Shoppers are willing to pay a premium for ingredients that are cage-free, organic or wild caught. But how do you really know if the chicken you are eating spent its life happily pecking for corn or if your blackberries were grown locally and are pesticide free?
Simple. Put a tracking device on it.
It’s not as absurd as it sounds, says Robyn Metcalfe, a food historian who teaches at the University of Texas at Austin. A GPS tracker strapped to the leg of a chicken, says Metcalfe, means “that people who potentially will buy that chicken will know every step that that chicken has taken.”
ZhongAn Online, a Chinese insurance company, has already outfitted more than a 100,000 chickens with trackers. The sensors upload information, such as how much exercise each chicken gets and what it ate. The company says the technology will be on 2,500 farms in China by next year.
They are also working on facial-recognition technology so that consumers can one day make sure the organic chicken they saw on the farm is the same one that ends up on their plate.
The desire for a more personal relationship with your entrée was once just fodder for television humor. In Portlandia’s pilot episode, two diners question their server about the organic bona fides of the chicken. To reassure them that their entrée was not only healthy but happy, their server provides them with the chicken’s bio and photo. His name was Colin.
Metcalfe tells NPR’s Lulu Garcia-Navarro that in real life, plenty of consumers are genuinely interested in knowing where their food comes from, and are willing to pay for it. It’s part of the farm to table movement.
Tracking technology is already being used by California-based Driscoll’s, the largest berry distributor to monitor shipments in real time. Metcalfe writes in her book, Food Routes: Growing Bananas in Iceland and Other Tales from the Logistics of Eating, that consumers can hold their phones up to a QR code on the packaging of their berries to see the smiling faces of the family that grew them.
The real push, however, is from the industrial sector.
“Obviously they’re trying to look at technology for ways to lower risk,” says Metcalfe. Suppliers want to validate the safety of food going through the system. It helps them avoid costly recalls and public relations nightmares.
Tracking devices can pinpoint exactly which farm was affected by the bird flu or which one produced E. coli-tainted lettuce. They can also tell you how long produce was in transit and whether it was exposed to warm temperatures.
Metcalfe says one major food seller, Walmart, is testing the technology on leafy green vegetables, such as spinach and lettuce. The idea is that once the source of contamination is found, that produce can be recalled and destroyed, as opposed to recalling millions of pounds of meat.
“So if you have a food borne illness breakout like we just saw or outbreak like we just saw with romaine lettuce or raw turkey meat, you can use this technology moving through the supply chain to really be much more responsive about where it happened and why it happened.”
Metcalfe says it’s not yet clear how many producers would embrace this technology. Those who raise animals on an industrial scale aren’t exactly eager to let the public see what happens on their farms.
“How you move food through the supply chain is, in effect, your intellectual property,” says Metcalfe. “And so you may not be so willing to sign on to this technology.”
Metcalfe describes this brave new world as a mixed bag. “The food system could be open to hacking,” she warns.
“I’m a technology optimist,” says Metcalfe. “I see it’s coming. It’s already here. But how do we navigate through this sort of tension between open and sharing and safe and trusted. It’ll will be really interesting to watch.”
LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
Now, you’ve probably heard of Real Madrid, the soccer team from Spain. But how about Real Kashmir? It’s a relatively new soccer team from Indian-administered Kashmir, part of a disputed region between India, Pakistan and China. The area is known more for conflict than soccer. But this underdog team is battling for India’s top soccer title this year. NPR’s Lauren Frayer is in Kashmir.
LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: This Himalayan valley has hosted three wars between India and Pakistan and a decades-long separatist insurgency that Indian forces have often dealt with violently. It’s part of Hindu-majority India’s only Muslim-majority state. And there’s tension. But it was a different type of tragedy in 2014 that gave birth to Real Kashmir.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Heavy rain and flooding have hampered the efforts to retrieve the bodies…
FRAYER: Hundreds of people were killed in floods. Schools were closed, young people out on the streets. And one evening, two friends, a Muslim and a Hindu, had an idea.
SHAMIM MERAJ: It started with the 2014 floods, you know? We used to go for evening walks. And we would see a lot of kids hanging around doing nothing. And I had been a footballer myself. That’s when I thought, you know, why don’t I get some balls and at least give these kids something to do?
FRAYER: That’s Shamim Meraj. He and his Hindu friend Sandeep Chattoo handed out a thousand soccer balls to flood victims. But why stop there? They started a team for those idle youth to play on. It went professional. And they convinced a Scottish coach, David Robertson, to come all the way to the Himalayas.
DAVID ROBERTSON: All I ever saw was TV shows that – it’s 90 degrees. It’s hot in India. And I arrived here. Then the next day, it was snowing. There was no Internet. Electric was out. And I just thought I wanted to go home.
FRAYER: But Robertson stayed. And a year later, he coached Real Kashmir to win India’s second division, the soccer equivalent of the minor leagues. This year, his team is tantalizingly close to winning the top division. Sumedh Bilgi is an Indian sports journalist who’s watched this improbable rise of a 2 1/2-year-old team, which has 1/10 of the budget of some of its competitors.
SUMEDH BILGI: Ultimately, money rules the world. But you always want your fairy tale, don’t you? You’re always rooting for the underdog. I think Kashmir are that.
FRAYER: Part of the fairy tale is who’s on the team – a mix of players from Africa, other parts of India – Hindus, Muslims, Christians, atheists and local Kashmiris.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing in foreign language).
FRAYER: Down a warren of lanes sprayed with militant graffiti is where the team’s center-back, Muhammad Hammad, lives with his parents. He often has to circumvent police curfews to attend morning practice.
MUHAMMAD HAMMAD: Well, the practice is at, like, 11. I have to leave at 8 or 7 like this because after 7 or 8, there will be curfew around the city. And you are not able to move around.
FRAYER: Does it make you more determined?
HAMMAD: Yeah. Exactly. The conditions here – you get much more motivation to achieve something because I have struggled a lot. These things also motivate you.
FRAYER: Motivate him to go out and play soccer in the Himalayas.
(SOUNDBITE OF WHISTLE BLOWING)
FRAYER: It’s freezing sleet. Big, fat snowflakes are falling onto the soccer field. And the fans are all huddled under this big Real Kashmir tarp, screaming.
UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Cheering).
FRAYER: At a home game, the drenched stands are packed. Schoolgirls in headscarves swoon. Men climb to the roof of a neighboring mosque to peer down into the stadium. Some of the opposing team from tropical Southern India have never seen snow.
UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting in foreign language).
FRAYER: Real Kashmir scored the winning goal in the 51st minute.
UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: (Foreign language spoken) Goal.
FRAYER: And as Real Kashmir moves one game closer to the Indian title, the crowd, as if they hadn’t gone wild already…
UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Cheering).
UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: Real Kashmir F.C. – one, Gokulam Kerala – zero.
UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Cheering).
FRAYER: Lauren Frayer, NPR News in Srinagar, Kashmir. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.