Why We Need An Internet Of Food

In preparation for the Inaugural IC-FOODS conference, which will take place November 7-9 at UC Davis, The Mixing Bowl’s Rob Trice and Krista Holobar talked with Matthew Lange, the Principal Investigator of IC3-FOODS, about the Internet of Food and why we need it. Dr. Lange, who teaches at both UC Davis’s Health System and its Department of Food Science & Technology, is leading efforts to build the semantic and ontological underpinnings for the emerging semantic web and Internet of Food (IoF).

MB: Why do we need an Internet of Food?

ML: Food is the center of everything in so many ways. It’s a cultural nexus—when we celebrate religious things, food is at the middle of it. When we talk about the greatest environmental damage that we do, food is at the center of it. When we talk about our health, food is the most important thing. In my opinion, there is nothing more important that we could build, in terms of information infrastructure, than building out the Internet of Food.

By creating standards about how we describe the attributes of food—how and where it was grown, cooked, or processed, to how it can or should be consumed—in this way, we’ll be able to digitize food. Why does that matter? The Internet of Food will define the “lingua franca” enabling ag and food to be more traceable, transparent and trustworthy, empowering all of us with more precise and personalized food, diet, and health choices. From precision agriculture to precision health, we can start to build and connect the knowledge bases that, once we have in place, permit us to apply all kinds of machine learning and artificial intelligence to food, agriculture, and health: From predicting optimal crops to plant, and most appropriate cultivation techniques, to suggesting foods for consumers that increase health and delight while meeting their personal ethical and religious standards.

Part of the issue right now is that we have people building part of the Internet of Food in their own silos. With flavor alone, we’ve got folks who have built a wine wheel, a chocolate wheel, a coffee wheel and a beer wheel to describe flavor profiles that exist. We don’t want to create any more wheels. We want to connect those wheels to an information superhighway for food.

Have you heard of the Internet of Tomatoes project to use internet of things technology to grow better tomatoes? Or have you heard of the data description standard BeerXML used by craft brewers to share recipes and enable automated beer-making appliances like PicoBrew?  These are nascent examples of the Internet of Food that we are already starting to see.

In the future, I should be able to ask, “I want to make a lasagna, but my wife has a polymorphism in her MTHFR gene, so I want something with more Folate and more B12 in it, but I get kidney stones easily so I want to reduce the amount of calcium oxalate, and by the way, I don’t really care whether it was organic, but I want to make sure that there were no phosphates used to grow anything because that’s something that I care about—extra phosphates in the environment.” So, I should be able to get an answer to a question like that, and then be able to get the ingredients and assemble the lasagna, and maybe even have a machine that actually makes it for me in my kitchen. That’s one of the end goals. We also see use cases for farmers, policy makers, honestly just about everyone.

On a policy level, how we give dietary advice today is “the greatest good for the greatest number.” For some of the people some of the time, that’s going to be correct, but at some point, for everybody, that’s going to be incorrect. Because nobody is the average person—not one of us is the average person for whom that recommendation has been made. We have the technology to do better. One way we can go about doing that is building up this information infrastructure for the health side of things. On the other side, in terms of how we grow our food, we can make decisions about where to grow crops, what that means in terms of what it does to the landscape, figuring in limited water supplies and population levels. And we can consider questions like, “are we eating it locally? Are we exporting it? How much water are we exporting when we export alfalfa to China?”

I think the distinction here about investing in connected data for better personalized health—as opposed to medicine—is important. It’s a little bit crazy that five out of the top seven killers in the US are related to diet, yet 99.99% of our investments in the National Institute of Health are focused around drug development and novel surgical procedures. Basically, what our leading healthcare providers and health infrastructure leaders are telling us, is that “we’re going to give you inappropriate dietary advice for 25-30 years and then we’re going to try to drug and cut our way out of the problem.” Investing in the establishment of an Internet of Food will help tip the balance back to focus on nutrition and prevention.

MB: What did you learn from the recent GODAN Summit (Global Open Data for Ag and Nutrition) on where we are with the Internet of Food? What is IC-Foods?

ML: GODAN is a by-product of the G-8’s recent commitment to food security and nutrition. The recent GODAN Summit held in New York in September was excellent in that showed momentum by public entities to open up their data stores and make them accessible through things like APIs. And it was great to see the USDA moving towards embracing this centralized agricultural concept schema, but that the world of ontology has not yet met the world of these agricultural thesauri in a big and meaningful way. And that’s something that we will accomplish at the IC-Foods conference. We want to bring the best minds from the world of ontology together with the best minds from the large agricultural vocabularies together with the domain experts—whether they’re scientific researchers, or entrepreneurs and companies in the field—to build an infrastructure that everybody can use—potentially the information superhighway for food. I see momentum coming from GODAN, getting governments to share their data. We need to talk about sharing data, but opening and sharing the data doesn’t mean as much if we are all speaking different languages. Akin to HTML as a text markup language, we need the FML, a food markup language to describe food–we also need the on-ramps and off-ramps set up in a standardized way. Our aim with IC-FOODS is to bring the appropriate players together to build, assemble, and design the language and information infrastructure for the Internet of Food.

You can find more about the November 7-9 IC-FOODs conference in Davis, CA here.

This article first appeared on Forbes.com where the Mixing Bowl is contributor.