I can't help it. Food comes up in my conversations all the time. Whether I am at a conference for sustainable agriculture or at my neighborhood watering hole, the people I meet are paying attention to their food in a way that should perk the ears of anyone who produces, markets, distributes, sells, prepares, or buys food. These conversations should get your attention because they reflect a desire to reject a mainstay of the food industry - traditional food labeling, in favor of radical transparency.
Recently, two articles have brought to light the risks and challenges of transparency in food systems. David Karp's article in the L.A. Times, "Fruit Varietals: Identity Crisis in the Produce Aisle," describes how fruit varieties get mixed together for the simplicity of the supply chain and in order to prevent customer confusion. As Karp writes, for the produce industry, the value of veiling details about fresh produce is in efficient operations and subdued consumers.
The produce industry is not alone in favoring streamlined over customized operations. When I was working with a big commodity merchant last summer, there was significant concern that if textile customers knew the origin of a particular kind of cotton, they would begin to have sharpened tastes and, if they liked a specific region's cotton one season, might demand it to the exclusion of other varieties or geographies next season. This picky customer would create chaos in global trading relationships and pricing because, if next year cotton from a different region is superior but the customer wants what he got last year, demand favors an inferior product.
Karp suggests that grocers are worried about the "educated customer" problem too. What a risk it would be if I got Pink Lady apples last month, loved them, and demanded my grocer get them again this month, even though they are expensive and out of season! I daresay, with the right information provided to them in the right format, people are smart enough to figure out that the best produce today might not be the best next week or next year. We're already trained to think this way with some foods. Who buys pomegranates in the summer months, or corn on the cob in January? We get it. Tell us what is good now, and let us figure out what we want for ourselves. Karp rightly states that doing so would allow "good products [to] be rewarded with increased demand and higher prices, and inferior ones [to] fall by the wayside."
Meanwhile, the New York Times article "Genetically Altered Salmon Set to Move Closer to Your Table" describes how a genetically modified fish could get approved by the FDA and show up unidentified in grocery store freezers next to, shall we say, authentic salmon. My first reaction is, "Label it!" (To clarify, in general, I think static labeling is insufficient, but here we are talking about whether or not to even distinguish "real" from "altered.")
If consumers are given enough information to determine what's what, who cares whether the FDA decides to let this fish go to market? They will do their best to conclude whether these highly efficient protein producers are safe, but they cannot possibly be expected to anticipate the long-term effects of a genetically modified fish. If consumers have at their fingertips sufficient information to understand the choices they make with their food dollars, then collective intelligence and preference will decide whether to keep AquaBounty's product on store shelves.
If a stable food system is one in which farmers produce what consumers want, consumers know what they're getting, and consumers' decisions influence farmers' production plans, then full disclosure seems necessary. What would it take to get there? It will take more than the "Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food" campaign, the USDA's well-intentioned effort to connect Americans to the farm, because we need to rely on real-time data. But data takes time, and time is money. As Karp reports, farmers do not have the incentive or are too fatigued to sort fruit by varietal, much less track field-level statistics.
It's understandable that farmers are tired - if they sell their products directly, they are not only farmers but also marketers, distributors, and, increasingly, social media strategists. Technology that can help is evolving. Products like Stickybits connect digital content with a physical product, allowing food manufacturers, marketers, and farmers to tell a more complex story than nutritional values and ingredient lists can. Similarly, Leitha Matz of FreshDirect sees online food retail as a way to provide greater depth of information than is available on a sign inside a grocery store. She sees personalized, transparent information through the website as a key factor in FreshDirect's commitment to supporting both farmers and customers.
The question of how we identify our agricultural products comes down to whether we believe that such products are differentiated. For decades, even specialty crops have been lumped together in name, price, and path to market. However, as food sustainability and transparency efforts make headway, we're starting to realize that nothing the earth produces is undifferentiated. Each peach has its own flavor. Each tree has particular nutrient needs. Each acre gets its own sunlight and irrigation. Each farmer has her own practices and philosophy of farming. And each hungry person has a unique combination of flavor palette, health profile, and willingness to pay. How can we possibly consider agricultural production to be a commodity?
Traceability and transparency are essential to healthy food systems because without them, consumers have little say in the food they choose to buy, except through niche certifications like organic (which I find more and more of my peers distrust). If we could see --at the moment of our purchase decisions-- the system that we empower to feed us, then our dollars could begin to align with our nutritional, environmental, social, and cultural desires. Until then, I grudgingly trust food supply chains that are not merely veiled but curtained.
Right now, the only people with the drawstring on this picture are big food retailers that can demand their suppliers give them rigorous information so that they, in turn, can provide it to customers, and farms that see the economic value and vast marketing potential of offering deeper transparency through technology. In an era when consumers increasingly want information about pesticide use, fertilizer type, irrigation level, soil pH, nutritional value, long-term economic costs, and social trade-offs in their food, I'm putting my money on the farmers.
Some see radical transparency as a costly burden (which, if done with paper and pen, physical labels, and manual sorting, it is). But I firmly believe that with the information infrastructure that exists today, radical transparency is not only possible but necessary. Yes, I think the companies that refuse to throw the curtain back on food products are in for a big surprise, and that the companies that embrace the data, consumer insight, and brand evolution that come with full disclosure will thrive. Why? Because those companies will be in constant communication with everyone they touch, from their farmers to their customers. To my way of thinking, that describes an engaged, responsive, and agile food company that will survive the 21st century.