Here’s how technology could create something better
If you look around any American or European supermarket these days you’ll find that there’s regular food, and then there’s “organic” food, complete with a sparkling certificate and usually a few sketches of flowers, sunrises, and dancing cows. And if you’re like most consumers, you probably assume that this label guarantees that the food is healthier, more environmentally friendly, more socially just, and somehow sustainable (whatever that might mean).
This confusion starts at the top. The US Department of Agriculture’s first claim about organic producers is that they “preserve natural resources and biodiversity.” Other common definitions use words like “enhancing,” “ensuring,” and “harmonizing,” as if these were guarantees. Unfortunately, the USDA doesn’t measure anything to support these claims. In fact, organic certification tells you very little about what was done in the production of the food. It’s defined, instead, by what was not done: specifically, that synthetic chemical compounds were (more or less) not used in the production of the food.
This blanket prohibition has the virtue of simplicity, but it often doesn’t make sense. Many of the synthetic compounds most widely used in agriculture are merely artificial versions of naturally occurring chemicals. Banning the synthetic forms doesn’t make the product any different or healthier, and in some cases it can have knock-on effects you might not expect.
For example, sodium nitrate synthesized from the atmosphere for fertilizer is banned in organic production, but chemically identical sodium nitrate mined in the Chilean desert is allowed. Many intensive organic growers have turned instead to animal-based nitrogen fertilizers, such as manure, feather meal, blood meal, bone meal, fish meal, and fish emulsion. So you might be vegetarian, but there’s a good chance that your organic lettuce is just one step away from the scrapings of a feedlot or slaughterhouse floor.
Why the organic label no longer serves…
This definition of organic began in a well-intentioned way. As books such as Rachel Carson’s 1962 classic Silent Spring awoke people to the dangers of industrial farming, a movement for transparency in agriculture was born, captured in the still-common maxim “know your farmer, know your food.”
At first this movement was limited primarily to farm stands, farmers’ markets, and independent local markets and cooperatives that retained an almost face-to-face connection between producers and consumers. But as demand grew, many of these alternative farmers began providing certification and a marketing label as a way to extend their reach. That certification was, of necessity, based on what farmers could measure in each other’s fields—the inputs used in production. Given the very real scares of the time, prohibiting synthetic chemicals was a reasonable place to start.
However, these well-intentioned farmers didn’t anticipate that their intentions wouldn’t scale, and that as the organic market grew, “know your farmer, know your food” would become, in effect, “know your label, and trust it to do the rest.” And as industrial agricultural firms have replaced these independent, impact-conscious farmers as the primary organic producers, it’s becoming clear that organic certification doesn’t guarantee your food will be healthier or more environmentally friendly, or farmed without exploiting workers.
… and how to move beyond it
The common response is to demand stricter organic certification prohibitions or naively trust other labeling schemes instead. But there’s a better way: Use modern technology to “know your farmer, know your food,” and then make your own decisions.
Transparency in agriculture is now common at a previously impossible scale and level of detail. Farmers are increasingly making management decisions based on information collected from satellite imagery, geo-prospecting technology, unmanned drones, plant root simulators, andsensors in plants themselves. This information is then often combined with detailed records of labor practices, equipment use, and management strategies to build comprehensive histories of individual fields. Processors and distributors make similar use of information to guide their decisions, and document such details as the point of origin, the distance traveled to market, and the means of transportation.
If these producers and suppliers have an incentive to supply this information, consumers will be able to look at the resources that went into producing their food in the same way they can now read the ingredients list and nutritional information. Imagine a label that says not only “low calorie” or “high fiber,” but also “low carbon footprint” or “high water-use efficiency.”
But it can go beyond mere stickers. Whole Foods and Walmart are already taking steps to give consumers more information about the broader impacts of food production. Soon, information services will allow shoppers to do such things as trace a product’s path from farm to shelf and give products and businesses a score based on their own personal values, not those of a marketing agency.
This may sound optimistic, but it is not naïve. The hard part—the data collection—is already occurring. The next hardest part—interpreting the data and repackaging it for consumers—is being pioneered by companies such as HarvestMark and SupplyShift.
While consumer demand for this information is still patchy—most people don’t know they’re being misled by organic certification or that there are better alternatives—the supply of it is already daunting. Farmers and producers are increasingly turning to social media and other outlets to tell consumers about themselves or avoid misrepresentation. Many also see it as a way to overcome a slow-down in the growth of farmers’ markets and the shortcomings of “natural” food chains as middlemen. Chances are, if your food has a brand on it, that brand has a website and is trying to find you and tell you who they are. All this can be exhausting, which is why businesses such as Good Eggs are summarizing and streamlining this information to help consumers conveniently order from hundreds or thousands of individual producers.
The farmers who are offering such transparency are not just idealistic independents frustrated with the organic certification system; they’re also conservative ranchers tired of being vilified, and even one of the original “evil empires” of agri-business. Dole is the world’s largest supplier of fresh fruits and vegetables and it still carries the name of the family that started plantation agriculture in Hawaii and led the overthrow of the sovereign Hawaiian kingdom when it proved profitable. But this same Dole is now using its product-tracking technology to introduce you to the specific banana farm in Colombiaand pineapple farm in Costa Rica that produced the bowl of fruit you’re eating in California. And if you’re skeptical of Dole’s transparency and McDonald’s “Our Food. Your Questions” campaign—good! These companies are inviting your skepticism and they are asking to be held accountable because, for the first time at this scale, it’s a good business strategy.
In short, technology is quickly making the misleading organic certification obsolete. And its benefits can include increased direct sales of uncertified products; certification programs based on practices, not prohibitions; documentation of the actual outcomes of production; and true customer loyalty, based on transparency. The future of food is one of increasing information and communication, and this future need not be dim if consumers learn to peel off the organic label to see the food and the farmer underneath.
Found at Quartz.
At least 50,000 people took to the streets of New York City on October 23, 1915 to march in the country’s largest women’s suffrage parade up to that time.
Nearly 70 years after the founders of the women’s suffrage movement gathered in Seneca Falls, it seemed the tide was finally turning. (Interestingly, this matter was controversial even among the two main organizers of that gathering at Seneca Falls, with Elizabeth Stanton firmly for fighting for a woman’s right to vote and Lucretia Mott stating about that proposition, “Why Lizzie, thee will make us ridiculous.” It was ultimately a former slave, the great Frederick Douglas, that swayed the crowd at that gathering to include the right to vote in the Declaration of Sentiments.)
After enduring decades of ridicule and intimidation over the matter since then, 13 states had enfranchised women, and it was hoped that the progressive state of New York would be next to fall into line.
Parades were very popular – and influential – a century ago. Before television, and even radio, became commonplace, parades were the way to get your political message across to large groups of people at one time. This parade was held ten days before the election, and the goal was to sway any undecided voters just before they cast their ballots.
The very fact that women were taking to the streets made a very strong statement. It refuted the long-held belief that a woman’s place was in the home while the men dealt with political affairs. Some suffragists claimed that they could clean up the dirty world of politics, and wore white dresses to symbolize this. They carried heavy banners to disprove any claims they were too fragile to survive away from hearth and home.
One of the largest groups marching in the parade was teachers, some wearing black with “suffrage yellow” sashes, others donning caps and gowns. They carried banners bearing messages such as: “YOU TRUST US WITH THE CHILDREN; TRUST US WITH THE VOTE”. Good one, Ladies.
But the biggest cheer of the day went to an elderly woman who carried a placard reading: “GETTING THERE AFTER TRYING FOR FORTY YEARS”.
It wasn’t just women marching that sunny day in New York City – 2,500 men marched along with them to support the cause of women’s suffrage. 250,000 mostly supportive spectators lined the parade route to enjoy the spectacle that kicked off at 3 p.m. near 5th Avenue and lasted until 7 p.m. The New York Times dubbed it “the latest, biggest and most successful of all suffrage parades.”
For all the success of the day, the referendum on November 2nd failed. But the women of New York were indefatigable and immediately began reorganizing their efforts once again. One the eve of another election in 1917, the women marched bearing a petition signed by one million supporters of women’s suffrage. The referendum passed this time, and New York became the 14th state to grant women the right to vote.
‘I Hope to Die at 75′: Famed Doc Ezekiel Emanuel Explains
NEW YORK — Shortly after he took the stage at the BBC Future’s World-Changing Ideas Summit here in Manhattan, Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel held up a full-page AARP ad from a newspaper. It featured a picture of an older couple hiking above a line of text that read, “When the view goes on forever, I feel like I can, too. Go long.”
Emanuel famously does not want to go long. Last month, he published an article in The Atlantic, provocatively titled “Why I Hope to Die at 75,” and on Tuesday (Oct. 21), he explained why he doesn’t buy the bill of goods that organizations like AARP are trying to sell.
Emanuel doesn’t plan to ask his physician for euthanasia on his 75th birthday. In fact, he strongly opposes legalizing euthanasia and assisted suicide. But in 18 years, Emanuel, now 57 years old, said he will stop going to the doctor and cease taking medications such as statins and antibiotics that could prevent life-threatening illness; he’ll only accept palliative care.
Emanuel is an oncologist and bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, and was one of the key architects of the Affordable Care Act (dubbed Obamacare). He’s also the brother of Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel and Hollywood agent Ari Emanuel.
Seventy-five, he said, was a “slightly random number,” but he picked that age by looking at the data on the rates of physical and mental disability, as well as studies on how creativity and productivity decline in old age.
Emanuel said he doesn’t want to run the risk of getting dementia, involuntarily drooling, living in a nursing home or imposing a burden on his family. The bioethicist said he wants his grandkids to remember him as vigorous, not incapacitated. And he said he doesn’t believe there has been a “compression of morbidity,” or a decrease in the amount of time people spend suffering from chronic illness as they live longer.
“As we add more years of life, we’re adding more years of disability,” Emanuel said. “That just doesn’t strike me as a great deal, and not the kind of deal I think most people have in mind when they are thinking about the future.”
Emanuel’s essay in The Atlantic sparked a variety of strong reactions. A columnist for the Los Angeles Times called Emanuel’s views “inhumane.”Slate suggested Emanuel was “elitist” for implying that people cannot be valuable in society unless they’re being productive in some meritocratic way. Another writer for The Washington Post took Emanuel’s article as an occasion to reflect on his optimism for what the future holds as he watches his parents slow down.
But at Tuesday’s summit, Emanuel insisted the essay was not a prescription for anyone else — nothing more than a challenge to others to come up with a personal definition of a good, meaningful life. He said he doesn’t think most people will conclude that a meaningful life is necessarily a long one.
In terms of policy, however, Emanuel did say he would like to see some attention diverted away from extending the lives of the old, and focused more toward the problems of infant mortality, pre-term births and adolescent mortality — areas where the United States lags compared to other developed countries. Emanuel also said doctors and nurses need better training to talk about death and end-of-life care with their patients. And in general, he said Americans need to start having those uncomfortable, existential conversations amongst themselves. He said the obsession with trying to live as long as possible suppresses the question: What are you going to do with your life?
“The reason I wrote the article was to try to provoke conversation,” Emanuel said. “To make people think about what’s valuable in their lives. We don’t do this easily. It is scary. But what could be more important?”