Martin Kropff
Director General
International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center
/
Expert Contributor

Food Traceability a Fad or the Ultimate Marketing Strategy?

By Martin Kropff | Tue, 09/08/2020 - 09:16

Public health has become the dominant topic of 2020. News about the COVID-19 pandemic jumped from the science, health and world news sections to front-page coverage in the blink of an eye. 

At first, everybody became interested in viral epidemiology and then, suddenly, people began turning their attention to food security and safety. These topics appeared to be more accessible to the layperson, having been part of the backbone of health, nutrition, culinary arts, science and culture from the beginning of time. 

As more information and data became available, people learned that the virus seemed to affect more severely people with pre-existing health conditions. Consequentially, it did not take long for attention to shift to food consumption habits and, once again, to food safety. The question on everybody’s lips became: is the food that we eat safe? 

The answer depends on several crucial moments, or links, along the value chain: food production, processing and preparation. In several countries, consumers are increasingly asking food processing companies and local authorities for more information about the food products sold on supermarket shelves. Some companies use the growing scrutiny to their advantage, whereas others fall short of complying with evolving requirements for labeling practices. 

At present, the debate appears to be centered on whether a food product contains too much or too little of something. The next logical step would be to ask: how was that ingredient incorporated? What was the ingredient’s processing like? Where and how was it sourced? Was it grown in a field sustainably, or with farming practices that contribute to global warming or water depletion? In other words, the health crisis has made people become more aware of, or interested in, the traceability of food products. 

It is, generally, understood that a food product is traceable if it is the outcome of a process by which every moment concerning its creation, processing, distribution and commercialization is, or may be, fully documented. For cereals such as maize or wheat, traceability describes the journey of the grain seed from the soil, or planting, to the market or plate. 

Needless to say, it is quite challenging for companies to trace back the grain processed for making tortillas, cookies or breakfast cereal to a single farmer in a specific community or region. Yet, this is a reasonable expectation that consumers will demand more and more frequently. 

IN FARMERS’ HANDS

The traceability challenge is even greater for farmers who have to be rigorous about tracking key moments during the crop production cycle, such as sowing, fertilizing, weeding, spraying and watering dates. Moreover, grain buyers and consumers may want to know exactly what crop protection products or nutrients were used, in what doses and with what results. Above all, concerned customers will want to know if the processed grains were grown sustainably following the best management practices. 

At the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), scientists are implementing a strategy in partnership with Mexico’s Ministry of Agriculture (SADER) to help over 300,000 smallholder farmers access new and more sophisticated markets by complying with traceability requirements. In 2020, CIMMYT will roll out a new system called e-Agrology that the farmers who participate in MasAgro (CIMMYT’s bilateral project with Mexico for the sustainable intensification of cereal production systems) will be able to use to monitor over 500 variables that precisely describe the management practices of the crop production cycle. In this way, e-Agrology will make it possible for Mexican consumers to trace back the journey of the cereals-based products they consume to the very farm where they were grown.

In addition to the commercial advantages that traceability offers, e-Agrology combines descriptive crop management data with open sources of geographic, weather and market information. The resulting analytics feed an application called AgroTutor — available for free on Android and iOS — that offers tailored recommendations to help individual farmers or other users to sustainably overcome limiting factors and crop production challenges. As a result, it is now possible for smallholder Mexican farmers to comply with national and international traceability standards of the more knowledgeable, or demanding, buyers and consumers.  

A DIGITAL REVOLUTION

The COVID-19 pandemic has undoubtedly accelerated the digitalization of agri-food systems and value chains. Sustaining this digital transformation process will require that all parties involved — from farmers all the way to the final consumers — trust the information that is being provided. 

All the players along the value chain have a role to play in ensuring that this trust endures. For instance, CIMMYT actively supports this process through AgriFoodTrust, a testing and learning platform for digital trust and transparency technologies.

It is through the joint efforts of research, civil society and the agri-food industry that we can make this quiet — for now — revolution a success.

Photo by:   Martin Kropff

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