Hunter College NYC Food Policy Center, and Salon.com co-hosted the second talk of a series of conversations live in New York City. Food innovators Alexander Gillett, CEO of HowGood; Bertha Jimenez, CEO of RISE Products; and Jennifer Goggin, Co-Founder of Startle Innovation discussed how good tech can lead to better food—and how inaccessible tech can hold the food system back.
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Moderators from Supply Chain Dive, Heritage Radio Network, and Food Tank challenged the speakers to think about the risks and opportunities from technology, Artificial Intelligence (AI), and Big Data. “The whole food ecosystem has gotten more complex with more dynamics and more players,” says Goggin. “Now, with big tech coming in… and with consumers no longer one homogenous mass, things have become a lot more interesting.”
Gillett notes that technology, specifically Big Data, can make it easier for consumers to make ethical choices when purchasing food. Gillett’s HowGood maintains a data library evaluating products not only on their basic components—including the safety and nutrition of their ingredients—but also on their environmental impact, social impact, and role in corporate social responsibility. “The goal here is to try and make a centralized location for all of that data so that everyone who wants to understand the impact of an ingredient or a product doesn’t have to do all the research themselves,” says Gillett.
While helping consumers gain transparency about the products they buy can help limit ethical breeches in food chains—like child and slave labor—Gillett notes that the fight for transparency is a constant endeavor that researchers must diligently upkeep. “We call it a living system. There’s no such thing as perfect data and there’s changing understandings in science,” says Gillett.
Jimenez’s RISE Products joins active researchers, data experts, and engineers innovating methods and technologies to address food waste. RISE Products works with breweries to upcycle leftover protein and fiber-rich barley grain into flour. Jimenez notes that technology allows seemingly at-odds stakeholders across the food system to work toward sustainability goals—crucial for food waste. “Everybody can help reduce waste, but industries play a big role too,” says Jimenez.
“To the extent that big tech coming in remains more of a platform enabling new innovations to come to light, I think that is the good direction [tech, AI, and Big Data] could possibly go in,” says Goggin, who also adds that AI can offer accuracy in nutrition and critical on-farm measurements. However, the potential impact of mistakes or errors is extensive. “In the agricultural industry, the cycle is long. You can’t move faster than the natural systems will allow,” says Goggin. “And the farmer has once chance a year to get their crop right. So you can’t really risk messing around with that.”