Sunday, May 20, 2012

The Internet of Cows: an Island Expedition

I gave a talk in April at an international conference on food systems held by the College of the Atlantic on Mt. Desert Island off the coast of Maine; the topic was a heady blend of evolutionary psychology, agroecology, and the future of meat itself. In brief, I argued that the "lightning rod issue" of meat is, in reality, too complex for meaningful human comprehension. That how a cow grows and burps in Maine today, could impact economies in the mid-west, and even the very future of island communities around the world, bespeaks of the complex web of interconnections we must examine to even begin to understand meat systems. In other words - no cow is an island!

I concluded the talk by offering up the idea of "The Internet of Cows". By 2009, there were more "things" connected to the Internet than there are people in the world. If you have a smartphone, a home computer, and work computer, there are 3 things for your one person right there. This transition has come to be known as the "Internet of Things", or IoT for short. That the developed world is awash in connective technology is not particularly heartening or interesting news in and of itself....but the IoT vision extends far beyond phones and computers. As Cisco's Chief Futurist, Dave Evans points out, some of the "things" being connected to the net include cows - from farm to fork. Exponential advances in technology are creating economically sensible opportunities for farmers to implant high-tech, low-cost sensors into their cows, pastures, and even beef product packages. Why would anyone want to do this? Common examples of beneficial applications include improving animal welfare through the early detection of disease, greatly improving the traceability of meats in the event of food safety problems, and improving environmental performance across the food supply chain. These all seem like  worthwhile goals, yet many in my audience, and even fellow farmers and panel members, were not so enthused about the prospects of such an "Internet of Cows".

To be sure, I have many serious reservations about the emergence of the IoT. If big brother is to truly manifest, no doubt the IoT is his most fertile of wombs. Despite my fears of how the IoT may pan out in our personal lives, food systems - I feel - are public domains; transparency is always a good thing. Likewise, easy access to more, and more accurate information about our food systems can't seem to hurt. Yet in this audience of largely "local" and "organic" advocates, this appeared to be a tough sell.

Critiques and questions varied quite a bit. One horse-powered farmer offered a concern that it would distance the farmer from direct observation on the farm, and perhaps more generally, that it replaces a human element of farming. An aspiring young vegetable producer pulled out the "appropriate technology" card, fearing that this kind of thinking will turn the noble profession of farming into a domain for computer geeks. All potentially valid concerns, and I'll discuss them further in future posts.

I was quite happy to see my talk result in such lively and thoughtful conversation, but I was somewhat saddened that the prevailing techno-skepticism of the room seemed to overshadow my much broader point. I hadn't traversed the Atlantic ocean to sell anyone on the hard-wired version of the Internet of Cows. Rather, my hope was to use the globally networked, democratic structure of the Internet as a metaphor for how we need to be thinking about food systems the meats they produce.

No cow is an island - how we raise meat, whether in Maine, Germany, or here in Madagascar,  the deliverable qualities, the holistic meat quality we are able to achieve, is most often not the sole of province of one innovative farmer or processor. These complex traits, especially social and ecological traits, are relative to complex contexts occurring simultaneously across multiple scales - from the global to the local.

The IoT, and it's child - the Internet of Cows, will, without question, become a major and potentially divisive issue in the years to come. Whether you find yourself in support or opposition to this hard-wired version, I hope you will join me in opening your mind to understanding the true nature of the Interconnected Network of Cows and Humans that was made manifest some tens of thousands of years ago.

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