Tech can help trace the origins of products for sustainable living

Traceability has become an accepted concept for validating claims in the areas of sustainability and the environment

By Shalini Verma

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Published: Wed 9 Nov 2022, 8:17 PM

Last updated: Wed 9 Nov 2022, 10:14 PM

Some years ago, I bought brown rice that promptly turned white after a wash. I bought brown sugar and honey that were really wolves in sheep’s clothing. Food adulteration has been in business since the Middle Ages. We as consumers deserve to know the origins of what we buy, be it food or clothes or anything else. We should be able to trace the raw materials, and the entire chain of custody down to the retailer. We care about the product’s embedded carbon emission and recycled content. Complex supply chains make traceability tricky, but it will help to validate the authenticity and sustainability claims of the products we buy.

Regulators promoting a Circular Economy are devising rules to hold producers responsible for what happens to the products and packaging they sell. Extended producer responsibility requires certification and auditability, which can be credibly performed through a traceability solution.

The term ‘traceability’ appeared in the agribusiness in the 1990s. But we can trace its etymological origin to the French phrase that suggests control. “Contre-rolle literally means "counter-roll". In other words, the record of a document in a registry or an account book - archived and used to verify other such documents.

Complicated as it sounds, it was a simple solution to keep written records honest, thus avoiding any manipulation. In the absence of surveillance cameras, the document’s authenticity was controlled by written notation stored in another location. This was an effective document archival technique especially for judicial records.

In 1996, a sudden outbreak of the Mad Cow disease caused a crisis of consumer confidence and disrupted the beef industry. This fatal neurodegenerative disease in cattle triggered the eventual food law in 2005 in the European Union (EU) that was titled Traceability - placing the responsibility of food safety on businesses. The law required food business operators to be able to identify from whom and to whom a product had been supplied. They were required to have systems and procedures in place to make such information available to the authorities upon request.

Traceability requires a system to follow commodities through transfer of custody across supply chains. The chain of custody identifies the immediate suppliers and customers of a product. This essentially creates a “supplier-product” link and a “customer-product” link. However, identifying the final consumers has been difficult for this purpose. While in theory the information exists in the point-of-sale systems and e-commerce systems, data sharing is tricky for reasons like privacy laws and fear of market disintermediation. Yet traceability systems do not necessarily require complete transparency. Such a system must be able to facilitate information sharing between stakeholders expressly to validate claims such as provenance, quality, and safety. That’s enough for traceability.

Before EU’s food law, ISO standards 8402, 9000 and 2005 had in parallel generalized traceability as “the ability to trace the history, application or location of that which is under consideration”. It came to mean the system of permits that document the history of a product along its ‘entire production chain from primary raw materials to the final consumable products’. Not surprisingly, I find myself checking the source of the clothes I buy. Origin matters for the food we buy, as it matters for things like medicines. If you are buying bathroom fittings, you care about authenticity. Where was it manufactured? The system would provide the necessary confidence to downstream suppliers and end customers. The traceability problem was ripe for a suitable technology.

Enter Blockchain, the technology that has evoked shock and awe. Parts of it is still evolving even as it is firmly entrenched as the underpinning for cryptocurrency and NFT. Yet, Blockchain has quietly found broader industry acceptance for traceability.

So, what do we already know about traceability powered by Blockchain. The permissioned distributed peer-to-peer network uses cryptographic procedures, linked blocks and consensus algorithms to make transactions virtually immutable. Each block in a blockchain contains the timestamp of the transaction alongside details of the participants involved in the transaction. As a result, it offers a comprehensive audit trail in which you can find the different milestones that a product has crossed based on smart contracts and the transfer of tokens. Yet we are still in the early stages as Blockchain solutions try to strike a balance between complexity and flexibility. This needs to be combined with technologies such as IoT (Internet of Things) and applied AI for more robust visibility.

Traceability has become an accepted concept for validating claims in the areas of sustainability and the environment. It is a viable tool for building a Circular Economy by assessing efficiencies in sustainable sourcing, reuse, and recycle. Plenty of good work gets lost in the absence of digital audit and assessment. Alternative pathways to sustainability require courage as well as robust traceability solutions to assess, validate, and certify such initiatives.

– Shalini Verma is a serial entrepreneur. She recently founded NutureAI, a women-led Climate Tech Startup. She tweets at shaliniverma1.

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