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The Identity of Food: Systems of Humans

Future food systems should be prioritized as People plus Places plus Processes for Produce - in that order.

Photo of Puvan Selvanathan
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Written by

Lead Applicant Organization Name

Bluenumber Foundation

Lead Applicant Organization Type

  • Small NGO (under 50 employees)

Website of Legally Registered Entity

How long have you / your team been working on this Vision?

  • 1-3 years

Lead Applicant: In what city or town are you located?

New York City

Lead Applicant: In what country are you located?

United States of America

Your Selected Place: what’s the name of the Place you’re developing a Vision for?

Andhra Pradesh, approx. 162,000 km^2. Population of approx. 50 million, over 60% dependent on agriculture.

What country is your selected Place located in?


Describe your relationship to the place you’ve selected.

Andhra Pradesh (AP) exemplifies the nexus of global opportunity for food systems. The necessity to feed a population growing both in size and awareness; to embed and adopt climate resilience into agricultural development; leapfrogging farmers into digital connectivity; high traditional literacy as well as cognizance of sustainability. If food systems can be balanced in the global microcosm that is AP, then translating or applying systemic learnings are very possible. I have studied AP from policy (Government) to practice (farmer) and visited the state to witness and experience how they interrelate. I was inspired.

Describe the People and Place: Provide information that would be helpful for an outsider who has never been there and may have no context about this Place to better understand the area.

AP is a model for potential food system growth after the 'basics' have been addressed - managing poverty and hunger, gender equity, education are well-founded. If food systems are about better farming and consumption choices, then AP is where choices can be made by people who are not desperate or destitute. The condition we can test is if the right choices can be made for future food systems. Within India, AP is blessed relative to many other states with a mix of industry and agriculture supporting the economy. The state understands how to leverage technology and originally instrumental in developing the cities of Bangalore and Hyderabad which anchor the Indian IT sector.

In 2019 the tech-orientated policy evolved to be farmer-focused. With nearly half-million farmers geolocated and connected, the food system of the state can now be correlated with the humans involved. There is a real opportunity to measure success of an agri-food system by the benefits to life and livelihoods - not just by yields or market prices.

AP offers a tantalizing glimpse of what the Indian economy will achieve. The scale of the state puts it on par with many sovereign countries. The diversity of sectors, and the demographic spread, bolstered by the youth-bulge, means balanced development is key to avoiding a future of ingrained inequality and inequity. This drive embodies the hopes of the people and informs their diets - both of ideologies and food.

Challenges: Describe the current (2020) and the future (2050) challenges that your food system faces.

AP is representative of the challenges that face food systems globally. Fortunately it is not skewed toward any single issue over any other. It is not a poverty trap, it is affected by climate change, there is a focus on using a cultural work-ethic to foster local (village) economies and there is no fear of technology. Policies strongly support a growth-with-equity model. While current challenges of food cost and distribution exist, they do so without reflecting shortage or hardship. However, the future challenge is to ensure that distortion does not set in. The growing distance between a focus on technology vs people is what lost the last government the mandate to continue. Democracy signaled clearly that systems must refocus on people as persons, not as avatars. The challenge therefore is to ensure that humanity is not expunged from the food system in AP as it becomes more process-orientated. The industrial temptation is great - to follow industrialized models of heavily packaged and processed foods - but the opportunity to include nutrition and personal satisfaction as ingredients in food from systems is very real.

Address the Challenges: Describe how your Vision will address the challenges described in the previous question.

My vision imagines agriculture as though it was invented after the Internet. Every food system we have today is feudal. It has evolved from and presents a social hierarchy. Every facet of civilization that we extoll is built on the backs of farmers - whose names and faces we have forgotten because they are defined by their outputs. They have become the machines that generate the food that we need. My vision redresses this situation because we now can do so. The advent of affordable and ubiquitous technology allows the social foundation of all systems - those who feed our food systems - to emerge from the black box that they have been toiling in since the Industrial Age forged the box. This is not a vision of retribution or emancipation - but a recognition that recognizing that a billion people form the system is now 'doable'. The Internet and smartphones enable farmers and their lives to be reintegrated as trusted sources to verify and validate the food that they produce for food systems. As it used to be in the village, when everyone knew who made the bread and who grew the wheat, so now in the Global Village we can employ technology to know who is feeding our food systems and if it works for them.

High Level Vision: With these challenges addressed, now provide a high level description of how the Place and the lives of its People will be different than they are now.

AP has 50 million people, of whom 30 million contribute or are involved in food and agriculture systems. All 50 million also participate by eating. The change I foresee is that things will not become invisible and hidden. Unlike food systems in developed countries, the opportunity for AP is to grow its food system symbiotically with technology. Industrial history has demonstrated that it was cost-prohibitive to label each bag of wheat with the farmer's name - but if such systems were installed now, with the farmer labeling the bag of wheat, self-declaring provenance and writing to a blockchain to assure consumers, then no-one in AP loses sight of who that farmer is and what her contribution has been. The place and people will therefore grow without taking their food systems for granted or as being faceless and devoid of humanity. Every output of AP's food system has a face and a place.

Full Vision: How do you describe your Vision for a regenerative and nourishing food future for your Place and People for 2050?

It starts with Digital Identity - not state issued but self-sovereign - for all people within the food system. This enables the networks of humans to be identified. Those that grow, pick, process, package, transport, shelve, cook and consume can all be linked to evolve the understanding of what a supply chain truly is. As a remnant of industrial thinking, we can tolerate that supply chains as we know them depict only the product, but as we evolved in to a post-industrial world we embrace the notion that food devoid of substance are empty calories. Today, substance includes not only the nutritional components but the need to assure buyers and all others involved that their decisions did not contribute to the suffering of our planet or other people.

This can be done in AP because it is designing its food system. AP has a vestigial of its tech obsession as a database of over 500,000 farmers with a view to add up to 12 million more in the next 3-5 years. With an internet and smartphone penetration rate in the high 80s, there is a compelling reason for AP consumers to encourage farmers to reveal their locations so that the system self-validates. Now, rather than faceless labels on-pack, any interested consumer can plot their own personal supply chain and be rewarded with faces and places at every stage.

The vision seeks to return humanity to the food system. Having a name and a place at the table is the first step toward ensuring rights and livelihoods. Farmers and their families are the core of local economies. With self-propagated Digital IDs they are in control of and own their own data. They are not solely dependent on being bestowed benefits as a consequence of being necessarily registered or otherwise qualified. Yes, they will have the opportunity to tether themselves to any such benefit or offering, but also will not be dependent on that offering coming from an authority or institution - they can reach a customer in AP directly. I foresee the outcome of food systems becoming as local as they can be. Not only will consumers choose producers that they can visit and know, but farmers will find renewed dignity in knowing that their outputs are prized by a virtual (yet actual) family of buyers.

The introduction of a beneficiary-centric SDG Scorecard will help the whole food system equilibrate. Such a scorecard will apply not only to farmers but also consumers and everyone in-between. The idea of a network score can be effected - with sustainable practices declared and evidenced by farmers being rewarded and completed by sustainable and responsible consumer choices. Virtuous circles can be complete and propagated.

My vision of food systems, which I believe can be codified and exemplified in AP, is when people appreciate the value they each bring to the table. This is typified as food. When we share a meal we share with whomever sits with us. I believe we lost that and a huge distance set in that we are no trying to remedy. We lost our food systems when we lost our understanding of who we are as a global community. We have a glorious opportunity to converge our ability to connect knowledgeably with our willingness to rediscover that that the identity of food is a system of humans.

How did you hear about the Food System Vision Prize?

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