From Farm to Smartphone to Table

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Imagine a woman named Vivien. Vivien wants to make a salad for dinner tonight. She stands in front of the long refrigerated produce bin at the grocery store, contemplating her choices. There are loose, dewy heads of Boston lettuce, romaine hearts sold in sealed plastic bags, and clamshells filled with assorted triple-washed greens. She examines one after another, and finally takes out her phone. She scans the QR code on a label of pre-washed torn greens, and with a satisfied nod tosses it in the cart and heads toward the stack of strawberries. 

Vivien is part of a growing cohort of consumers who want to be able to trace the sources of the food they feed their families all the way back to the farm. Mintel, a global market research company, named traceability—the ability to see where food comes from, what it’s made with, and by whom—one of the five most important food and drink trends for 2018. According to Mintel, the trend is fueled by “widespread distrust” in how our food is made, the “need for reassurance about the safety and trustworthiness” of food, and the increasing use of natural, ethical and environmental claims on packaging. While more recent data from Mintel is not available, other consumer research points out that over half of consumer purchases are driven by health, safety, social impact and experience—all of which require transparency and traceability.

Smart labels

These changes in consumer’s expectations can be seen most vividly in the so-called “locavore” movement. Thanks to a greatly shortened supply chain, when a consumer buys beets at her town’s farmer’s market, she knows just where to turn if there is a problem. The consumer feels good about the purchase for many reasons: local food is perceived to be safer, more environmentally friendly, more supportive of the community—and more trustworthy. While “local” is an undefined term—it can mean anywhere between forty and four hundred miles—it resonates with consumers as being higher quality, fresher and more authentic. The local food market in the U.S. topped $9.1 billion in 2020.

Most consumers, however, are unlikely to buy all their food from local sources. You’d be hard-pressed to find a New Yorker willing to forgo his leafy green salad in winter or a Midwesterner who will do without avocados from Mexico or blueberries from Chile. But the supply chains for these foods can stretch thousands of miles and up to a year or more. And problems like the five deaths caused by romaine lettuce tainted with E.coli bacteria issue this summer only heighten consumers’ fears about the food they buy.

Current traceability practices dictated by federal regulations require each step in the supply chain to generate its own records—and since 2010, every produce industry stakeholder must also track and keep data on “one step forward, one step back.”  In its simplest iteration, that requires a farm to have in place a system that allows the grower to track the produce from the field (one step back) to the buyer (one step forward). While the system should make nailing down the source of an outbreak easier, it is still incredibly cumbersome and time-consuming—and often, in the complex global food supply web, far from linear. Streamlined traceability, however, can greatly reduce the need for old-fashioned detective work like physically scouring fields and inspecting supermarkets. 

It’s difficult enough to create such a system for domestically grown produce. But it is especially challenging with globally sourced foods; regulations concerning record keeping, allergens, pesticides, and more vary greatly by country, as does enforcement. Our “perfect world” scenario requires a level of alignment and cooperation that spans every step of the food system and has no political borders.

In food we trust

How far away are we from this vision of traceability? Current and emerging technology may actually make it possible to trace produce at a level of detail and accuracy far beyond what we’re capable of today.

The robotics, mobile computing and networks of the Internet of Things (IoT) will ultimately allow us to collect and tie together data throughout the supply chain. All the food we buy would have a transparent set of interconnected tech-enabled checkpoints that consumers could gain insight into. Ideally, each individual unit of produce harvested would be assigned traceable data points indicating the farm and location, a lot number to show the specific field where it was grown, the date of harvest, the workers who harvested it, the date and location where it was packed, the workers who packed, to whom the lot was sold, how and by whom it was transported, the temperature and humidity conditions under which it was transported, and how and to whom the produce was distributed. Did that particular head of broccoli get sent directly to a supermarket, or to a distribution center, where more people handled it?

The question then arises: with whom is all this data entrusted? In fact, the distributed ledger system used to power bitcoin, called blockchain, may be the answer.

Companies including Dole, Driscoll’s, Nestle, and Wal-Mart are betting the farm, so to speak, that consumers’ need for reassurance through traceability will fuel their buying decisions. These industry giants, along with others, have joined forces to create a food tracking blockchain they’re calling the Food Trust. The IBM-built blockchain monitors transactions and keeps records to create one consistent history. Think of it like FedEx tracking a package—the item itself is followed with consistent, accurate data.

A number of agricultural companies are working to engage a variety of partners in the food and agriculture industry to better leverage blockchain for their customers’ benefit. This technology provides a token at the point of food creation and follows it all the way through to the final consumer selling point. By the time a consumer picks up the item in a grocery store, it comes complete with a detailed story—from farm to table. 

“Consumers like our imaginary Vivien have grown accustomed to getting fresh fruit and vegetables year-round. New traceability technologies will soon give consumers across the globe renewed confidence to buy what they want, whenever they want it. That won’t just benefit shoppers like Vivien. It will increase the marketability and value of their crops, not to mention giving a boost to other players in the food chain who have a stake in the safety of the food they produce and distribute.”