Informated Food, Part 2

Informated Food Part 2: Provenance, Metadata and the Family Farm

Maria Bonn
Michael Twidale


In Part 1 we raised the idea of informated food as a research area where Schools of Information can play a special role in facilitating multidisciplinary study and cross-fertilization of ideas. In this second part we elaborate on this approach, paying particular attention to how adding information need not just be an activity for large scale industrialized food production, processing, packaging, and marketing, but can also help small-scale operations such as family farms survive through the use of relatively simple information technologies.

Provenance Metadata Revealing De-commodified Costs and Benefits

Information helps decision-making in a context of choice—in the case of a consumer of food: what you choose you buy, combine, prepare, and eat (Hartel 2011; Ocepek 2018). Informating food allows a producer to distinguish their product from that of competitors. In particular, it can help the potential consumer see the product not as a commodity, indistinguishable from other output, but as something special, even unique with a history and a story. This de-commodification means that a premium price can be charged—and, importantly, justified. The story of the food helps explain why it costs a little bit more to buy—and why that is well worth paying for. Informating is a way of realizing the social value of human and community connection as economic value. Creating traditional food packaging and the information it contains has conventionally involved relatively high fixed costs, making it most predominant in mass-produced processed foods. Increasingly we are seeing smaller operations such as family arms having access to the technologies to create appropriate labels, informational flyers, websites, blog posts, and other means of sharing provenance information.

—Through informating, the race to the bottom can be countered.—

Informating can be used to help us to understand the carbon footprint of our food choices (Clear, et al., 2015) and the ways in which those choices might have an impact upon climate change (Stevens et al. 2017). Informating helps us to understand the cost of food in terms of both human and animal welfare and helps us to weigh those (otherwise less visible) costs against monetary costs. One consequence of this informating is that it makes it easier for consumers to see a closer connection to where their food comes from, how it is grown and processed and, perhaps as importantly, who does all that work for us. For farmers and whole rural economies, this can create opportunities for family businesses to thrive, and also to make the case for environmental and animal welfare concerns that inevitably have a cost. In a commodified market, price can be the sole measure, creating a pressure for lower quality. Through informating, the race to the bottom can be countered.

Considering informated food this way can help us to explore wider social and economic impacts (Hardy et al. 2019), including democracy and social justice aspects of food (Prost et al. 2018). The way that decommodified products may enable a family farm to survive, even thrive in a competitive globalized food market. The way that additional processing (say from growing fruit to also baking fruit pies) can both enable farmers to move up the value chain and also create additional local employment possibilities. The way that local groupings of innovating farmers and processors of local produce may help with the survival or revival of local rural economies. (Crabtree & Chamberlain 2014). The way that connections to wider purchasing groups via farmers markets, mail order, and other extended supply chains can become feasible for small producers, with support from appropriate information technologies (Crabtree et al. 2015). The way that these connections may then feed back to consumers wanting to actually see the source of the products that they have enjoyed, and how that can lead to various kinds of agri-tourism and the selling of “rural experiences” (Chase et al. 2018). The challenges of designing technologies to support people’s use of markets (Nugent et al. 2015). Although this may all sound a little fanciful, even utopian, there are many examples of it already happening, and how in very small ways it can help local economic activity.

iSchools and Understanding Informating

We have attempted to show that the idea of informated food is worthy of further study. Indeed it is already being studied, and could be of interest to researchers with a wide range of disciplinary backgrounds: agriculture, food processing, popular culture, tourism, small scale entrepreneurship, rural studies, economic geography, consumer behavior, marketing, eating & health, human computer interaction, supply chains—and information studies. As researchers in a School of Information Sciences, one of a growing number of iSchools worldwide, we believe that iSchools serve as a natural hub for facilitating multidisciplinary studies of informated food, and how it plays numerous different roles in peoples’ intersecting economic and personal lives. We want to acknowledge this substantial body of pre-existing work that is too large to fully cite here. We have given some sample references into a range of research literature to help make the point of the fascinating diversity and frustrating diffuseness of the consent. Our main aim in this paper has been to show the impact of bringing a diverse set of related ideas together, and to suggest the potential of seeing them in a more integrated way. Perhaps it is only a member of an iSchool who would pick up a jar of jam at a farmers market, examine the label and think “Oh! So much metadata!”

As well as an area of research, we think that looking at informated food might usefully be folded into teaching in iSchools. Sometimes the concept of “information” can be difficult to grasp, especially for new undergraduates, or indeed high school students thinking of applying to university who may never have even heard of an iSchool, let alone be able to imagine what gets studied there or why they might care. By contrast, we all have opinions about our food and can be invited into discussions about what we know about, where it comes from, how it is made, and who makes it. A search of one’s backpack may reveal snacks with packaging that can be starting points for fascinating talks about kinds of information, genres, standards, metadata, encoding, and all kinds of iSchool-related topics. This can demystify what we do in an entertaining, accessible way without in any way dumbing down the content.

Conclusion: Future Opportunities for Application, Development, Design and Research

There are many articles noting how information pervades different aspects of our lives. The presence of sensors and pervasive computing seem to be growing at a relentless pace. Many of these trends focus on “Big” things: big data, big agriculture, globalization, big tech corporations, etc. We want to note that informating can also happen in the small, the personal, the family farm, that jar of jam. It may not be as imposing, but in terms of individual livelihoods, use of modest information technologies still has a potential to be important. As well as our focus here on the micro, there are of course macro aspects of the use of information for Agriculture and Nutrition (Caracciolo et al. 2020).

We see great potential in integrating the variety of existing work around the roles that information plays in the production, processing, marketing, purchasing, preparation, and consumption of food—particularly small-scale activities linking producers to consumers, often using relatively modest information technologies. Imagine, for example, a team of information scientists, economists and agricultural engineers working together to determine the users of and uses of the information that is attached to agricultural products and the impact of that informating upon a rural economy. Add a health scientist to the mix and explore how community health might be improved through that same informating. Such an integrative way of thinking, researching, and teaching seems to have a natural home in iSchools as a hub for multidisciplinary research spanning many academic departments. We think that the fruits of such research and teaching can enhance rural economies and richer considerations of what we buy and eat to the benefit of us all and of our planet.

As the truism has it, we all have to eat. Most of us have something to say about what we eat. Bringing differing intellectual perspectives and life experiences to the common table will make for a great dinner conversation.

References for Part 2

Caracciolo, C., Aubin, S., Jonquet, C., Amdouni, E., David, R., Garcia, L., Whitehead, B., Roussey, C., Stellato, A. & Villa, F. (2020). 39 Hints to Facilitate the Use of Semantics for Data on Agriculture and Nutrition. arXiv preprint arXiv:2012.08325.

Chase, L.C., Stewart, M., Schilling, B., Smith, B., & Walk, M. (2018). Agritourism: Toward a conceptual framework for industry analysis. Journal of Agriculture, Food Systems, and Community Development, 8(1), 13-19.

Clear, A. K., Friday, A., Rouncefield, M., & Chamberlain, A. (2015). Supporting sustainable food shopping. IEEE Pervasive Computing, 14(4), 28-36.

Crabtree, A. & Chamberlain, A.. (2014). Making it “pay a bit better”: design challenges for micro rural enterprise. In Proceedings of the 17th ACM conference on Computer supported cooperative work & social computing (CSCW ’14). 

Crabtree, A., Chamberlain, A., Valchovska, S., Davies, M., Glover, K., & Greenhalgh, C. (2015). “I’ve got a sheep with three legs if anybody wants it?”: re-visioning the rural economy. Personal and Ubiquitous Computing, 19(8), 1247-1258.f 

Hardy, J., Wyche, S., & Veinot, T. (2019). Rural HCI research: Definitions, distinctions, methods, and opportunities. Proceedings of the ACM on Human-Computer Interaction, 3(CSCW), 1-33.

Hartel, J. (2011). “Information in the hobby of gourmet cooking: four contexts,” in Asprey, B. and Hayes, B.J. (Eds), Everyday Information: The Evolution of Information Seeking in America. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA. 217-48.

Nugent, T., Lueg, C., Buttfield‐Addison, P., & Dermoudy, J. (2015). “It’s useless for that”: Finding, frustration, and fun with mobile technology in outdoor markets. Proceedings of the Association for Information Science and Technology, 52(1), 1-9.

Ocepek, M. G. (2018). Sensible shopping: A sensory exploration of the information environment of the grocery store. Library Trends, 66(3), 371-394.

Prost, S., Crivellaro, C., Haddon, A., & Comber, R. (2018, April). Food democracy in the making: designing with local food networks. In Proceedings of the 2018 CHI conference on human factors in computing systems (pp. 1-14).

Stevens, G., Bossauer, P., Neifer, T., & Hanschke, S. (2017). Using shopping data to design sustainable consumer apps. In 2017 Sustainable Internet and ICT for Sustainability (SustainIT) (pp. 1-3). IEEE.

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