News from Trust in Foods
February 15, 2018

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Sustainability reporting is something many farmers already do, and it’s a necessary part of being in the food business today. Yet getting farm-level data bundled in a useful way for the food supply chain remains a major hurdle. If the food system fails to unite behind a common set of tools and standards for packaging that critical information—such as surveys contained within farm management software—farmers will face the task of responding to multiple surveys in different systems with an assortment of metrics from their customers, including grain merchandisers, processors, food manufacturers and food retailers.

Embedding sustainability tools into farm management software can leverage the data already being collected by growers and reduce the burden of reporting sustainability metrics to the food supply chain.

That’s the challenge facing research director Christy Melhart Slay and her team at The Sustainability Consortium (TSC), a global organization working to set sustainability standards for consumer products led by Arizona State University and the University of Arkansas. TSC is well-known for helping Walmart develop key performance indicators for its Product Sustainability Index, which spans 115 consumer goods categories, including grocery.

A featured presenter at the 2018 Trust In Food Symposium, Slay received numerous audience questions about the challenge of connecting farmers with the food supply chain through data-sharing and partnerships. The following Q-and-A has been edited for grammar and clarity.

How can we connect food retailers to farmers, growers and ranchers? Packers, shippers and processors don’t want to be disintermediated—in other words, cut out of the supply chain.

Retailers set expectations for their brands and direct suppliers, which certainly has implications for growers. There are many organizations that work with growers to help disseminate information, and those venues and channels should be utilized. Having retailers active in these channels is important, be it media or conferences where large numbers of growers attend.

Also important is that intermediaries provide critical services that retail can’t feasibly offer in most supply chains—market information, brokerage, logistics, sometimes technical assistance, etc.

Has anyone considered that asking farmers about farming practices raises suspicion because many of us have been subject to anti-ag activists?

This reason hasn’t been given specifically, though the question of what a retailer or brand would use farm data for and who would see individual farm data has been raised as a key issue across the supply chain.

We’ve had a lot of conversations about enabling an environment where a grower can feel protected and share data that would be utilized in an aggregate way through a commodity broker, packer, shipper or brand. Information about farming practices also serves as an educational tool for consumers and helps to dispel some of the more popular myths and concerns about agricultural production.

Hypothetically, how would farmers know their data will not be used to increase regulations?

Retail moves much faster than regulators. Retailers are the new regulators. Getting ahead of the retail curve on sustainability is essential to staying in business.

When large NGOs, processors or retailers say “We think this or that is achievable,” do they stop to ask farmers if they can stay in business and get it done?

Yes, and you should ask them. There is also a new cost of business that involves sustainability data reporting. Getting systems in place to report this information is critical to long-term success. TSC is working on a project to help ease the reporting burden on farmers and to make data mobility easier.

In some cases, farmers are already doing what NGOs, processors and retailers think is achievable. But the issue is mobilizing farm information and data through the supply chain to demonstrate what is already happening on the ground.

Also, it isn’t just NGOs, processors, and retailers that set goals for farmers. Numerous USDA programs do this, too.

TSC’s survey questions for suppliers—those who provide food products and ingredients to grocers and other food retailers—contribute to a common answer, which is: “I don’t know.” How can TSC work more closely with growers and grower groups to have relevant questions?

We can’t always assume that the questions are the only issue—they are one part of a much larger and more complicated puzzle that TSC is working on with our partners to better understand.

Getting sustainability reporting into farm-management systems and farmer willingness to share data are the larger issues. TSC’s questions are common measurements taken on a farm, but technical systems to leverage that data to answer TSC questions are lacking.

We have a project funded by the Walmart Foundation to address the technical barriers in mobilizing data from farm to companies that report TSC key performance indicators (KPIs). The goal of this project is to remove the “I don’t know” barrier to allow farm data to flow to manufacturers, ultimately improving sustainability performance through improved communication. In this project, we are developing a data-systems landscape map and documenting data flows between the farm, farm sustainability calculator tools—such as Field to Market’s Fieldprint PlatformCool Farm Alliance’s Cool Farm ToolStewardship Index For Specialty CropsSustainable Agriculture Initiative Platform; and the Resource Stewardship Evaluation Tool from USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service—and KPIs from TSC utilized in Walmart’s Product Sustainability Index.

In regard to TSC questions and metrics, we do receive feedback on a regular basis and are always open to comment on our tools. We lead an annual revision process that runs from January through June. We hope and are planning to have more grower-group participation in TSC.

How can blockchain work? What would it take to get it adopted and effective?

Blockchain technology can ease the burden of reporting and streamline data transfer. In order to maximize efficiency in agriculture, an agricultural SOP for using blockchain is necessary so that data can be shared across systems. Right now, companies are creating proprietary blockchain solutions with their supply chains, which will not enable data transfer across systems.

For example, if a grower sells product to two brands, each brand will have their own blockchain. TSC is interested in this dilemma and would like to convene around this topic before the horse is too far out of the gate and proprietary blockchain networks proliferate.

How many food companies have farmers on their sustainability committees?

Good question. You will have to ask them, as often those committees aren’t public information.

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