Trust and Traceability

The other day my husband dashed off an email to a dozen friends and neighbours titled ‘meat, eggs and parsnips’. Our farmer friend Kathleen was coming to town and had offered to deliver some food. He included Kathleen’s answers to his questions about how the food was produced:

we do nothing to the cattle; they are born and stay with the herd their entire life (until their one bad day). The cattle have only pasture and hay, nothing else (no finishing on grain). The chickens are truly free-range and are fed certified organic grains. They also have happy days with no other inputs from us (well I do pat them and our son hugs them). The vegetables are from organic seed if we can source it, and we only fertilize with manure from our animals. No herbicides, no pesticides, just lots of mulch and weeding.’

The next week, at the appointed day and time, people arrived on foot, bike and car in front of our house and gathered around Kathleen’s truck to pick up their orders.
photoA few weeks later, we visited the source of the food, a bucolic farm near Ottawa that Kathleen runs with her husband. Our seven-year old and theirs gathered eggs and played hide and-go-seek in the hay bales. We visited the Scottish Highland cattle, drank coffee, helped harvest onions, shared our friends’ dismay when the chickens got into the broccoli field. And for months to come, we’ll be enjoying succulent hamburgers and remembering the taste of those sweetest-ever parsnips and the smell of the wind through the fields.
To be realistic, this kind of sporadic exchange, lovely as it is, will not replace more conventional food distribution for us. We’ll still go to the supermarket to buy what we don’t get from our Community Supported Agriculture basket and occasional stops at the farmer’s market. But it’s worth thinking about the value of such direct connections and how they could be multiplied.
One way of making more direct producer-consumer connections, even across distance, is through traceability programs such as ThisFish, an initiative of Ecotrust Canada (and fishing industry partners) and a Foundation grantee. ThisFish traces seafood back to its origins so that eaters know who caught it, where and how. Fish harvesters identify their catch with a unique code, upload the information and then consumers type or scan it into the ThisFish site. This gives access not only to maps of where fish is caught, sustainability ratings and recipes, but also lets you send an email straight to the fisher. ThisFish made a word map of emails people had sent to ‘their’ fishers, which looked like this:

Source: ThisFish

Source: ThisFish

Not only are fishers able to hear questions and comments on their fish and get a real sense of who is eating it, but they, and everyone else along the supply chain, are able to better understand how it’s working: how long it takes for fish to transit, what happens to price along the way, who buys it and how fresh it is. ThisFish seafood is as of yet available primarily in selected restaurants and retailers, and they have just opened an on-line store: check in out here:
It is still up to the consumer to navigate better choices; ThisFish is not a certification or rating of sustainability, only a traceability system. This brings up the question of trust and the purpose of traceability systems, ratings (such as, for seafood, SeaChoice or OceanWise) and third-party certifications (Marine Stewardship Council, organic, Aquaculture Stewardship Council…). Both producers and consumers often point out that they don’t feel the need for a stamp of approval when they know each other. But the longer the supply chain, the more relevant certification becomes.
Third-party certification not only provides consumers assurance that there is some verification of sustainability claims, but also lays out a set of standards –a rulebook about what practices are allowable underpinned by a set of principles. In the best cases, such the system integrates a way for producers to learn from and challenge each other (through farm visits, for example) as well as to access markets and better prices.
If there was a trust continuum for food, it might look something like this:
Screen Shot 2015-01-15 at 4.15.45 PM
Of course this is all pretty big brush and should be nuanced – for example by the fact that some certification systems and traceability systems are more trustworthy than others. Voluntary as well as mandatory disclosures of information about corporate performance are on the rise globally, as noted in the 2013 edition of the Global Reporting Initiative’s Carrots and Sticks. Communications technology has made it easier to share information about products – the challenge is often sifting the information and making sense of it.
However more transparency, traceability and trust is achieved – better regulation, reporting, labelling or knowing your fisher or farmer – it contributes to raising the bar on how food is produced and drives us toward a more sustainable food system.