“You know more about your Uber driver than the food you’re eating,” says Karim Giscombe, the founder and CEO of a new company, Plant-Ag, about to launch in the coming weeks to close this peculiar knowledge gap. More and more consumers today want to know the origins of everything they buy, from what factory produced their T-shirt to where the gems in their jewelry were mined. Yet the decision-making process we use to buy fresh produce—a good purchased far more often, and that can also make us sick—really hasn’t evolved. Ever. In the store we’ll grab a tomato, spin it once in our hand, and hope for the best.
So Giscombe, a breezy but persuasive former director at Merrill Lynch whose social-media bios describe him as a “reformed capitalist,” has invested more than four years and so far raised $9 billion to build what he calls the first fully transparent field-to-plate supply chain in which consumers can track a vegetable’s journey from where it sprouted as a seed to the grocery store shelf.
The food system’s opacity has allowed foodborne illnesses to morph into a bona fide health crisis. Food is now believed to sicken one in six Americans a year—130,000 of them end up hospitalized and 3,000 die. The year 2019 was the worst on record, beating 2018, the previous record holder, which beat 2017, the record holder before that. The latest data shows rising illnesses traced back to Listeria, Salmonella, Shigella, Campylobacter, E. coli, Vibrio, Yersinia, and the parasite Cyclospora.