Eating Right With Mobile Technology

What to know about sustainable food apps

Food is one of our oldest technologies, and the one that underpins everything man has done in the last 20,000 years. It may seem strange to consider food a technology, but it is oddly accurate with the advent of sustainable food apps. For millions of years, for the hunter/gatherer societies throughout the tangled branches of the hominid or australopithecus family tree, food was just something that was found, or brought through violence. But with the exception of fire, it was largely unaltered.

That changed with the dawn of agriculture. Suddenly, food was not just a substance, it was a commodity to be managed. At the beginning of what can really be called the human era, the cultivation, distribution, and storage of food led to the need for societies and hierarchy, and the time that was no longer spent on finding food like every animal could be used to develop new technology and art. It was the creation of this system that could be described as our first technological revolution.

Even more importantly than that, nearly all the food we eat is the byproduct of human manipulation. Cows don’t exist in nature; they were essentially invented through a process of domestication. The same can be said for nearly everything we eat. It is interesting, and inevitable, then, that our new mobile technology revolution has turned its gaze toward food, with the rise of sustainable food apps that help us eat in a more local, more natural, and more healthy manner.

Why sustainable apps matter

A good example of this kind of technology is HowGood, which recently raised $2 million in its latest round of funding. HowGood is an app for iOS and Android operating systems that allows a shopper to look up how sustainable certain food is, using a variety of categories. Shoppers can go into a store and either scan the product in question or look it up manually, and HowGood will give them a ranking of one to three globes, based on its overall sustainability. Right now, it has over 100,000 products in its database, though one imagines the extra couple of million will help it expand.

HowGood rates many different factors, including where the product was made relative to where the shopper is, general industry emission standards, and byproducts of the item in question. This can help the shopper make an informed decision about their purchase.

This kind of stuff matters. Let’s say you are looking at two different bags of rice. One comes from India, the other from California’s Imperial Valley. Obviously, it took a lot more energy to transport the rice from India to San Francisco. But, on the other hand, while it is true some areas of India have droughts, many of their rice fields are in high rain areas, whereas the Imperial Valley is in the midst of a great drought, and rice is a water-intensive crop. So which is better overall for the environment to buy?

App helps make the decision – for consumers and producers

I don’t have an answer to that question, but it is an example of the kind of dilemma faced by conscious consumers. It is easy to say “locally grown” or “organic,” but there are more factors that go into deciding which is better, overall.

The rise of mobile technology has helped with these dilemmas. There are any number of sustainable food apps on the market, all of which have their own little niche. Some can let you know how the fish you want to buy was caught – if it was done in a way that helps to preserve fish stock moving forward, for example (something that mobile technology was helping with, anyway). Others can tell you if the food you are eating is grown in season. This is a big deal, since food grown out of season needs more water, more energy, and overall more resources to bring to market.

Of course, there is the argument that anything we do is ultimately just to feel good about ourselves, to make the right decision, but it doesn’t matter what we buy. Just because an app lets you know which Bay area restaurants serve locavore food doesn’t mean you can change the world.

That is a shortsighted way of looking at things, though. The most ardent free-market advocate will tell you that change happens from consumer choices, and these sustainable food apps help consumers choose to eat in a manner that is more conscious. If that becomes a trend, food producers will have to change their methods in order to get better ratings, or else lose their market share. It’s the way things work, and mobile technology gives us the chance to make that difference.

Technology moves us forward by bringing us back

There is a certain irony to it – the industrialization of food, which began tens of thousands of years ago, and began in earnest in the last century, is responsible for a lot of health issues. It is also responsible for saving people from starvation, of course. But that doesn’t mean the bad has to be accepted with the good.

A purely atavistic anti-technological stance would be that our food issues dovetail with our reliance on technology. But mobile technology, which empowers consumers to make informed choices, could swing the pendulum back to a more natural and sustainable way to create food. Our newest technology can have a dramatic, positive impact on one of our oldest.

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