Masters Thesis: Alive: Comforting Your Food, by Willy Chan


Products of Design MFA Student Willy Chan’s thesis, entitled “Alive: Comforting Your Food,” questions the farming industry’s practices, concentrating specifically on the humane treatment of livestock and the organic certification process. Willy supports the argument that organic certification does not always ensure the humane treatment of animals on our farms, and that there should be different form of assessing a farm’s practices.

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The journey that lead Willy to pick the farming industry as the basis for his thesis began during his childhood years growing up in a Chinese restaurant. He witnessed experiences that gave him not only a deeper connection to the vegetables and animals that he was eating, but allowed him to engage in conversations about these foods. After a while, he started to question his feelings towards these foods—but perhaps more importantly, the feelings of the foods themselves. So while Willy was enjoying this roller coaster of food knowledge and learning about “how animal becomes food,” his childhood friends experienced mundane grocery shopping experiences. After leaving for college and spending less and less time with his family, his grocery shopping experiences became less inspiring and less exciting. A longing to return to that excitement is what inspired his thesis.

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At first, Willy began to concentrate on New York City’s Unions Square Green Market, and specifically the livestock farmers who sell their products there. He began to look at the flaws in the organic certification system, finding that we have no clear understanding of what the term “organic” really means. “We trust a labeling system we know nothing about,” argues Willy. In the United States, there are over 18,000 organic farms, with an increase in organic practices of 245% since 2008. A system that was once worth only 1 billion dollars in 1990 is now worth more than 30 billion dollars. It costs anywhere from $800 and higher for a farm to be certified organic, and in Union Square alone there are 140 farmers—18 of which are livestock. 8 of those 18 are not certified organic. Willy asked, “What do the labels on our foods actually mean? What do they ensure?” And most importantly (and comically), “How do we ensure that they are ensuring what they say they are ensuring?”

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He began to search for small-scale farms around the Tri-state area that genuinely care about their animals and how they are treated. He developed relationships with farmers over the span of his thesis, where he was able to engage in conversations around the topic. The first farmer he spoke with is Michael Yezzi, founder and owner of Flying Pigs Farm, who raises rare and endangered species of pig—of which only 2000 exist on the planet. Michael is not certified organic because, as Willy reflects, “he truly cares for his livestock and gives antibiotics to them when they are sick—just as he would for his children.” He uses no growth hormones or synthetic feed. Another farmer that Willy developed a relationship with is Ronald Kipps, a bison and elk farmer on Elk Trails Ranch who’s been a farmer for over 30 years.

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Willy started to question whether these small-scale farms—who medicate their animals when necessary—are actually treating their animals with more care and than other organic certified farms, coming to the conclusion that it is small farms like Michael’s and Ron’s that truly provide added value—though neither is “certified.” Willy offered, “Perhaps it’s these small-scale farm practices that should be highlighted in our food-buying practices.”

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Willy went through a series of speculative prototyping, developing objects that were inspired by his findings from various animal specialists’ work, such as Temple Grandin and Claire Hartten. These objects included the measuring of care on a farm through RFID tags attached to the ears of animals, improving lust and animal sexual behaviors through biostimulation (using a braided necklace for a female sheep from the wool taken from her deceased mate), and toys that measure the play behaviors in farm animals. These objects acted as conversation-starters to get farmers to see a speculative future, where these products might play a part in our farms. Willy also designed a mobile app that allows users to read personal stories about these small-scale farms, pinpointing farmers geographically closest to them as well as locating products sold by these farmers in nearby stores. Stories on the app are categorized by topic, and users are also able to watch live feed and personal messages from the farmers about their various farming methods.

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Looking forward, Willy imagines a world where people begin to think more not only about the foods they are eating but “what the foods they are eating have endured when they were alive.” He hopes for a world where farmers and customers live with the same level of understanding and certainty; a world where there is no need to doubt or question how our foods are produced. “Animals are what make us human,” he argues, “and we should begin to respect them, just like we would ourselves.”

See more of Willy Chan’s work at his websitehttp://inventchan.wordpress.com, and email him at willychan90[at]gmail[dot]com.