Global supply chains bring UK consumers a variety of food that would have dazzled our grandparents. Particularly in big cities, you can now buy pretty much whatever ingredient you need, whether or not it’s ever been produced in the British Isles, and regardless of the time of year. But these same increasingly complex supply chains have also created a disconnect between buyers and producers. Few food traders or retailers can now seamlessly track and trace the food products they buy and sell daily.
If we don’t know where our food is coming from, how can we know the impact of our shopping choices? Food production generates about a quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions, causes nearly three-quarters of biodiversity losses and puts a huge strain on water resources, but without reliable insights, neither governments, consumers nor the actors in any of these supply chains can know for sure what they need to do to minimise this environmental impact.
A third of all the food produced for human consumption globally is wasted or lost in inefficient, complex and obscure supply chains. Commercial fraud adds further confusion. For example, around a third of the seafood sold in the US is known to be mislabelled. Without reliable sourcing information, it’s impossible to choose which countries to buy from or to avoid contaminants such as heavy metals or antibiotics. Food-borne illnesses have the time to spread more widely. More transparency would improve our ability to respond to outbreaks of food-related illness, tackle fraud more effectively and boost the efficiency of the entire supply chain. It would also allow retailers to more usefully label their products.
We already have the technology to address many of the transparency challenges we face. In January 2019, The World Economic Forum published a report exploring some high-potential technology solutions to increasing visibility into food systems. It makes exciting reading. The internet of things (IoT) can be used to automate more robust data collection, distributed ledger technologies (e.g. blockchain) can help with aggregating, analysing and sharing the information, and new food sensing technologies like hyperspectral imaging allow us to inspect and evaluate foodstuffs for quality and safety before offering them for sale.
Effective collaboration will be key to making the most of these new opportunities. Traceability requires commitment from every link in the supply chain. But equipping consumers with the knowledge and tools to base food-buying decisions on the environmental and social impact of production could be a powerful driver of social change.
While some countries and companies already have their own traceability requirements, the new technologies will make it possible to collect information that was previously unavailable. The joint venture initiatives and government and NGO projects which have already begun to emerge will need to define best practices tailored to the unique needs of each region. For example, soil-bound sensors can now precisely control irrigation systems for optimum water use. Their data can also be used to compare different production methods for the same crop, allowing us to favour the most water-efficient. To make the most of these new opportunities, countries, companies, and others will need to create consistent global standards on what information should be collected and how, who will own the data and how it is kept secure. A farmer signing up to a traceability initiative will need to know what data to supply (including whether any of it might be sensitive personal or business information), what data will be made available in return (e.g. the full aggregated dataset) and who else will have access to this.
About two-and-a-half billion people living in developing countries make their living from food production and around two-thirds of them are small-scale, domestic producers. Any new traceability requirements are likely to add cost for them, but involving them will be crucial to the success of any transparency efforts. The risk is that larger producers and companies in developed countries will be better able to absorb the added cost and to adjust to new requirements. However, with access to the data collected, small-scale participants will be empowered to produce more efficiently, more effectively navigate global markets, and potentially locate new premium markets. By supplying traceability information to global initiatives, they will also acquire a digital identity, opening up access to new sources of affordable capital.
End-to-end traceability, enabled by new technology, can create tangible benefits for businesses of all sizes, consumers, communities and governments, but will require comprehensive collaboration and cooperation. While a consumer may be willing to pay more at the supermarket for a traceable product, it is the farmer who is likely to need to invest more. Commercially viable models that focus on sharing value across the supply chain will be important to the long-term sustainability of any traceability initiative. Also, producers may not have the necessary capital to invest in the technology needed by the whole chain. Any collaboration will have to involve strategies to catalyse financing. Business could have a lot to gain by investing in traceability. If consumers do prove willing to pay more, or if this visibility creates new, long-lasting brand loyalty, this would provide a compelling business case for investment in new technologies.