The Amazing Trace

Posted in: Global Ag     

1114 Amaizing Trace

What’s driving the move toward food traceability? Some say food safety, others say environmental sustainability. The likely answer is a combination of both, plus one significant driver that gets far less press — mitigating business risk.

The writers behind the satirical TV show Portlandia are especially adept at skewering bandwagon trends. Take one of the show’s first skits to make the social media rounds. In it, two soft spoken yuppies are out to dinner and want to know more about the chicken they’re planning to order. Was it humanely treated? Exactly which authority verified that the meat was ‘organic.’ What was in its feed? Hazelnuts? Local hazelnuts?

The waitress patiently answers every question, then excuses herself, returning with a dossier. “His name is Colin,” she says of the chicken in question, handing the diners a photo of the bird. “Here are his papers….” Not completely satisfied, the customers decide to drive to Colin’s former home to see if the farm passes inspection.

So far, mass market consumers have not yet begun to demand that level of granularity in background data about
their food — but the industry is heading in that direction.

By 2020, in fact, food traceability technology could be a $14 billion dollar business globally, according to an Allied Market Research survey. And these days, traceability systems go beyond tracking the origin and location of a raw product — they also attach data about that ingredient all the way back to its seed. They may include information about the soil in which it was grown, the amount of fertilizer applied, and when, and the amount of water used in its development. In other words, one day you may be able to kill time waiting for your toast to pop by reading up on the very dirt that produced the bread’s wheat.

In some important ways, fear is a key driver of the major push for traceability. Most obviously, consumers want to know that their food is safe, and governments need to know that recalls can be deployed quickly enough to save lives.

Canada’s traceability systems are furthest along in the beef industry because of its BSE (bovine spongiform encephalopathy) scare in 2002. More than a decade later neither corporations nor governments can afford to ignore the frequencies with which new foodborne illnesses across varied sectors — including seafood, produce and dairy — threaten citizens’ health, not to mention the credibility of valuable market exports.

But safety is just one concern pushing traceability forward. There’s an even more powerful driver of this trend, with a longer and more predictable trajectory: the state of the environment.

Looking into the future, virtually every stakeholder in the food supply chain has reason to question their own ability to survive not just new demands from eco-conscious consumers, but also the severe effects of climate change and pressures of population growth. Given the dire warnings about weather pattern changes, urban encroachment and the need to feed many millions more mouths, food producers are painfully aware that they must find ways to do even more with less of the earth’s resources, while producing fewer pollutants.

Governments and corporations need them to figure out how to do that, and fast.

Corporate boards have begun to adopt aggressive mission statements about sustainability and how they will source raw material: Unilever has set a goal to source 50 percent of its agricultural raw materials sustainably by 2015, and 100 percent by 2020. General Mills says it will sustainably source its 10 priority ingredients by 2020. Walmart, Kellogg’s, McDonald’s — all the major players have announced ambitious goals. And any corporation that is going to police sustainability practices will have to rely on a robust traceability scheme.

“The big driver that most people think about is food safety, sometimes animal welfare — it’s always that type of item that gets the headlines,” says Brian Sterling of the Institute of Food Technologists’ (IFT) Global Food Traceability Center. “The actual drivers of traceability are the business drivers.”

“For big companies, it’s a matter of business risk. It’s supply chain management,” he explains, “which can be enabled by knowing where things came from, where they are, and when they were in contact with other things.

“For the producer, traceability can help reduce capital tied up in unnecessary material. It also gives you the ability to improve your brand or give you access to niche markets, companies selling to consumers who want products grown a certain way. These are the drivers that farmers and processors care about.”

Eventually, he adds, whether a producer can hit certain traceability requirements will affect a producers’ — or  country’s — ability to compete internationally. “The growers who try to resist or just do the minimum, just because they don’t see the value – they’re going to find it’s a cost of doing business,” he says.


The Trace is On

If you’ve never heard of the Global Food Traceability Center(GFTC), that may be because it’s only a year old.

“The industry came to the IFT and said we can’t handle all this demand for information, and so the center was created,” says Sterling, who is based outside Toronto, although the IFT is headquartered in Chicago.

So far, the GFTC has produced three reports on traceability — a survey of food traceability systems in 21 OECD countries; a review of industry best practices in six major sectors, and  “a kind of traceability 101” about the tools used to do it. The center is now completing a seafood-specific traceability study.

In a nutshell, GFTC’s international survey found that Europe is way out in front of the pack when it comes to implementing sophisticated traceability requirements. Countries there make it necessary for food businesses to track an ingredient or animal from the soil (or feed), through harvest, right through to supplier and processor onto the retailer and consumer.

Canada and the U.S. are somewhere in the middle, sort of “half-heartedly doing it,” says Sterling, though a few categories in Canada, such as the soy market, have already designed world class methods. Australia and New Zealand are “better than us, but not by that much,” he explains, and Japan is only ahead in the beef sector, although many private companies enforce stringent requirements around traceability for soy and rice.

Numerous global food corporations sponsor the center’s research — many of the same companies, in fact, who have made bold statements about their plans to institute sourcing requirements linked to sustainability goals within the next
few years.

Some Canadian food suppliers are already fielding requests for deep information about their products, but finding that farmers are not always eager to comply. The attitude is, “No one else is asking me for this, so why would I?”, according to some industry watchers.

But farmers also say the move toward this kind of traceability raises complicated questions; What does it mean if General Mills asks for X, but Nestle wants Y? Who’s going to set the standards for these sustainability metrics? How safe is it for me to hand over this data? Even more immediately, How am I supposed to add data recording and reporting to my workload or afford the software to do it?

No one expects the answers to be straightforward. One of GFTC’s mandates is to promote harmonization, but experts feel that the traceability issue is going to
get messy before clear systems fall into place, which is why some ag groups are already working to get out ahead of the coming changes.

The American Way

One of the leading initiatives gaining traction in Canada is called Field to Market, an approach created as a Keystone Center project. In the U.S., the Field to Market alliance has already welcomed 60 major members — from producers, associations and universities to corporations like Monsanto and John Deere, and food companies like Coca-Cola and Kelloggs. Retailers like Walmart have signed on, as have conservation groups such as the World Wildlife Fund and the Environmental Defense Fund.

This diverse group has come together behind a voluntary tool, called the Field Print calculator, which uses aggregated data on a crop within a specific region to help a single farmer measure their methods and outcomes against those of the region. With that info, suppliers to big food companies would be able to describe the ecological footprint from certain types of crops to their clients.

Many feel the Field Print tool, adapted for Canada’s geography and conditions, would make sense here, too. So far, the Canadian alliance includes representatives from Pulse Canada, the CWB Ltd., the Canadian Canola Growers Association, General Mills and others. They have completed one pilot project with 30 producers who used the Canadian Field Print Calculator to investigate five factors: land use efficiency, energy use, climate impact, soil carbon release and soil erosion risk. In total, they captured data from 120 field years by partnering with agriculture consulting companies such as Agri-Trend Inc. and Farmers Edge.

Markus Weber of Serecon Consulting in Edmonton, which facilitated the test, reports that many producers who were initially not interested in the calculator changed their tune about halfway through the pilot, becoming keen to measure their own results against the provincial average and their anonymous neighbours to find out how they were doing.

In one case, two brothers who knew they were both in the pilot traded their results, because they wanted to know the effects of using manure, which one brother was applying as fertilizer and the other was not.

To David Lobb, a professor of agriculture and soil specialist at University of Manitoba, it would only make sense that producers make it their business to support a tool like the Field Print. Farmers should be watching their own sustainability metrics not only because of what happens to their livelihoods if practices go unchecked, he says — just look at the problem with phosphorus in Lake Erie, a problem that is also threatening Manitoba’s Red River basin — but also because negative events could impact future public policy.

Why not help shape that policy now?

The European Standard

Although Field to Market is attracting fans in Canada, it’s not the only approach that could become the norm in agriculture. There is a competing vision, gaining traction in Europe, of a system that would track raw material and growing methods at a farm level. Called the Sustainable Agriculture Code, the method is largely being propelled by the influential multinational Unilever.

Under this qualitative system, suppliers are presented with a long list of “shoulds and musts,” — as Denis Tremorin, director of sustainability at Pulse Canada describes it — that must be presented to their growers, in some cases with requirements for third-party verification.

Not all of the indicators are about the environment. The Sustainable Agriculture Code includes questions about labour practices, for example.

Melissa Miners, Global Communications Manager, Sustainable Sourcing, for Unilever told AgAdvance that the company will partner with any supplier who lives up to the Sustainable Agriculture Code self-assessment or meets another one of Unilever’s accepted certification practices. In Canada, the company currently sources blueberries and raspberries for its Fruttare brand.

“Consumers want to know where ingredients come from and we are a company that wants to make a difference in the way we buy ingredients,” Miners said in an email. “In an ever-accelerating digital world, farmers should not be surprised that consumers want to know where their materials come from. We are open to working with any supplier that is committed to the same sustainability goals as we are, but we need to know where these materials come from. This is a non-negotiable factor.”

But the European farm-by-farm method, says Tremorin, seems unlikely to go over with North American farmers who will push back against the pressure to conform. “Our group is saying, you don’t need to know every detail about our farm,” he explains, and aggregate data is sufficient to drive innovation. “Obviously, there’s going to be some pushback from some organizations who will say this is not enough. So how it plays out long-term,
I’m not sure.”

Innovators, Fast Followers to Drive New Standards

Some producers are, of course, not waiting for tough traceability regulations to be imposed on their farm before taking action. In many cases, suppliers or producers have come together after identifying a specialized market they can meet and profit from by jumping through the right traceability hoops.

One such example is Sevita, based in Ontario. It specializes in developing and supplying non-GMO food grade soy with specific physical characteristics and nutritional traits.

Working with more than 400 farmers, the company collects a large number of data points as requested by their clients, mainly large food companies in Japan and some U.S. and Southeast Asian customers.

Sevita not only traces their soybeans from the point they’re planted, it works its way back to the plant’s genetics, back to the seed stock. As part of their IP and HACCP and CIPRS-certified system, the company monitors how pesticides are used, when seeds were planted and when equipment was cleaned to avoid contamination, among other things. They also have buyers come out to see their producers’ fields. Sevita, of course, pays a premium for the extra labour. 

According to Natalie Hazeleger, quality assurance coordinator at the supplier, it’s the farmers who are new to the practice — those given a fat welcome package outlining policies and procedures when they first partner with the firm — who embrace Sevita’s data input requirements without complaint.

The farmers who have been working with the company for years and are suddenly asked to document the work they’d already been doing tend to grumble and drag their heels. “I don’t know if anyone would say ‘I’m glad I’m doing this,’ “ says Hazeleger. “They just know it’s the requirement now.” 

Farmers Watchful

Nick Betts, former sustainable development coordinator at the Grain Farmers of Ontario, says watching the traceability movement as it plays out on the ground is making one thing obvious; corporate food processors are trying to force their model — which relies on pulling levers here for a specific result there — onto agriculture, and that won’t work.

Growing food is not the same as producing widgets or cookies. Farmers know that; they want industry to accept it.

D’arcy Hilgartner, a grain farmer who works with his brother on the family farm near Camrose, Alberta, tells AgAdvance that he also has a few concerns about what’s shaping up around traceability.

On the one hand, he says, “We know how we farm already — this is a matter of telling our story.” Traceability will help farms share the data that consumers and suppliers are asking for — he gets that. And, as his Twitter page indicates, he’s a farmer who “loves innovation and technology,” so he’s not questioning the potential value of tech on the farm.

“My biggest concern is we find out one day that General Mills wants it this way. Pepsico wants it that way,” he says. “We need the Unilevers and the Walmarts to come together and say, let’s use these protocols. We don’t want to see 20 different protocols, we want one.”

Even with one protocol, though, the workload needs to be evaluated, he cautions. “We need to come up with a solution where the effort is not all pushed down all to the producer. I don’t want someone to say, ‘We’re not buying these products unless you fill out these forms.’ The risk and reward needs to be spread out across the supply chain. We are all independent business people so things like that are a concern.”

Yes, using aggregated data would be something he’d be comfortable with, but he still wonders how industry expects to meet its ambitious deadlines. “The goals set by the companies seem optimistic. You have to have goals to shoot for. And you just don’t create metrics overnight. You have to have some baseline.”

 So, when will traceability requirements become, as Unilever put it, a non-negotiable, across-the-board requirement, threatening to leave behind those who don’t comply? That all depends on what crop is in question, and what market you’re aiming to serve.

“It may not be coming down to the farmer on a big scale just yet, but it is trickling down. No one can say when,” Tremorin says. “As we approach the big deadlines for various larger companies, it will be a sliding scale — and we’ll see an increased push as we get closer. And some crops are facing earlier deadlines than others.”

For the record, in the spring, Unilever announced that by the end of 2013, it had sourced 48 percent of its raw agricultural materials sustainably. The company boasts that it is making really good progress with soy in North America. It is on target though has not yet achieved its goal to have 25 percent of it soy oil purchased from sustainable sources by end 2013.

Sterling would add that even the perception of traceability will start to matter. “If you look at it from a broader perspective — if the U.S. and Canada fall behind, we appear less competitive or less interested in the quality of what we’re farming than someone in New Zealand or Argentina,” he says.

“It starts to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Buyers will say, ‘Look, you don’t even care about what I’m asking for.’ Even some of your more flexible buyers will start to see product from Brazil guaranteed up the wazoo. They’ll say, ‘you don’t have that, and well, I’m not interested.”

It’s time to make traceability a priority, he declares. “Try to resist, and it will end up costing money in long run.”


About the Author
Lila MacLellan

Lila MacLellan is a freelance writer and editor based in New York City. She is originally from Toronto and has lived in Vancouver, Sapporo, and Montreal.

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