Food Technology Might Be More Efficient. But Is it Better?

Robotic arms, like the one seen in this rendering, are already being used for harvests at food tech companies.’ (iStock)

Seven months into the pandemic, the wildfires have started. For those of us who can afford to stay in, we look from our windows at how dangerous the world outside looks, smells and feels. Our safe isolation is fed by those whose work has been labelled essential—grocery clerks with new disinfecting chores, couriers performing contactless deliveries, farmworkers hastily picking grapes while plumes of gray and white smoke billow above the vineyard.

While food’s essentiality is not debatable, the conditions of the labor that feed the country are more contentious. We’ve arrived at our current food system through a set of historical precedents that provide convenience for some at a steep cost to many others. Starting with the cruel operation of chattel slavery to the contemporary abuses of migrant farmworkers, exploitation is foundational to the business of feeding people in America.

But in an era marked by the promise of innovative technologies, the tech industry has been gravely limited in its imagination to solve for the wellbeing of workers and eaters alike. In fact, it’d be naive to say that the industry is pursuing those solutions at all. Looking at tech’s recent interventions in the food space—in delivery, production and agriculture—it appears that enterprises are employing new interfaces to solve for money, as they always have.

Tokyo, Japan - March 30, 2019: Shibuya street road with back of young delivery man on bicycle for uber eats
Workers who deliver the food make a fraction of the salary of software engineers at delivery app companies. (iStock)

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he tech industry’s most prominent foray into food, especially in light of COVID-19, is engineering user friendly delivery apps that supply food from existing grocery stores and restaurants. While developers of those user experiences are handsomely compensated, their inventions, and their salaries, rely on a growing gig worker base without employer-provided health insurance or guaranteed living wages. (According to Glassdoor, the average engineer at grocery delivery app Instacart earns $141,349, while a 2019 report showed that delivery workers at the company on average made $7.66 an hour after expenses and payroll taxes.)

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This is the disparity and central tension at the heart of Silicon Valley ventures that pledge loyalty to their customer’s convenience at any cost. At Instacart, which is on track to process $35 billion in sales this year, delivery worker strikes for better pay predate the pandemic. After COVID-19 hit, striking workers brought further demands around protective equipment and hazard pay, and they're still fighting for that equity.

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The restaurants side is just as grim. Alleged unfair labor practices by DoorDash caught the attention of San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin, who sued the restaurant delivery service this June from the newly launched Economic Crimes Against Workers unit. Boudin’s lawsuit is backed by California’s recent AB5 law, which presumes workers like DoorDash delivery drivers are employees and not independent contractors exempt from benefits and payroll taxes. (Relatedly, Lyft and Uber, the latter which operates UberEats, threatened to take their services out of California in August before a state appeal court issued a stay that delays the enforcement of AB5 for the two companies.)

Even still, despite work stoppages and legal challenges, food tech is doubling down on their consumers’ insatiable hunger for on demand food delivery by investing in ghost kitchens. Often housing many delivery-only food businesses under one roof, ghost kitchens are commissary kitchens that have proliferated in major cities over the last few years. UberEats and DoorDash have even expanded their business into this market, which is expected to be worth $1 trillion by 2030. The pandemic has only boosted the outlook for these ventures, as many restaurants close permanently after struggling to stay open with limited service, without relief on overhead costs. But again, the problem ghost kitchens solve has nothing to do with quality of labor. It’s debatable whether their efficiency can even produce higher quality in the food itself.

What ghost kitchens resolve are the fickle variables of operating delivery from regular restaurants. They bypass competition with dine-in or traditional take-out customers and avoid considering the role of a restaurant in a community or a neighborhood. In fact, these virtual food brands pose a threat to neighborhood restaurants who can’t, and more importantly don’t want to, comprise their creative labors for streamlined profit-making.

industrial kitchen at restaurant
iStock

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he elimination and control of undesired variables is a core pillar in tech’s optimization refrain that echoes beyond food delivery and ghost kitchens. For agriculture tech companies, environmental factors are the variables in need of manipulation. Meat is grown in petri-dishes before being sold for three times the cost. Indoor vertical farms springing up in Silicon Valley’s monied grounds rarify the timeless phenomena of farming, rendering sunlight into customizable light bulbs and water into a science of precision.

These startups, like South San Francisco-based Plenty, promise to change the way people eat greens by growing them at impossibly high yield, ostensibly making mizuna and kale accessible to anyone who desires them. To achieve their ambitious dietary culture shift, Plenty employs robots that can keep up the pace of a harvest every 10 days.

In that way, Plenty doesn’t exploit farmworker labor, but instead excludes it entirely from the equation. While indoor farms even temporarily shield workers from smoke-filled air, access to that safety is limited as businesses with artificial intelligence tilt firmly away from human labor and expertise. The same might be true in the near future of the food delivery industry. If production can be optimized through ghost kitchens, then human labor — with its demands for fair pay and its susceptibility to pandemics — can be optimized by its exclusion.

Looking at the field of well-funded, highly valued tech ventures in food, the equation that comes up time and again is this: a high-yield productization and distribution of food for which fair and quality labor is a nuisance of efficiency.

This template will never ameliorate the inextricably tied fates of the eater or the worker. It will not address the longstanding disparities that have plagued food production and consumption. It will only refine those old problems through new technologies.

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