AMY: Hey Alexa, did you ever watch Portlandia?
ALEXA: Not really, but I did see a couple of scenes here and there.
AMY: There was that one skit I’ll never forget, called Colin the Chicken. It was the very first episode.
ALEXA: Okay, wait, that is actually one of the ones I have seen.
AMY: Yeah, its where Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein are in a restaurant and begin to ask their waitress about the chicken on the menu.
SKIT: Carrie: I guess I do have a question about the chicken if you could just tell us a little more about it.
Waitress: The chicken is a heritage breed, woodland-raised chicken that’s been fed a diet of sheep’s milk, soy and hazelnuts…
Fred: This is, this is local?
Waitress: Yes, absolutely
Fred: I’m going to ask you just one more time, and it’s local?
AMY: So you have to realize, they’re playing these hipster bohemian types that are really concerned about where their food comes from and whether it’s organic or not.
ALEXA: Yeah, and then they really start to overwhelm the waitress with all of these questions.
SKIT: Fred: Hazelnuts, these are local?
Carrie: How big is the area where the chickens are able to roam free?
Fred: I’m sorry to interrupt, I had exactly the same question.
Waitress: Four acres.
AMY: Finally, the waitress brings out a portfolio about the chicken – like adoption papers.
ALEXA: With full color photos.
SKIT: Waitress: Alright, so here is the chicken you’ll be enjoying tonight.
Fred: You have this information? This is fantastic!
Waitress: Absolutely, his name was Colin. Here are his papers.
Fred: He looks like a happy little guy, runs around. Lot of friends, other chickens as friends, putting his little wing around another one and kind of like palling around?
Waitress: I don’t know that I can speak to that level of intimate knowledge about him. They do a lot to make sure that their chickens, uhhh, are very happy.
ALEXA: Okay, that’s just ridiculous. And it doesn’t even end there. It goes on. She asks who raised the chicken and then they actually end up driving to the farm to verify it.
AMY: They nail that stereotype so well. But let’s face it, a lot of people think it’s important to know where their food comes from.
ALEXA: But sometimes, we just don’t know. We have to trust what’s on the label, right? Or where the store tells us it’s from. And even then, there’s limited information.
AMY: But imagine if you could know exactly where your food comes from, how it was grown, what kind of soil it grew in and how it’s handled. What if you could find out whether you should eat it based on your own health needs? And you could do this in minutes, even seconds.
ALEXA: This may sound like something from another planet, right? I mean, our food system is completely fragmented.
AMY: Yeah, but the Internet of Food could change all of that.
ALEXA: Okay, honestly, I just don’t understand the Internet of Food.
AMY: Well, we’re going to try to unfold it.
ALEXA: So we can find out if the chicken is local?
AMY: Which is why the name of this episode is…
ALEXA: Is... the chicken local?
(UNFOLD THEME SONG)
AMY: If we were to talk about all the ways the Internet of Food could help society, this episode would never end.
ALEXA: But there is a guy who could explain it all to you. And that’s Matthew Lange. He’s a UC Davis food and health informatician.
AMY: We caught up with him at a Sacramento restaurant.
AMY: Here’s the first thing Matthew told us about the Internet of Food.
MATTHEW: It’s not a website, it’s not a database, it’s essentially a way of gathering together a whole new internet.
AMY: Imagine trying to describe the internet to someone before it was invented.
ALEXA: Or the World Wide Web.
AMY: In a nutshell, Matthew is working to engineer this new system. To really understand all of it, you first need to know about the Internet of Things.
ALEXA: That’s probably something most people have heard of.
AMY: Yeah, but we should explain it just in case. So I thought it would be cool to ask my Echo device – you know Amazon’s smart speaker.
AMY: Alexa, good morning.
ECHO: Good morning, today is Paul Bunyan Day, a day to revel in the lore of the supersized lumberjack who has said to have eaten 50 pancakes in a minute and carved out the Grand Canyon with an ax. Hopefully he didn’t actually have bunions, because I bet they’d be the size of a horse.
ALEXA: Okay, first of all, I didn’t even know there was a Paul Bunyan Day. And eww, bunions on your feet are just gross.
AMY: Yeah, so after that distraction I got to the point.
AMY: Alexa, what is the Internet of Things?
ECHO: Internet of Things usually refers to a network of everyday devices, appliances and other objects equipped with computer chips and sensors that can collect and transmit data through the internet.
ALEXA: So clearly, your Echo, because I refuse to call it an Alexa, is part of the Internet of Things.
AMY: Yeah, I’m just wondering why she didn’t say, “I am a perfect example of the Internet of Things.”
ALEXA: Well, she’s obviously not as smart as me, this Alexa.
AMY: Ha. Well, the Internet of Things also includes things like smart home devices, smart thermostats, soil sensors, your smart car, robotics, all of these physical devices connected to the internet in some way.
ALEXA: And Matthew says there is a connection between the Internet of Things and the Internet of Food.
MATTHEW: Partially the Internet of Food is data about food from the Internet of Things because we can track food, we can track how it grows, we can take pictures of the corn plants as they’re growing in the field, we can take pictures with drones, we have earth observation data from NASA. So we have all kinds of ways of tracking data about food.
AMY: Get it? All kinds of physical devices are already tracking food. And then there are other data about food, data you might get directly from the internet or data like the genomics or molecular components of food.
ALEXA: Yeah, and there is nutritional information about food. Economic data about food. The list just goes on and on.
AMY: Right, but all of that data is fragmented.
Alexa: Matthew is trying to change that.
MATTHEW: What we’re doing, we’re building a common language for all these things to be able to talk to each other.
AMY: By common language, he means a common computer language.
ALEXA: So think of building the Internet of Food as building HTML language, or Hyper Text Markup Language, which every web browser can understand.
AMY: We can markup text for bold or italic or new paragraph or whatever. Building the Internet of Food would be built the same way.
MATTHEW: So instead of marking up text, we can markup food, for, you know, its level of ripeness or how it was processed or how it was grown. So whether you’re talking about molecules inside of a piece of food, or whether you’re talking about as that food moves through the supply chain, or whether you’re talking about observing that food from space, we want a common language where sensors and robotics and scientific investigations can all use the same terminologies to operate over that data, and that is the Internet of food.
ALEXA: Okay, but Amy, I still don’t really understand how this would work – especially from the consumer’s perspective. How would I even access this information?
AMY: Well there would be lots of different interfaces, right? Like you could use your phone’s QR scanning capabilities to find out a lot more than just what’s on the label of your food, because maybe you’d have it’s molecular structure or more information about where it was grown rather than just knowing who manufactured it, which is about all that you can find out right now. The Internet of Food could be accessed through apps. There would be a web interfaces or robotics that could transmit data to the internet. Matthew isn’t building the interface. He’s building the language.
ALEXA: So let’s talk about how the Internet of Food could help consumers. He mentioned tracing food. This is going to be able to tell us if our chicken was local without having to drive out to the farm to verify it.
AMY: Yes. This is a difficult thing to do now. Not with all food, but with a lot of it. And I had read once that Walmart tried to trace where a package of sliced mangoes came from – you know from farm to consumer. Apparently, it took them six days, 18 hours, and 26 minutes.
ALEXA: Ugh, that is so scary.
AMY: Yeah, it could be, especially if you’re talking about a food safety issue. But then Walmart hooked up with IBM and used blockchain technology to trace the food back to its source. And get this- it took 2.2 seconds.
ALEXA: See that’s unbelievable. But, shouldn’t we explain blockchain?
AMY: It’s pretty complicated. But since this is called Unfold, I’ll try. In this example, I’m talking about an agricultural blockchain. At each point in the supply chain, each transaction – like where food is sold, or processed, or distributed – is logged onto a computer or a physical device. That happens now, but all those transactions are fragmented – which is why it takes Walmart or any retailer so long to trace food. In an agricultural blockchain, farmers, processors, distributors and retailers would have information that comes before them and after them in a digital ledger. No one owns this digital log, which makes it secure and transparent.
ALEXA: Okay, so how does that connect with the Internet of Food?
AMY: What Matthew is doing is writing computer languages about food that can take data from the agricultural blockchain and let that data talk with other data, say data from the Internet of Things. It’s creating interoperability.
ALEXA: So that would help consumers by potentially preventing food contamination.
MATTHEW: Once we have a common language where we can annotate all this data we’re going to have a much clearer picture on why certain outbreaks happen, when they happen, where they happen and that’s going to have huge implications on how to prevent them in the future.
ALEXA: We could prevent food waste, right? We’d stop having to throw away so much food because of a safety scare.
AMY: Right. And Matthew told us another way the Internet of Food would help consumers – and that’s transparency. Here’s how Matthew described that.
MATTHEW: You may desire to know that the animals you’re eating were treated well before they died in some way. Or maybe you care about the fact that, you know there weren’t any phosphates used to grow one of the crops.
ALEXA: I asked Matthew whether everyone in the food supply chain would embrace the Internet of Food. There may be some things farmers or food companies don’t want the consumer to know. What if they don’t want to tell consumers, for example, that their food was grown using certain pesticides?
AMY: That’s true. Traceability and transparency may not be absolute. Some information will be voluntary. But Matthew thinks the more transparent our food systems become, the more those companies that do reveal information – like how their animals were raised or treated - would actually have a competitive advantage.
MATTHEW: As transparency increases it becomes a competitive point — the less transparent you are the less competitive you’re going to end up being. This isn’t going to happen overnight. There are always people that are going to game the system. I do think it’s going to be a win for consumers, and it’s going to be a win for our environment because people are going to be able to make decisions about things and the ways that things were grown or processed that they haven’t previously been able to have insight into.
ALEXA: One other idea about the Internet of Food that I found amazing was this idea that it can help you in the kitchen.
AMY: Yeah. The digital kitchen already exists, right?
ALEXA: Ovens that can sense what your chicken weighs and set the proper time to cook it.
AMY: And refrigerators that can sense when you’re out of milk.
ALEXA: Combine that with your Fitbit data and data you may have stored about your dietary needs…
AMY: And the Internet of Food will be able to suggest what recipe you should make based on the ingredients in your fridge and your dietary needs. It could take you through the steps to make a certain dish and even preheat the oven for you – at just the right time — while you are making it.
ALEXA: It’s pretty cool, but maybe the Internet of Food doesn’t sound like something you’d like.
AMY: We’ve been talking about a lot of food-related topics on this season’s Unfold that you may not have liked or maybe you’ve even strongly disagreed with.
ALEXA: Which is why next time on Unfold, we’ll be talking to a UC Davis expert in American Studies and Food Science about why food can be so controversial.
Amy: Thank you for listening.
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