Interviewsand Articles

 

Manuel Klarmann—Eaternity

by R. Whittaker, Jan 13, 2016


 

 

One can never predict who might show up at one of the weekly Awakin circles in Santa Clara. Awakin circles, which have spread all over the world, are one of the longest-standing of ServiceSpace’s several projects. There are many rewarding aspects of attending one of these circles; one of these is listening as each person in turn has a chance to share his or her thoughts. The level of sincerity the circle fosters is always touching and frequently afterwards, before heading home, I can’t resist approaching one or two strangers to learn more about them. It’s how I met Klarmann, a young entrepreneur from Switzerland who was visiting the Bay Area. As we chatted, it wasn’t long before I asked if he’d be willing to be interviewed.
     He agreed and a couple of weeks later, one afternoon we met in Palo Alto.  



Richard Whittaker:  I'd like to hear about your current project. It's seven and a half years old, did you say?

MK:  Yes, and there's a story how I personally came to it, but there are many more people involved.

RW:  Would you talk a little about what might be the roots of your own concerns?

MK:  It's hard to talk about the roots, because it’s been progressing over so many years.

RW:  Are your parents involved with these concerns?

MK:  Yes, they are. So I'm going to answer two questions now. One is how I came to these concerns myself. And second, how I think we, as humanity, are coming there. My parents were 20 when I saw the light of day. My mother was an artist; she made sculptures. And my father was an architect. They were together since they were 15 and really had a strong bond.
     On the other hand, as they were young, they didn't have any money. But they created that love that carried us along. That’s the most important thing. There was enough food. There was enough time to discover, to learn and get inspired, to feel loved. It's that feeling of connectedness that I wish for everyone in their childhood.
     My parents were young and spirited and interested in the world. They informed themselves about politics and all these things. My father was really intellectual and looking at what was going on. My mother was more the one who put things into action. For example, when the nuclear catastrophe happened in Chernobyl, on the very first day of that, my mother packed our things and took us as far west as she could get. We traveled through France to the Atlantic Ocean.

RW:  You were in Germany at that time?

MK:  Yes. And this was really on the first hour that they heard the news. It was clear to her that the news was not telling the truth. That came out days later when the cloud actually came over Germany and all the poison rain came.

RW:  Wow.

MK:  But they were so aware that they knew what to trust. A lot of people just stayed and did what the media told them. So that's just an example of this awareness, and also a little bit of that revolutionary attitude of following what your heart tells you.
     Thinking about those times of my childhood also gives me the energy to do this work right now. So it’s essential to realize that we're connected through culture. This is the part of my culture that goes back to my own family. We're also one family, seven billion strong, and need to give love and food to each other to be sustainable. We're realizing now that we have to change how we behave. My work reflects my fundamental beliefs in humanity.
     Another part, concerning me personally, is that I became fascinated by computers and the power they can have. First, I was fascinated with artificial intelligence. This interest came along because I was faced with the complexities in the society we live in. When I learned that I was eating food while, on the other half of the planet, people were starving, that completely puzzled me. How could that happen? It must be the system that’s broken.
     I was really young when I was introduced to that notion, and it made me think, okay, how can we balance it? How can we make the right decisions in the realm of actions? I was completely moved and wanted to do something, but was convinced that humans wouldn't be up to solving the problem. I wanted something like an artificial intelligence that could tell me what the right decisions would be. So I became fascinated with the technologies that started to emerge at that time. I was 8 or 9 years old when I realized that something was wrong and 13 or 14 years old as I got into technology. I was born in 1984.

RW:  Okay. So this is around 1997 when you are getting into technology?

MK:  Right. I went to Munich. I started studying mathematics, informatics, and psychology.

RW:  Did you do this in university or on your own?

MK:  First on my own, later at the university, at LMU in Munich. I was sitting down eight hours a day just learning and learning and shutting myself off from everything else. In the evening, I would call my girlfriend. In the morning I’d make food that I could eat in the twenty-minute breaks between studying. That worked out well and I got good grades.
     At that time in Munich I met Judith, who is still my girlfriend. She studied philosophy and biology. I bring her into the story because she’s the one who came up with the idea that we should look at our food system. She came to Munich through her Erasmus (an organized student exchange) which sent her there for a year.
     Then I decided to make my Erasmus for the Netherlands—Judith is Dutch—for half a year. After that, we had to decide where we would go together, so we went to Zurich and continued our studies there.

RW:  In a university setting?

MK:  At the University of Zurich, right. So I finished my bachelor's degree in mathematics and started a Master's in neuro-informatics; that’s where you put math, informatics and psychology together to try to find out how the human brain works. Judith came over and switched from biology to environmental sciences.
     A few months later there was a competition to come up with ideas about how to reduce CO2 at the university. Judith had the idea that we should look at our food system. She thought about it in terms of the hierarchy of the food chain. The higher you go up the hierarchy of the food chain, the more resources it will take. For instance, if you eat the stuff that is grown on the ground, then it would take the less of these resources.

RW:  So grass is pretty low and cattle are pretty far up.

MK:  Right. That was the first idea. Now this was 2008. The funny thing is she went to that competition and tried to convince people to join her. She showed them the calculations—how much could actually be saved, and how important that topic could be. But no one could relate to that idea. It was still kind of abstract for them.

RW:  Okay. Now earlier you became interested in artificial intelligence, so by 2008 how had your thinking changed or evolved around that?

MK:  I’d studied a lot of mathematics, informatics and psychology, and was still really deep into it. I wanted to discover how our brain works with simulated neuronal networks at that point. And when Judith came up with the idea of looking at the food system at the end of 2008, it sparked a realization that this was actually something where we could help to make the right decisions on our planet.
     This would reduce the complexity and the right answers could be calculated through technology. With the ideas I had in the beginning in the realm of artificial intelligence, it would take ten to twenty, or more, years to get results that might be applicable or interesting, So I became fascinated with the idea she brought to me. And it was fascinating seeing that she didn't get a lot of support for the idea. I was totally convinced that the idea was great! It was a joy supporting her. In the first years I was more in the background. I did the website. I translated her emails into German because she was still speaking Dutch. And I provided support to help her actually pull it off.
     She won the competition. She also had the motivation to pursue it and make it real.

RW:  Can you say more about what her idea was?

MK:  Right. In the beginning her project was called “Eat Less CO2.” The idea was to reduce meat portions in meals, make vegetable meals more attractive and measure how much impact this reduction actually would have. Then used the calculations to motivate and convince people—guests, chefs, and so on. As we started out doing the research, we found out that food, from a consumption perspective, is the number one source of greenhouse gases in total. It's more relevant than our whole transportation combined. It's more relevant than all heating and electricity combined.

RW:  Wow.

MK:  In that larger picture, food is responsible for 31% of the greenhouse gases that we emit. And it also takes land, it takes water, it takes fossil fuels and it pollutes the air.

RW:  So for people like me who don’t know about these statistics, how is food responsible for more greenhouse gases than any other single industry?

MK: In general, greenhouse gases are produced when we burn fossil fuels. If it's coal, oil, or gas, we burn it and put it up in the air.

RW:  Yes. I think of carbon dioxide. But there’s methane also, right?

MK:  The second one is methane. Right. And there's an interesting debate around these two, because they have different effects on global warming; methane is about 28 times more potent than CO2. CO2 over 100 years has a low effect, but its effects continue for a very long time, and methane has a really strong effect, but only over twenty years and then it's kind of out of the system. So there's a debate.
     Right now all the calculations out there are looking at a 100 years. By that measure the methane and the animal production that is largely related to these methane emissions produce about 18% of all greenhouse gas emissions. Just animal agriculture alone contributes 14.5% to the 31% total for food due to methane emissions. But if you look at it on a 20-year scale, methane becomes much more important. For animal agriculture, there are calculations where it even goes up to 51% of all greenhouse gas emissions.

RW:  Wow. I have a feeling that people don't know about this.

MK:  No. Because no one is talking about it. You can build electric cars, you can build low energy houses, you can build solar panels because people can earn money doing that. So there's an incentive for politicians to speak about it. But there's no profit incentive for consuming less and doing less.

RW:  Right.

MK:  And animal production is so ingrained in our cultures, in our beliefs. You can ask people why they eat meat, and they’ll tell you stories about how they need the proteins or the calcium or whatever—and that's completely wrong. We can eat a whole-food, plant-based diet and have everything we need. So there’s a moment where you realize our food culture is just something that we were taught—and the teachings are not right.
     So taken from that perspective it’s really hard to have a discussion with people about eating less meat since it’s so fundamental to their belief system and the way they live in society.
     Sometimes I go into an audience and ask, “Why do you eat meat?” It's really, really hard for people to change that one thing in their life, to eat less meat, as it’s so far away for them.

RW:  There’s a lot of people in this country where there's an ethos of the old idea of going out as a hunter, shooting an animal and eating it.

MK:  Yes.

RW:  There's an aura around that, you know—I think, especially among the more politically conservative people. Is there anything like that in Europe?

MK:  There are beliefs about how we are, and how we’re supposed to be—differences between male and female, racist ideas, religious beliefs, money and our social system—and of course what we should eat.
     But that's the fascination I have about science. You actually can approach something by measuring it and then make a logical conclusion and throw away all the baggage from belief systems and ideologies that were put on us in the first place.
     What we're doing with Eaternity and these measurements on CO2 is providing a way for our society, on a rational basis, to get one little step closer to sanity—to come into contact with this topic on a level that’s not discharging your belief system; it’s just giving the incentive to learn more. This is not about being in the emotional part of your brain; it’s aiming for the side where you can say, okay, we can analyze a fact and look at it.
     That's why at Eaternity, we make climate-friendly meals, and that’s why we calculate the emissions and resource footprints for meals. And we want to speak to everyone in the world.
     Of course, there are climate-change deniers; they wouldn't listen to the CO2 message anyway. But I think everyone now has the notion that we're exploiting our planet. Currently, we're using resources up at the rate of three planets and we only have one planet to live on. If we continue to exploit the planet this way more people will die. No one can deny that. Climate change is a debate because people want it to be a debate.
     So most people can relate to the message that we should look at our resources in a fashion that will sustain life, human life, on our planet for many more generations to come. And this provides a simple and easy basis for people to take their first steps. We now talk about a usage rate of one ton of CO2 equivalent per person per year when we think about climate change. That’s about the sustainable level for twelve billion people on this planet someday.

RW:  What would you say is the amount we’re using right now?

MK:  In Switzerland it's about 12 tons, and in the States I’m sure it’s a lot more.

RW:  Do you have a sense of comparison between European environmental consciousness and the U.S.?

MK:  My sense is that here some people see the oil industry as a problem and they go into the street and rally about it. It's a way of taking the miseries that we're in and reflecting it on these bad corporate companies. But in terms of most of the things we do, we don't take the responsibility ourselves. If you did the calculations, you would stop flying, you would stop driving cars. You would grow your own food without pesticides and fertilizers. But we don't because we don't see ourselves as actors with responsibility in these areas.

RW:  When you say pesticides and fertilizers, I take it you're referring to the industrially produced ones.

MK:  Right. But I’ll put that in brackets because I think technology, or wisdom, or innovations can play an important role in building up the agriculture in a sustainable way. Eaternity is a technology that introduces a new concept. So I'm not against technologies per se, because they can provide good wisdom. But the way we have done it by industrializing agriculture, producing fertilizers, exploiting the soil, focusing on monocultures and introducing GMOs here in the States—it’s just stupid.

RW:  How does all this look in Europe? I have the impression there’s a little more awareness and an effort of trying to live in a more environmentally sustainable way.

MK:  It may be right. Some realize that the more we exploit, the less we can preserve. We have the Green party in power in Baden-Württemberg, which is the state I was born in. In Germany solar power is incentivized. A lot of people have solar panels. But still, I would say that with the people I meet there’s still a really superficial way of thinking about the planet and how we can act in it.
     The difference with the States is that they’re huge; they’re really big in the scope of things that happen. You have this culture of free, liberal capitalism and it’s led to the privatization of a lot of things, like the water system here in California. And this has led to an exploitation of the system. It's good for the rich, they're getting richer, but for others, it has a negative effect. Everywhere I’ve come across this exploitation while traveling in the States.
     Here people are faced with a lot of decisions; decisions they need to make on their own about healthcare, about securities and so on. I can see that people are even more daunted in these realms of decisions they have to make to sustain their own lives. It means that concerns about the environment become much less of a topic for them. But on the other hand—and this is what I like—there are people who see these problems, and they're also more extreme in finding solutions and innovating.
     That means that if there’s going to be an innovation capable of turning this system around to be more sustainable, or a parallel system to run our economics, it will probably emerge in the U.S—probably here in the Bay Area, because the need is much stronger here than in Europe.

RW:  Okay.

MK:  I live in Switzerland in a kind of eco-village of 1,300 people. We grow our own food. We have solar panels. We have “minergy” houses. We have no cars. We mostly travel by bike. We have a car sharing system. We have all these things, and when I talked about this village here in the States, people were so dazzled— how could you have done it?
     It's not possible in the legal system here in the United States to have a cooperative and to run an organization that way. It's just that there's a good social system in Switzerland, one that does not exist here in the States. So there's a different way of getting around the topic of environmental sustainability in Europe than here in the States. But I think those interactions are still taking place inside the system. People can’t actually pull the lever and really change it because the societal context in Europe or the States that makes it really hard to do things differently, and to change not just yourself, but the people around you.

RW:  I hear the word “permaculture” a lot, but my understanding of what it means is a little vague.

MK:  The permaculture vision is about building an environment and, ultimately, a society where a happy life can be sustained without the dependency on oil, without the dependency on politics, without the dependency on externalities. So it also has to do with how we interact and collaborate with each other.
     It found its first steps in the creation of little gardens and little paradises that you could wander through—a refuge away from our society. And it’s also about growing nutritious food. My cofounder Aurelian is running the permaculture garden at the university, the ETH in Zurich, where they try to find combinations of crops in a garden that can sustain each other. There's the quest to find the right crops for the right regions that could work. It’s inspiring because it's a local movement where people come together and get in touch with each other and celebrate around food. They try to build up a different value system.

RW:  Earlier you were talking about how certain kinds of environmental improvements can be monetized, like electric cars, but you were saying that raising awareness about having a more sustainable, responsible agriculture is harder to monetize somehow. And it occurred to me that one the big things that seems to go along with permaculture is a cultural benefit in terms of relationship and community—the human connection. Would you agree with that?

MK:  Yes. It completely takes money out of the system. If you do permaculture, you can go around in the garden and just pluck the fruits and crops and eat them. There's no money involved in that kind of system; it's just about the human values.

RW:  So what would you say flows from that in terms of human culture and relationship?

MK:  If there was an economic crash right now, and you're couldn’t pull a banknote out of your ATM machine, you couldn't buy food. You’d be faced with fear about sustaining your own life. But in a permaculture environment you’d share crops and relationships based on human values that would create a sustainable social fabric. You’d suddenly feel secure. You would be strong as a community and not have to face the problems alone.

RW:  So a thought crosses my mind. If I understand this correctly, one of the Marxist ideas is that in capitalist society, labor is alienated.

MK:  You have to explain that.

RW:  What it means, I think—and I’m not a student of Marx—is that people have to earn a living, but the labor choices they've had to make leave them unhappy. They don't like their work.

MK:  That's Marx. Labor was seen as having to stand in front of a machine hour after hour, and that's how you earned money. But I think we're past that definition. What still holds is that there are people who can make money out of money; they don't have to do any labor. This is a perpetuating problem, because they become more and more powerful in making more money out of more money. That sucks everything that’s there out of the system. That's a problem we're in today.
     There are several calculations on how much wealth is agglomerated in the 1% and how much is left in the 99%. The stronger that difference gets, the more structural violence there will be in the rest of the 99%, and the more exploited they will become. Money rules this system and people are discovering it’s not a healthy system, and not sustainable in the first place.
     But in the permaculture garden, money is not a fundamental thing. That’s a powerful message. Yes, to some degree, it has that Communism flavor, because you're creating an environment where you don't even see the garden as your own property; you see yourself as part of a community: communism.
     It's one of those first steps in creating and realizing there could be another way of doing things. The problem comes when, if you say yes to such a community, you have to ask yourself how could it scale? That’s the problem of taking human relationships as a token of value. How would you expand that to a culture of millions or billions of people?
     The solution, in my eyes, could lie in this technology world that’s being created also here in the Bay Area. You can actually create a system that’s not working with money, but with other means of exchange, and weighing out how much value something has.
     For example, you can think of the value of a loaf of bread or a tomato by how much CO2 is produced in making it. That would be the exchange token on it. Then we could create a complete society around that. Call it natural law or resource-based economy.
      Suddenly you have a system that’s actually sustaining our planet, and providing the goods on equal terms to everybody, but is not dependent on the old rulers of our old society.
     It takes piece of communism, but it transcends that into something that could be working on a global scale because we have the technology.

RW:  I think a big problem has to do with the question of meaning. People are obliged to work. But an interesting scholar, A.K. Coomaraswamy, said you could measure the health of a culture by the percentage of people living in it who have a vocation, meaning they are doing work they love.

MK:  That's an interesting measure. But I think there are other measures that are easier to account—how many child deaths do we have, how many commons do we have. There's actually a Gross National Happiness index[5] being developed in Bhutan, a measurable index on how happy a society is. It includes how many criminal acts or violent acts did you have in the society? How much are people afraid of losing property? You can measure these things and they add up to a metric.

RW:  That would be a very interesting metric, yes.

MK:  There are things we should maximize in the first place; that probably includes relationships and love and collaboration. How open are you to help your neighbor if he's in a bad situation?

RW:  Right. The integrity of the social fabric would be a significant part of any happiness index.

MK:  Exactly.

RW:  I had dinner recently with Freddy Ehlers, who is from Ecuador. He's the minister of Buen Vivir there. Ecuador actually has a ministry of the good life. Ehler asks the question, what is the good life?

MK:  Yes.

RW:  One thing he said is that we really have to reconsider the idea of progress. What is actually progress?

MK:  Is it about exploiting more and more of our planet and the people on the planet? Or is it really about other things?

RW:  Right. So let's go back to Eaternity. Do you like that name? I mean eternity is…

MK:  It's a long time.

RW:  And the idea of eternity is like a star shining somewhere in the psyche, you know? Is it a happy accident that E-a-t-ernity evokes that association?

MK:  Yes. It's like putting food together with a notion that it can sustain for forever. That’s the notion of sustainability, yes. So it puts these two words together, and it was a lucky accident.
     Eaternity also grew out of the belief that we should create a society that does not depend on capitalism or money, but should evolve toward these more resource-based economic models. With any system we want to maximize on sustainability the first step should be around measuring its sustainability in the first place—like trying to assess how much resources and CO2 there actually are. So if we see how much CO2 the crop requires, then we can immediately relate to the actual value it has for our planet and our society. It’s a number and people can measure it, grasp it and do an exchange based on the number—or try to optimize that number. That's kind of a counterweight to the monetary world. It grew out of the belief that we should go in that general direction.
     The work we do with meals to make them climate-friendly is a great thing. So yes, thinking about Eaternity, the first realization is that food is essential to our lives, and then sustainability.
     As in the calculations that came up in 2006 [European Union EIPRO Tugger, et al.], 31% percent of all greenhouse gas emissions originate from our food production. A little bit earlier an FAO study (Livestock's long shadow) indicated that 18% of all emissions come from agriculture.
     We can reduce those emissions by more than 50% just by making a conscious choice. We’re in control of what we eat. It doesn't take an investment; it doesn't take anything but a change of mind. We can choose from today to tomorrow to eat something different. So we want to get that idea out there, that it's actually easy to create a huge impact just by getting the information to the right point.
     We asked ourselves how can we make some facts accessible and make it more convenient for people to take the first little steps on their path? We came up with the idea of bypassing all the complexity of scientific publication and making it easy through climate-friendly meals that get served by restaurants.
     So the cook has a little bit to learn to make the meals attractive and healthy, to optimize them in a fashion that people will like them. Then you can walk into a restaurant and look at the menu-card and just choose the climate-friendly meals, an easy decision. So there you have the first action.
     Then you can do the next step and do a little research, maybe finding out about what actually relates to yourself around the sustainability aspect. A lot of people, when they think about sustainability and food, they think it's good to eat organic, it's good to reduce food waste, to eat local, to get rid of packaging and these kinds of things, but when you look at those they only account for a few percent of the sustainability requirement. Transportation is about 4%, packaging is about 2%, organic is about 5 -10% [6] better. So you when you do all the environmental good things, you end up by reducing your footprint by 10 to 20%. But you could reduce it by 80% by shifting into a plant-based diet.

RW:  I think we need to underline that. You could reduce it up to 80% by shifting into a plant-based diet?

MK:  On the meal, you can reduce it up 80% on a plant-based diet, but when you include everything like drinks and snacks and everything else, it's probably more like 40 to 60%.

RW:  That’s still huge.

MK:  Yes. So the interesting thing about having these climate-friendly meals is that people can start with the things they already value a lot. They say, “I love local food.” What does it matter that they eat local food? They can look and see that the impact of eating local food is a reduction of 4% of the emissions. That's great!
     Then they see there's another interesting thing—reducing food waste. If we don't throw away so much food, we can reduce it by another few percent. So these little steps come along from actually engaging with the topic more and more. And that’s the basic idea that we were hoping to help bring about.
     In order to put that idea into realization, I said, “Okay, let's make some software. Let's program a tool that’s accessible to everyone who has an Internet connection. Because that's the fascinating thing about technology—information, transactions, and stuff like that, is of nearly no cost. The information becomes a common, because there's no cost attached to it anymore.
     So the idea developed of building a software program that can be used by restaurants to manage the standard processes they have in the kitchen—like they plan menus, so they need to do the cost calculation. They need to print out menu cards. Maybe they'll look at the food’s nutritional make up and the allergens that are in there. Then they need to manage their relationship with their suppliers. So we provide that service, but also give them the environmental footprint of the food, so they can make climate-friendly meals.

RW:  Is this software program a core thing for Eaternity?

MK:  Right. 50% of the people who currently work for Eaternity do software—we have about six-and-a-half full-time employees right now—half of them work on doing the scientific studies and the others are programming software that makes that wisdom accessible to everyone on a level that’s easy to engage. Right now, you can go to http://co2.eaternity.ch and you'll get a calculator where you can type in a recipe and then you see the environmental footprint, and how it is calculated. The interesting thing about putting the CO2 calculations in the software is that we can even capture dynamics. That means if you have a recipe online, it will change the footprint of how it travels through different months—because food has different seasonality, it has different ways of transportation at different times and all these things are dynamic in the food supply chain.

RW:  Wow.

MK:  Also, it's a moving target keeping current with these scientific studies. When new studies come out, we constantly update the program. Right now the software is in German, and this is the first time I’ve come to the States and to the Bay Area. So far we haven’t engaged with an international audience that much. But in the coming six months, we’ll translate the website into English. It will be more accessible to anyone who speaks English or German—and a third language we have yet to choose.

RW: Now my original impulse for talking with you came from something you said in the Awakin circle in Santa Clara. Paraphrasing, you said, “I've been working for 8 years and have this little company, Eaternity, and we’ve collected all this data. People started calling me and asking me if they could have our data. It meant that other people might get ahead of us in terms of the business, and that I might suffer in a way, but I just give it to them anyway.” I was very touched by that. Would you talk about your decision to do that?

MK:  I was talking about the data and the knowledge that we’ve compiled. To put it in perspective, we've been working for eight years going through every scientific publication out there that measures the carbon footprint of different ingredients of different foods. Not only that, we take that data and make it coherent so that it works together in the overall database.
     Over the last two or three years, we actually got some money to do our own scientific research. Now we have a partnership with universities where we can pay scientists at the university. It's a great thing because they not only do the calculations, new assessments, etc., but they can get 30 different masters and bachelors students to help, each one working on different parts. We researched 65 new ingredients last year, which is a lot of work, because just one ingredient takes about two to three weeks to assess.

RW:  What's an "ingredient"?

MK:  An ingredient is like a tomato, or a carrot, or a chicken, or a cow. It takes a lot of effort to make just one assessment. For instance, let’s take the carrot—you sit down and think about the its production process; you have to produce seeds, you have to bring out the seeds, you have to alter the landscape in order to have an environment where you can grow the carrots, a certain amount of time and a certain amount of sun. Then you have to harvest it, package it, transport it, and do all these things. We put these different processes into “boxes” and connect them.
     You look at the resources you'll have to put into that box, then you look at whatever the resources are that you get out. For a simple example, you have to put in some water and some sun and you get out a plant. Okay, you put fertilizers in or pesticides in and you have a bigger yield; and it’s a bit more complicated. So you model that whole process.
     Then there's a huge database already available on all the natural resources we have. How much does it cost to produce some oil and some raw materials? So you can plot them in. You have to look at the more detailed things, especially for example, how long did it take before you take the carrot out of the ground, or until you could eat the carrot? How much sun did it need specifically, how much heat did the greenhouse need—all these specific things.
     We make questionnaires and send them out to a lot of farmers; they answer 50 questions and then you get the replies back. Then you can make a precise analysis of their system and how much CO2 or what quantity of resources it took to produce the carrot, for instance..

RW:  That sounds like a great deal of work.

MK:  That's a lot of work. So each student took on one ingredient and did his research. We’ve assembled all that into, I would say, the largest holistic database that’s now out there to calculate the environmental costs of producing food.
     These CO2 analyses are interesting to a lot of people, because it's not only a tool to do climate-friendly meals as we do. You could do an assessment of a garden; you can do an assessment of a supermarket. You can think of developing plant-based foods that are better in emissions. You could be an NGO—like the WWF that wants to make a campaign about the topic and needs this knowledge. You could be a school that wants to educate people in an interactive way by making games around that. We’ve been contacted from all these different kinds of people.
     Eight years ago we started off by just collecting this data on CO2-assesments. We didn't see it as a thing we needed to protect. We saw it as knowledge that needs to get out there. So we started spreading it, and spreading it, and spreading it. What happened is that there were people who took it and tried to do the same thing we were doing, but without giving anything back.
     So there are now two hearts beating in our chest: if we give away our data it will create possibilities for other people to go about doing the same thing, and it will spread much further. On the other hand if we do that, then we lose our own opportunities to generate revenues to hire more people to get stronger and to pursue our own idea in it. So that laid the puzzle.
     The first thing we did was close everything down on the Internet. But then we realized, okay, that's not actually what we want. Right? So we became more careful about giving out the data or making it public. Now people have to ask us for the data, and then we'll give it to them.
     So it's just not freely accessible for everyone to exploit anymore; people have to ask us—startups and whatever NGO is interested in it—and we'll give the data to them. We'll tell them, “Okay. You can do whatever you want with the data. You can make money, but just be fair and acknowledge that you got it from us.” That's the only thing we want.
     The data is really valuable, and it's our biggest asset right now. So every time we think about giving away the calculator and opening it up to someone, they may use the data in a way that we have not anticipated in the first place. There's the danger that they'll do something that may hurt the idea.
     But it's data, facts. They speak for themselves. The more people who have it, the more it will create something. There may even be someone who is better than us doing that, and that's great. We didn't start the whole thing to sustain our private lives in the first place. We wanted to change the world.

RW:  That's beautiful. I mean, your commitment to the greater good is very touching. First, I have to thank you. It’s really quite exemplary.

MK:  Thank you for thanking me. Especially coming here to the States, to the Bay Area, the interesting thing is that mindset of trying to change the planet, being open with data, being accessible, trying to live by these values… It opens so many doors. I talk to people and tell them what I’m doing and they say, “You can stay at our house!”
     Someone stopped and gave me a lift. They told me they'd been driving in the area for 20 years and had never stopped to give a stranger a lift. But they stopped for me. I was headed for a 350.org Marin group. I wanted to introduce Eaternity there and had no hope of getting there on time on public transportation. And this woman and her daughter said, “We're just going to get you there! We've never done this before!”

RW:  That's beautiful.

MK:  I even got the opportunity to go to Google headquarters and to Apple headquarters, and eat at their cafeterias. And I talked to the manager at the Apple headquarters and told him what we’re doing with Eaternity.
     He looked at me and said, “Can you come on Friday and introduce it to our whole staff?”
     It was great. I introduced it to all the people at Apple who do food and sustainability, told them our story and gave them access to the information.

RW:  That's great!

MK:  Yes. I come from a technology and academic background. I'm not an extrovert and neither is my cofounder and partner, Judith. So another story is about meeting a filmmaker I admired. He takes a topic from new perspectives in a way that reaches hundreds of thousands of people. I wrote to him. Then I met him for lunch and we talked. A few minutes into the conversation he says, “I'm going to be away on a holiday. Do you want to stay at my apartment?” It was like an inner connection. We have the same kind of vision, and everything else is just not important anymore. He hugged me. It happened in the moment just like that.

RW:  Something amazing can appear almost operating on other laws, it seems, when one is aligned in some deep way. I’m wondering what are the questions you're in front of today?

MK:  There’s still more to do, building software, getting the data and convincing the restaurant industry to actually make climate-friendly meals. We’ve discovered there's a niche that’s not so much about profit maximizing around food; it’s the catering service industry.
      Corporations like Google and Apple have employee restaurants with fixed prices on the meals. Aramark, Sodexo, Compass Group and companies like that have professionalized buying for the ingredients, for hiring cooks and running those restaurants for corporations. Big corporations put out a call for bids and a bunch of caterers make their proposals—how they will run the restaurant, what the prices will be and so on.
     If you have something that can put sustainability in the picture it sets you apart. So we started putting together a product around the needs of this catering service industry. The product is software that connects to the system they're running to manage their supplies and meals and it provides them with a real-time calculations of every menu that they're serving in every restaurant.
     So every cooks sees a CO2 footprint of the meals and the different ingredients that he puts in; it’s calculated on the spot when he does that. He gets a little label that says it's climate-friendly and can also tell the guests that it's climate-friendly. They also get a monthly report on each restaurant detailing the total CO2 taken by the whole restaurant; it's usually about 20 to 40 tons a month, and they see themselves in comparison with all the other restaurants in the game.

RW:  Wow.

MK:  You can dig down into the different categories of food. It shows how they can optimize their supply chain, their meals and make them more attractive. Then they get this certificate that they can hang in the restaurant where people can see it, “This is an average meal; this is a climate-friendly meal.” The customers can join in to optimize the meals they order. Then they see how the restaurant is performing in comparison to the average.
     There's a huge study looking at what actually incentivizes people to go about reducing emissions or reducing energy usage. The most important thing is the group pressure of social contacts.
     So we walked around and asked the Swiss caterers, “Who is interested in this?” Basically, we won the Compass Group. They run, I don’t know, 36,000 restaurants worldwide. It’s the biggest catering service provider on the planet.

RW:  Wow.

MK:  And we're running a pilot project with their 200 restaurants in Switzerland right now. We currently have 131 restaurants online, where we can measure the emissions totally up and down, and 44 restaurants that currently communicate daily. And there’s this whole marketing thing around it informing the guests and giving them access to the data. That started in April this year.
     That's the hope for us, that we could win other catering services in the Netherlands, the UK, Germany, and maybe even here in the States. That's where we're at right now.
     The law required that we incorporate in order to sell something, so we did in July 2014. Currently, that’s the situation we're in. In one way, we're activists—50%; we’re trying to create a movement. On the other hand, we're in to sustain our lives and grow bigger.


      
 

About the Author

Richard Whittaker is the founding editor of works & conversations and West Coast editor of Parabola magazine. 

 

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