In the post-covid-19 new normal that we find ourselves in, there are many new challenges, new systems, and new consumer demands, as businesses adjust to the new world order. And it affects all industries – including agrifood.
Over the past year, we have seen how farming communities and consumers have both been affected as a result of the global pandemic. It has impacted the supply, sustainability, and traceability of stock. It has affected everyone in all parts of the chain, from those involved in cultivating crops, to rearing livestock, as well as supplying other animal-based products. For the consumer, this has created concerns around product shortages and availability, as well as tracing goods.
In this feature, we examine how the agriculture food community has been affected by the pandemic, why it’s more important than ever to have a sustainable traceability system in place, and what can be done in the wake of the global pandemic to maximise traceability in a sustainable way. Importantly, we also look at the buzz around blockchain traceability and how the pandemic has brought about solutions through digitalisation.
But first, what is sustainable agri-food traceability? And why is it important from both the business and consumer perspective?
Understanding agri-food traceability
The agri-food industry is a wide-ranging and complex model made up of a number of supply chains and stakeholders. Whether it’s a local farm in Mexico supplying avocados, honey exported from the UK, or organic lamb from New Zealand –there are a number of suppliers, people and organisations that form part of the supply chain, from farm to table.
From a business-to-business perspective, deal negotiation forms an important part of this process. In terms of traceability, this extends to the process and systems in place, which ranges from communications, documentation, certification and food safety elements.
While systems and processes are essential for mass distribution, it also comes with its challenges – namely controlling and tracking traceability.
So what is sustainable food traceability?
This term typically means the extent to which a business can continually and effectively track and trace a product’s origin and development - from the raw materials at the start of a process, through to final product delivery for the consumer.
In agricultural terms, a food traceability example could be a system that traces the lots and farms that fruits come from, using unique codes and clear product labelling, as well as certification provided. And it’s essential, not just for the wholesaler, but also for the ‘end-user’ too. Let’s take a look at this in more detail.
Why sustainable traceability is important
There are a number of reasons why it’s important to maintain sustainable traceability in agriculture. Understanding this will allow us to navigate systems in the new normal.
From a trade perspective, here’s why:
- Trust and reliability
We live in the age of information, where transparency has never been more important. Working with business partners requires high standard, certification and identification of products, in order to satisfy consumers.
Therefore, a robust food traceability system provides suppliers with the confidence they need to make an informed choice. It provides useful information, from product origin, as well as whether a product is organically produced, from sustainable sources, or fair-trade approved. If you are in negotiations with suppliers about stocking your product, this will be an important consideration they will be looking for.
- Food safety and identification
Food safety has become a global concern in recent years. Probably one of the most famous recent food traceability examples was the famous ‘horse meat’ scandal of 2013, and various fruit and vegetable traceability incidents. But there have been numerous other examples, from Avian Flu to Salmonella and E-coli. Traceability allows suppliers to identify products that are compromised, that can be recalled or withdrawn quickly, to prevent further risk of outbreak or contamination.
- Inventory tracking
Another benefit in the agri-food industry is that sustainable traceability allows you to keep track of inventory, and when the crop was harvested. This helps to keep a steady supply of stock in line with consumer demands.
Traceability, of course, not just best practice, but an essential risk-management tool and an essential part of any food safety policy. It also forms legal compliance, with each market and territory mapping out its own standards and expectations. For the supplier, certification illustrates due diligence as a trusted supplier.
What is the new normal for agri-food industries?
To best understand how to maximise food traceability in 2021, we must consider the current status and what this means in the post-covid-19 new normal.
We know that the process from ‘field to table’ has been heavily impacted as a result of the pandemic. This has raised concerns around food production, as well as processing, distribution, traceability and demand. It has hit the supply chain heavily, with restrictions around global movement, availability of staff, changing habits of consumers working from home, restricted food trade policies and more.
According to Successful Farming magazine, this has only exacerbated traceability and scrutiny in food production. It has also had another impact – one that has been witnessed in all industries – the acceleration of technology in developing tools to meet supply chain needs.
Strategies for maximising sustainable agri-food traceability in 2021
Now we understand some of the new challenges around current food traceability, we can look at ways to implement and maximise best practice in the new normal.
Introduce blockchain traceability
As touched on, digital tools have come to the fore in light of the pandemic and blockchain technology is one of these. You might know that blockchain food traceability is gaining momentum in the global agri-food sector right now.
Simply put, this is the ability to trace the entire lifecycle of food products from origin through to every point of contact on its journey, using blockchain tools and data. This robust system bolsters credibility, efficiency and safety – cornerstones of efficient food traceability systems.
The benefits of this are that it creates an effective traceability system that enhances the collection and handling of related information, promoting its exchange amongst the suppliers in the chain. As such it has become a go-to solution for record-keeping while overcoming some of the typical challenges of the current system like sharing data, information and integration problems.
For those new to food supply chain traceability based on blockchain technology, Science Direct define it as a complex structure using a chain of blocks that incorporate mathematics, cryptography, economics and complex algorithms. Crucially, it optimises “peer-to-peer networks and unanimous distributed algorithms to solve traditional distributed database synchronisation problems, and therefore is an integrated multi-stage tool.”
As it becomes more widespread, you will start to see more blockchain food traceability companies using this secure process. Already major global businesses are beginning to do this, including Walmart, Nestle and Carrefour.
For example, a recent blockchain food traceability example is Nestle using the system to track their produce from New Zealand to Middle East sites, to offer customers full and clear transparency.
Chose third-party certification
Another useful approach is to ensure your business has credible third-party certificates in place to illustrate your commitment to best practice. Even before the pandemic erupted, this was an area of ‘growth’ according to the International Trade Centre specifically in sustainable-certified agricultural and forestry commodities. Not only does this act as credible identification for users, but it ensures that you adhere to best practice in the ambition for a sustainable product.
As a business, it is always important to be transparent with your stakeholders and consumers, to build trust and loyalty. Covid-19 has put this issue in the spotlight even more, particularly in terms of food traceability and reliability. It is likely during trade negotiations with suppliers, that you will be expected to produce certification to support your claims from trusted and established professional bodies.
Measurement of standards
Harmonised standards are significant in the food traceability system and it remains ever-important to continue to measure these.
However, best practice can only be maintained and achieved when regulation is adhered to. This means that as well as applying for certificates, businesses also need to measure their standards for continual improvement. This can be achieved by constantly assessing the market to ensure new technologies and practices are implemented, such as blockchain traceability.
As we find ourselves adjusting to the new normal, agricultural food safety and compliance remain a top priority in the business-to-business market. While it may have forced consumers to pay more attention to product origins, ethical consumerism, and transparency, this is no bad thing for raising standards within the industry.
Of course, underpinning all of this is traceability.
We all have our role to play in the supply chain, in order to uphold a sustainable system, that can benefit consumers, suppliers, farmers and retailers, and ultimately – all of us.