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By Jeffrey M. O'Brien, senior editor
Last Updated: April 21, 2009: 3:17 PM ET

***

What could be more convoluted than a 100-year-old electromechanical power grid? Try food distribution. A swank restaurant may brag that its 13-ounce rib-eye special, which came from a hand-massaged steer that dined on a grassy hillside in Marin County, traveled to your plate in a van fueled by biodiesel. And if you dine like that at every meal, you'll be fine. But for a more realistic view of what we know about the origins of our nutrition, think about what happens whenever there's a bacteria scare: Stop eating tomatoes from Mexico! No, New Mexico! No, California! Wait, California tomatoes are okay, but the spinach is bad. Or maybe it's the escarole. Stop. Every jar of peanut butter must be yanked from every supermarket shelf in the country. Never mind your concern about whether that avocado is really organic or whether the tuna is truly dolphin-safe. We can't even be completely sure your food won't hurt you.

The mission of IBM's food-traceability initiative is to lift the veil off the entire food chain. The lingo is "farm to fork," but the effort actually extends further in both directions. Researchers and consultants are on one end sequencing the cacao genome to learn how to increase yields, and on the other end coming up with ways to monitor the waste stream to see how our diets are affecting the planet.

One of IBM's most interesting early efforts is in Norway. When a 2006 E. coli outbreak killed one child and hospitalized nine others, ground-beef sales were halted. Weeks later the real culprit turned out to be cured sausage. Even in a country where all cattle and swine are registered, the distribution system remained opaque. Months after the outbreak, the E. coli was finally traced through a slaughterhouse owned by meat producer Glide to the farm where the outbreak originated. "It shattered the illusion of Norwegian food being the safest in the world," says Espen Braathe, an IBM consultant in Oslo, who has begun designing, per government mandate, a transparent nationwide food network. "We worked to see how we can build a completely traceable chain. The aim is to have it up and running by the end of 2010."

As a starting point, Braathe partnered with Norwegian IT consultancy Matiq to outfit Glide's slaughterhouse in Stavanger with RFID chips and readers. All three companies agreed to give me a tour of their early progress. Wearing the type of bunny suits usually associated with semiconductor fabs, we proceed from the back of the production line, where sanitization is most important, toward the front. At various points we cross into a new hygiene zone and change suits.

Along the way Braathe points out the chip readers and demonstrates how the tags, which cost less than a penny each, are melted into the plastic bins that transport the meat throughout the factory and to grocery stores. Eventually we reach the front, where the smell of scorched hair hangs over freshly killed hogs, each with a tag in one ear. Workers with enormous chainsaws split the animals in two from tail to neck and strip out entrails with the nonchalance of college kids folding sweaters at Gap.

Once fully deployed, the system will reveal the origin, delivery date, transportation mode, and destination of any package of meat. The implementation is based on anticounterfeiting schemes that Braathe helped develop for the pharmaceutical industry, and will work much like online checking. Every participant will have control over proprietary data, and a governing body will assess everything in an emergency. In the case of a crisis, this new transparency promises to save time, lives, and a lot of money for innocent companies, which won't be caught up in sweeping recalls.

The chips should also improve productivity for the slaughterhouses. Each workstation has an embedded chip, allowing Glide to track and analyze employee performance. Putting tags in the animals' ears also streamlines the slaughtering. "It reduces the number of people by half. You don't have to have large storage places to sort the animals," says Viktor Varan, a director of marketing with Matiq, with a nervous laugh. "You just take the first one who wants to die."

The next step is enlisting supermarkets and tracking the meat all the way to the fork. But Braathe is already thinking about what other problems he can solve. He talks about the vast environmental damage caused by antibiotics in our waste stream as a result of overuse of prescriptions and antibacterial soap. This is a matter of chemicals, of course, which can be readily monitored and analyzed with various sensor technologies. Meanwhile, his colleagues in the U.S. are moving in the opposite direction, trying to understand our food long before it even makes it to the farm.

Like many monoculture cash crops, cacao has been devastated by blight in parts of the world. The vast majority of remaining cacao is farmed in West Africa. Lately yields have been declining, and experts consider the region highly vulnerable to the same fungus that wiped out South American cacao. So Howard-Yana Shapiro, global director of plant science for Mars and an adjunct professor at the University of California at Davis, decided to sequence the crop's genome in hopes of solving these problems.

"Think about the tragedy that would happen if those diseases or others were to leap the Atlantic and knock out 70% of the world's production," he says at his California home. Shapiro hasn't shaved since 1966 and sports a long white beard that garners attention every December. But sitting among his collection of vintage Indian motorcycles and biology textbooks, he seems more Gandalf the Wise than Santa. "We're the world's largest chocolate company," he adds. "We have a responsibility."

Mars knows chocolate, of course, but doesn't have the requisite supercomputing power to analyze the interplay of the 415 million base pairs that make up the cacao genome. So Shapiro visited legendary IBM researcher Mark Dean, one of the inventors of the original IBM PC, at the company's San Jose R&D research lab. They discussed how sequencing and analyzing the genome could minimize pesticide use, improve the livelihoods of 6.5 million farmers, and even stimulate science around the world. With open access to all the data, researchers in Africa and elsewhere will become Gregor Mendels at hyperspeed. Rather than waiting years to see how cloned trees will perform in shifting environmental conditions, cross-breeding will happen at the genomic level, and growers will know in advance that their trees will, for example, show resistance to a particular fungus or perform better in arid soil. "Imagine if you could get three times as much money from one-third as many trees. You'd have space for more crops and could build a stronger portfolio," Shapiro says. "This would stabilize the economies of West Africa and East Asia."

Dean signed on in a heartbeat. The $10 million project is being funded by Mars, and after only six months the team is well ahead of schedule. "We hope that within five years we'll find enough information to make the plant more sustainable," says Dean. "This is one of those projects that is both humanitarian and economic in nature. It will affect the development of the African region, and it allows us to do some research that will expand our knowledge of how [sequencing is] done."

***

Its sheer ubiquity has made the "Smarter planet" campaign conspicuous over the past few months. And the ads stick out even more because of their tenor. They're rather preachy. But unlike many highly optimistic tech campaigns (e.g., the old AT&T "You will" ads), they focus on our ability to improve the world now. Every last piece of news, it seems, relates to a looming catastrophe. Meanwhile smiling heterogeneous faces tell us that IBM has already begun fixing what's been broken for far too long. This is no mistake. "Over the past five years we've probably spent $30 billion in R&D and $20 billion buying companies to provide these capabilities," says Palmisano. "Now is the ideal time to invest, oh, hundreds of millions into the marketing. People are willing to do things differently because we have a severe economic situation."

"Smarter planet" is also a very public lobby for economic stimulus money. And IBM is not alone in this regard. GE (GE, Fortune 500), which is working on several smart-meter deployments and wind farm projects, has amped up its "Ecomagination" campaign. More situational opportunists are on the way - from Hewlett-Packard (HPQ, Fortune 500) and Cisco (CSCO, Fortune 500) to Fujitsu and Autodesk (ADSK) - all churning out press releases and marketing materials about how they, too, are using technology and intelligence to improve our world.

This self-promotion is a good thing. Not only are the companies spending at a time when our economy needs it, but they're heralding a new dawn. We've embarked on a phase of technology in which everything has become a computer. Data flow from all directions, and for the first time we can capture them. IBM is the early leader in this new era.

Leadership positions, as the company knows all too well, come and go. But with luck, the tone of "Smarter planet" will remain. The message - that technology can be deployed to greater ends than creating the next fetishized cellphone - is bigger than any single company. And so, too, is Palmisano's epiphany. He deftly led IBM out of the dotcom doldrums. Perhaps more important, he has revealed a model for monetizing scientific research in a way that benefits humanity.

Sure, not everyone can afford $6 billion a year for R&D. But real innovation rarely comes from big, rich companies. With luck, IBM's ad campaign, coupled with its blowout 2008, will call scientists and entrepreneurs to arms. They'll see our archaic global shipping infrastructure, a dilapidated educational system, disappearing honeybees, the fraud on Wall Street, and think, I know how to fix that. And I can make a killing doing it.  To top of page

Company Price Change % Change
Bank of America Corp... 16.15 0.00 0.00%
Facebook Inc 58.94 0.00 0.00%
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Micron Technology In... 23.91 0.00 0.00%
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Index Last Change % Change
Dow 16,408.54 -16.31 -0.10%
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Data as of 5:29am ET
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