The word gets rolled out every time there’s a scare about food-borne illness, or when a meat or vegetable recall hits the headlines. It’s traceability.
On the food side of the agri-food industry, it’s a word that instils confidence and trust. Yet on the agricultural side — at least, on the crop side — it too often instils doubts, impatience and talk of unkept promises.
In livestock production as well as in much of horticulture, traceability is becoming part of the cost of doing business in Canada. In grains and oilseeds, it’s nowhere.
Or so it seems.
“Admittedly, soybeans are maybe further along than most commodities are, although wheat is quickly catching up to it,” says Martin Vanderloo, president of Huron Commodities in Clinton, Ont.
“There are so many different traits in the same crop, whether it be protein or seed size or taste or sucrose content,” Vanderloo says. “Every variety is different, and there are many different applications for the soybeans. Therefore you have to have some sort of system in place to be able to assure the client that yes, that’s what you’re getting.”
Seed certification is one aspect of the IP sector that Vanderloo insists on, with a copy of either the bag tag or the seed invoice as proof. It’s the way he’s done business for a number of years, and given the perception of Canada in other countries, he believes even the suggestion of traceability is worth the added effort. He refers to a conversation he had with a customer in Japan a few years ago, about branding of Canadian soybean products and how valuable it was to have the Canadian flag and logos on the packages.
“The wilderness and fresh water, and everything that’s good about nature ‘is’ Canada,” the buyer told Vanderloo. “If I can put the Canadian flag on my package of tofu, I think that’s a good bargaining tool, and I think I’m going to gain market share.”
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Such reactions are why the Canadian government launched its Canada brand, with the only stipulation being that processors and manufacturers show that Canadian soybeans are being used. If a processor or manufacturer can prove that — through contracts and seed tags — then they can use the logo, and look for a premium.
“Sometimes we sell ourselves a little short here,” says Vanderloo. “The Japanese consumer has a good impression of Canada and all that’s good about it. It’s to the point where the manufacturer in Japan wants to make use of that as a marketing tool, and I say, ‘Great! Go for it!’”
Double the effect
As a farmer, as vice-president of sales and marketing for Pride Seeds and also as a past president of the Canadian Seed Trade Association (CSTA), Steve Denys also believes traceability is getting more entrenched in the crop sector.
As a farmer, he grows some of his crops under contracts that let him apply some sprays, but not others, based on terms laid out by the buyer. He signs those contracts and abides by the conditions, which represents a form of traceability.
But as a seed company executive and former CSTA director and president, Denys is concerned with the certified seed issue, especially in the cereals sector where bin-run usage is still a huge issue.
“It’s a bigger problem out west than it is here,” says Denys, who farms just outside of Chatham, Ont. “What’s interesting about it is the broader debate with western cereals, where you’re sitting at less than 20 per cent in certified seed.”
Denys believes farmers need to adopt certified seed in order to continue getting the kind of new genetics that will help keep Canada one of the world’s best and most competitive wheat growers.
But he also sees implications for traceability. “We’re at a fork in the road, and some — like myself — are saying, if you don’t have certified seed, you’re never going to be able to have traceability, because you cannot guarantee that you’re dealing with a homogenous source.”
Traceability and sustainability
From David Sparling’s vantage point, traceability is inevitable. It’s happening in other countries, says Sparling, professor of agri-food innovation at the Ivey Business School at Western University in London, Ont.
Sparling says it’s only a matter of time before it migrates into North America and Canada on a more visible, definable level.
“What’s amazing to me is how slowly it’s coming,” says Sparling. “I worked on the Can-Trace project in 2003, and we’re still asking many of the same questions as we were then. And it’s partly because with the exception of the food safety driver and some of the economic drivers around things such as free range and organic, there just hasn’t been enough of the need, and certainly not enough of a recognition of the value in traceability.”
The greatest potential Sparling sees for traceability is the North American “mimicking” of what’s happening in Europe and other regions. Markets for free range and organic often have a secondary impact on retailers, encouraging other stores to push traceability through the value chain.
In that scenario, Sparling believes there’s more urgency on the part of retailers to implement a traceability system than any pressure from consumers. The first is regulatory; there can be food safety reasons for putting traceability systems in place. In some sectors, he says, there has been significant progress, but not necessarily in crops, primarily because there aren’t large issues pertaining to food safety.
“The other motivator that we’re seeing deals with the question, ‘Can you add value through traceability?’” says Sparling. He cites IP soybeans as a first step, not a complete trace-back to the farm, but definitely a process to establish assurance and consistency. “So there’s been a market value piece to it, but with most of the row crops, there hasn’t been either an economic or a food safety motivation to move ahead with this.”
Where traceability could see more application to row crops may be in the rapid evolution of sustainability, and being able to prove that a crop was produced according to a certain set of criteria, and that it was produced for instance to be carbon neutral.
One game changer could be precision ag technology. Variable-rate systems, data management, and precision planting could all help growers derive value from information that many are already gleaning from their operations.
“To me, this is where the sustainability piece will come,” says Sparling. “They’ll start to collect more information on what they use in terms of inputs, where they put it, and that’s just good management practices for field crops. But it also provides a lot of the information that you need to be able to do much more full-chain traceability.”
In more ways than one, that’s good news for farmers, Sparling argues. In effect, he says, traceability will work hand in glove with efforts to become a more productive, more profitable farmer.
Says Sparling: “One of the things that gets missed in the whole traceability equation is that if you actually know where all of your material is all the time, and track it all the way through the chain, you should be able to achieve higher quality and efficiency.”