January 9, 2023

Can Ag Tech Bring More to the Table?

Farm to Table (or farm-to-fork), “farm-fresh,” “wild-caught,” “locally sourced”, and “farm-raised” – we’ve all seen and heard these phrases tossed around the culinary sphere – but what exactly does “farm-to-table” mean? Is it a marketing gimmick, a buzzword, or is it an authentic social movement promoting the support of local food producers? It’s supposed to be the latter, but depending on who you ask, the answer may be all of the above. So how can we better position “farm to table” as a movement beyond an adjective to more impacting verbiage?   

Let’s tuck right in and explain exactly what we mean. By definition, farm-to-table is a social movement where food providers source their ingredients from local farms, usually through direct acquisition from a farmer. Let’s take a restaurant, for example. In order for it to indeed be farm-to-table, it has to be working in season with nearby farms. That means menus will most likely change often to reflect what’s in season. Farm-to-table also means buying food directly from the producer (i.e., a farmer’s market, not a commercial vendor).

While this may sound like an obvious choice that yields a higher quality food experience, it’s often a misunderstood and misused term. The farm-to-table movement emphasizes a direct relationship between a farm and the consumer, and its benefits far outweigh the risks. In the case of a restaurant – rather than buying through a distributor or a food service, establishing a solid relationship with farms that buy directly from them is a win-win scenario. Farmers benefit by being able to reap more of the profit their goods can earn at the market, and the consumer will enjoy knowing how their food will be treated and cooked. After all, research has shown that produce is significantly more nutritious when consumed within three days of harvest.

There are several other advantages of this not-so-recent movement that continues to surge across North America.

  1. It is sustainable – another overused word, perhaps? But let’s dig deeper here: farms use fewer chemicals and fertilizers while providing consumers with fresher food. With less production and factory farming, there is little carbon footprint. Locally sourced means less travel. Farm-to-table practices also help with reducing water use by 3%.
  1. It is better for your health – There is no usage of chemicals or artificial preservatives because they use all local ingredients and direct their food miles to the maximum extent possible. This means an increased immune system function, and reduced risk of heart disease, diabetes, stroke, cancer, and asthma.

The question still remains – how do we know if something labeled farm-to-table really is? This industry has not been without controversy, and to prevent misuse or outright fraud, anyone using the phrase should be able to name the specific farm(s) they are sourcing. One of the best practices in farm-to-table operations is ensuring traceability through all of the steps of the process: from the farmer planting and harvesting the crop to the grocer putting the finished product on the shelf.

Briefly mentioned earlier is the importance of sustainability when it comes to climate change. It’s no longer just about food safety and operational efficiency. The environmental impact of food production is a growing concern. According to Forbes, “being able to trace the ingredient doesn’t just serve the consumer’s desire to see where it was grown but carries one of the product’s key attributes, sustainability of production, that can help the consumer understand why the product is more valuable for the planet.”  

But since there are many steps (cooperatives, grain elevators, food processors, packers and grocers, etc.), there has been a huge informational gap between the producers and the consumers.

The Tables Turn

Transparency has been even more important with the recent disruption of the supply chain and the post-pandemic recovery. The effects of the pandemic and the empty shelves have shown the fragility of the food supply chain model. The pandemic has also inadvertently created an opportunity for producers to provide information on where their food comes from and heightened the consumers’ awareness of the importance of supporting local producers.

There’s a rising consumer interest in social and environmental issues. They have become increasingly concerned about where their products come from and may be willing to pay more for goods that offer supply chain transparency.

Fortunately, thanks to innovations in ag-tech and food traceability, we could alleviate many of the issues we’re facing in the food supply chain, thereby improving the true farm-to-table experience. According to AgriNovus Indiana (in partnership with Purdue University and EY-Parthenon, Ernst & Young LLP), technology investments in food traceability could reach an estimated $19 billion by 2023. 

Blockchain technology and digital passports are becoming the antidote to overcoming the challenges of end-to-end traceability. The World Wildlife Fund has partnered with BCG Digital Ventures and social capital investors to create a company that allows businesses and consumers to verify specific claims about the sustainability and ethical production of a product. The platform uses sensors, machine learning, and blockchain—to verify these claims and then traces the movement of a food item through its supply chain and shares this history with businesses and consumers.

Here are just a few of the companies that are ahead of the game when it comes to end-to-end traceability

  1. Atma.io
  2. FarmTabs
  3. Freshly
  4. Heavy Connect
  5. OpsSmart

As you can see, the biggest gap filler in the farm-to-table discussion is traceability and transparency. Once executed efficiently, there are so many things that ag-tech could bring to the table.