Episode 5: Is the Chicken Local? | Unfold Podcast


AMY: Hey Alexa, did you ever watch Portlandia? ALEXA: Uh… not really, but I did see a couple
of scenes I guess here and there. AMY: There was that one skit that I’ll never
forget, called Colin the Chicken. It was the very first episode. ALEXA: [Laughs] Okay, wait, that’s 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. PORTLANDIA SKIT: (Carrie: I guess I do have a question
about the chicken if you could just tell us a little more about it. Waitress: Uh…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 (fade out) ) 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 like all 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 the exactly
the same question. Waitress: (sigh) 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 informat- This is fantastic! Waitress: Absolutely, his name was Colin,
here are his papers, okay? Fred: That’s great! 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 uhh intimate knowledge about him. Um they do a lot to make sure that their chickens,
uhhh, are very happy.) ALEXA: [Laughs] 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 came 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 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 music fades in] [Unfold theme music plays] ALEXA: Coming to you from our basement studios at UC Davis. AMY: This is Unfold. A podcast where we breakdown complicated problems and discuss solutions. AMY: I’m Amy Quinton. ALEXA: And I’m Alexa Renee. [Unfold music fades out] 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. [Restaurant background noise fades in] 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. [Restaurant background noise fades out] 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,
cuz I bet they’d be the size of a horse. ALEXA: Okay, first of all, I didn’t even
know that there was a Paul Bunyan Day. And ewwww 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, 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..[Background restaurant noise begins to play] 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 of 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. [Restaurant background noise fades in] 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, um… or whether you’re talking about as that food moves through the
supply chain, or whether you’re talking about, you know, 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. [Restaurant background music fades out] 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: Yeah! 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, I mean, 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. [Laughs] In this example, I’m talking about an agricultural
blockchain. At each point in the supply chain, each transaction
– like where the 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. So 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. [Restaurant background noise fades in] MATTHEW: Once we have a common language where
we can annotate all this data we’re gonna 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 for being able to prevent them in the future. [Restaurant background noise fades out] ALEXA: We could also 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, you know, 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. I mean, 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. [Restaurant background noise fades in] MATTHEW: And as that transparency increases it becomes
a competitive point — and so 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 gonna be people who wanna
game the system. Um, but 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. [Unfold music fades in] Amy: Thanks for listening. (Unfold theme music)

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