What Does Technology Have to Do With Food? (Pt. 1)
In order to easily grasp the ways in which technology and food interact, we will map the journey of food from production to disposal. Along the way, you will see that technology plays a role in both overt and sometimes more subliminal ways.
The production of food begins with land. Farmers are responsible for growing and tending to crops, raising cattle, and managing large surface areas depending on their speciality. By streamlining the process, various manifestations of technological advancement have made it easier to grow food - from the first tractor introduced in the late 1800s to the modern drone. Initially, technology shifted the practice of agriculture from a purely manual one - executed by hand - to a more automated process. With the introduction of power - first in the form of steam then later with diesel and electricity - machines became more sophisticated and easier to use. In the last decade, we have witnessed the emergence of digital technology as a new method of farming. Precision agriculture refers to the use of technology to enhance crop yields and increase profitability. Sophisticated machinery like sensors, drones, and GPS trackers give farmers better oversight of their land. Planting, fertilizing, irrigation, weeding, and dusting are now optimized. New technologies can measure and monitor moisture level in the soil, collect data to help farmers make informed decisions, and even detect diseases. Although highly contested, genetically modified organisms, otherwise known as GMOs, are a form of technology which have vastly improved the way we grow food, most notably by increasing yield. Using engineering techniques, we modify organisms by changing their genomes. This is useful to make them resistant to certain diseases or better suited to a particular climate, among other things. GMOs also allow us to reduce the use of pesticides and grow crops in areas we may not have been able to before. Lastly, as the effects of climate change become more dire, we are beginning to acknowledge the negative impacts of our food system. In consequence, technologies are being employed to develop solutions to climate-related food issues such as the overconsumption of meat and animal products. Companies like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods are developing meat alternatives made of plant protein and lab-grown meats using actual animal cells - without harming the animal. These are two different approaches to encouraging people to eat less animal products, but both rely heavily on technological innovation.
Once food is produced, it is transported. This is done through traditional means of transportation such as boats, trains, and trucks - all forms of technology. Increasingly though, we are witnessing the use of alternative modes of transportation: drones. Arguably safer and better for the environment, drones are still relatively nascent, and are only used for small packages, not large quantities of produce, yet. Food delivery is also increasingly popular, especially since the outbreak of COVID-19 which forced restaurants and businesses to close. People turned to ordering food online, whether for one meal or for a full box of produce, a process which relies heavily on technology. From the internet or data the consumer uses to order to the car or bike used to transport the food, technology is present every step of the way. CSAs - community-supported agriculture - are an example of how an increasing concern for sustainability intersects with innovation. CSAs describe a service in which consumers can buy food directly from producers, often through subscriptions. These give consumers access to fresh local food - delivered to their doors - which they use as a base for cooking at home. Meal kit delivery services are another iteration of this process, but are geared towards those who have little time to cook or don’t know how to, as these boxes deliver prepared and portioned ingredients that consumers simply finish cooking at home to make a meal.
Tune into the next part of this two-part series to learn about the connection between food and technology after the production and transportation stages!