In an increasingly globalized food chain, where quality and sustainability of food is as big an issue for many consumers as price, and a world of information is available at our fingertips, we should expect to know a lot about the food on our plate.
Where did it come from? Was it farmed sustainably? What were the conditions like for the animal? Was it grass-fed? Did it receive antibiotics or other medications?
Given the agritech solutions already being developed, there is no reason why in perhaps five years that consumers won’t be able to use their mobile phone to scan a code on food packaging and access a full report on whatever product they’re buying.
They wouldn’t just be looking at a label, they would be viewing records that have been approved by the entire food industry – the farmer, food processor, and retailer – not just the supplier of the end product as is currently the case. It might include information such as whether the animal received antibiotics, or that it was fed grass 70% of the time.
Moving data from field to fork
The technology to achieve this already exists. Farmers are using mobile devices to digitally record in real-time important health, welfare, nutritional and regulatory compliance information about their livestock. However, rather than this information flowing through to consumers ‘from field to fork’, the recording system is split and operates from field to farm gate with producers, and then from farm gate to plate with processors and retailers.
The true benefits of technology for both farmers and consumers will only be realized when the various apps and platforms that farmers use to improve their efficiency work seamlessly together in a system that can be tracked across every link in the food chain.
My own company, Herdwatch, is involved in projects that are moving in that direction and would enable farmers to record all the information they need from one app. We’re building integrations for the National Milk Records and Cattle Information Service in the UK which would allow farmers to share and receive data seamlessly with these organizations. We’re also putting together an open API that will allow farmers to connect to other systems from Herdwatch, like using your Facebook or Google account to connect to other systems.
These projects haven’t been completed yet but there does now seem to be a willingness to cooperate and share among farmers, farming organizations and agritech suppliers. Several years ago, there was talk of convergence but too many people were afraid of it – they feared that by providing access to their particular silos of data and expertise they would potentially devalue it. People are now coming around to the concept that farmer-led sharing of information is the only way forward.
How data can help farmers to be sustainable
It could also be key to the issue of sustainability. For example, the data could be used to make sense of trends such as in terms of anti-microbial resistance, which has massive implications not just for animal health but in the context of how it impacts on the food chain and human health. If farmers are recording the use of medicines digitally, then their aggregated anonymized data could be used as an early warning system for disease.
The first step towards convergence is to digitize the information flow, to convince all farmers and other players in the value chain to start recording the necessary information electronically and share it in a trusted way back to the industry. For the system to work, you need a critical mass of farmers in any country to adopt the process and digitize the information at source. It’s simply too expensive to do it after the fact.
The incentives exist. Agritech solutions are already helping farmers to manage their time more efficiently and lower their labor costs, and could also help them to deliver their product at a time which maximizes their revenue. As any farmer asks when confronted with a salesman: “Does it save me time or make me money?”
Ultimately, however, digital convergence will be led by consumers demanding better traceability, higher quality, and improved sustainability in their food chain. Up to this point, consumers haven’t really seen the impact of digital technology on the farm. That will change over the next five years as the adoption of new technologies and data-driven farming transforms agriculture. Farmers who add value by adopting better and more accurate ways of improving traceability, sustainability and animal health should benefit through increased profits.
The provenance of our food has always been a big deal and consumers and farmers will soon start to see tangible benefits from digital convergence on the farm.