Our Newsletter:
Traceability Insider

August 2014
How Digitization is About to Change the Rules of Your Business

June 2014
Food Waste, We are Fed Up, and a Gladson Case Study

May 2014
Ag Tech and the Power of Catchy Criticism

March 2014
Labels are Soooo 1990, “Thorny” food labeling law

January 2014
Oxymoronic Grocery Predictions and Big Data for the Produce Industry

December 2013
The Gift of Growing – Helping Kids Get Their Hands Dirty!

November 2013
Produce Brand Strategy, Visibility and Transparency

September 2013
A "Lean" Supply Chain, Knowing your Shopper

April 2013
Food Waste, The Rolling Stones, Raley's, and Tanimura & Antle

March 2013
First Look! FDA Releases IFT Traceability Report and Lessons from Europe's Horsemeat Crisis Every Fresh Food Brand Should Learn

January 2013
What Does the Future Hold?

September 2012
"Locale" Produce and Reducing the Impact of Recalls

January 2012
Making the Case for Traceability

September 2011
GTINs – the Devil Is in the Details

August 2011
Turbocharge Mobile Marketing with HarvestMark and QR Codes

May 2011
Traceability Insider

January 2011
It's a New Year. What's the latest on PTI?

May 2010
HarvestMark Makes its VoiceCode™ Solution Open Source

December 2009
IFT Publishes Traceability Report for FDA

Holiday Issue 2009
What Happened at the FDA/USDA Hearing on Food Traceability

September 2009
Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food

August 2009
How to Avoid Synching Without Trace

July 2009
What's the Value of PTI?

May 2009
Case-Level and Item-Level Traceability-What You Need to Know

April 2009
Still Have Questions about PTI? Don't Worry, You're Not Alone

March 2009
PTI, GS1, GTIN, GLN? HarvestMark's Got the FAQs

January 2009
The First PTI Milestone is Around the Corner

December 2008
A Pivotal Year for Food Safety

November 2008
FDA Solicits Public Comment on Enhanced Produce Traceability

October 2008
Produce Traceability Initiative Action Plan Released

September 2008
How Will Greater Transparency Enhance Your Business?

Español - 01 2012
Elaborando el Caso para Trazabilidad

Español - 03 2012
La Más Reciente Norma de la FDA es Efectiva Inmediatamente. ¿Debería Usted Estar Preocupado?

August 2013
How Walmart Could Implement PTI, Crowdsourced Shopper Insights

June 2010
How to Interpret the PTI announcement of "Goal Unchanged, Milestones Adjusted"

December 2010
An Update on the PTI

July 2010
Produce Traceability in Foodservice

February 2010
What's Going on with the PTI

March 2010
Consumer Attitudes to Traceability

August 2010
HarvestMark Launches Consumer Campaign in Portland, OR

March 2011
Have you heard of the PLU DataBar Initiative?

November 2011
Traceability? There’s an App for That

December 2012
It’s all new. Introducing HarvestMark 2013.

March 2012
The FDA's Latest Ruling is Effective Immediately. Should You be Worried?

June 2012
Do QR Codes REALLY Drive Shopper Engagement?

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May 2014: Ag Tech and the Power of Catchy Criticism

Ag+Tech. Agriculture gets its mojo back...again.

2014 is shaping up to be the year of Ag+Tech. Multiple 'meetups' and 'convenings' (conferences are so yesterday) are cropping up along with 'clusters' and 'incubators'. But what is Ag+Tech, why did it suddenly become a thing, who are the players, and is it real or is it a bubble?

First, let's be clear. Although many pundits ignore ag because it employs less than 2% of the US population and evokes wistful nostalgia for a simpler time...ag has actually often been tech's earliest adopter. Archimedes' screw was used in the 3rd century BC to drain land for agriculture. Precision-agriculture with GPS-guided, self-driving tractors has been in use for years before the Google self-driving car started spooking commuters on I-280.

Ag+Tech has earned renewed excitement these days because, ironically, agriculture is an early adopter of exciting new technologies. Take drones (or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles). The FAA currently prohibits flying drones for commercial purposes … but a farmer can deploy them on her land. That makes ag a great crucible for experimentation. These drones generate gobs of data – typically multi-spectral images of land that can be analyzed for water, nutrient, soil and chemical composition – that lead to the next hot tech area: Big Data. This is part of the trend towards more data-driven agriculture. With the pressure of climate change, resource constraints, and the need to feed 9 billion people by 2050 – the ag industry has embraced Big Data and analytics and is seeing results. So much so, that Monsanto scooped up ag data company Climate Corp. for a cool billion dollars in October last year. Robotics are also showing up in the field. Long bolted in place in production lines or fetching boxes in warehouses, robots are now exploring the farm – thinning, pruning, and even picking strawberries (albeit very, very slowly). There's even experimentation with Google Glass-wearing 'birddogs' to inspect crops remotely.




As a result, a number of Ag+Tech events have sprouted up in 2014, just a few of which include Silicon Valley AgTech, Larta Institute's Global Ag Innovation Network (GAIN), the PMA's tech-focused events. One event was held in Tampa in March. The next is coming up May 21st in San Diego, and even boasts its own Ag+Tech Shark Tank with VC's hearing pitches from ag entrepreneurs. Traditional ag regions are also angling to be magnets for technology investment, such as UC Davis' Sustainable Ag Tech Innovation Center, The Steinbeck Innovation Center, in Salinas, and the awkwardly named Nor-Cam Agri-Tech Cluster at Cambridge University, UK.

Most technologies are overhyped before they become mainstream – and these Ag+Tech innovations are no different. However, some of these technologies will unquestionably become the new normal, helping growers improve yields, reduce waste and run off, lower input costs, mitigate labor challenges, make growing safer, and even improve the flavor of our food.



The power of catchy criticism

Last week we saw Coca-Cola vow to remove brominated vegetable oil from its Powerade sports drink following Pepsi's promise to do the same with Gatorade. The ingredient has attracted attention after a Mississippi teenager started a petition questioning its use, and it went viral. Brominated vegetable oil is a flame retardant with health concerns that is banned from human consumption in Japan and Europe. More recently Kashi, a brand under the Kellogg's umbrella, lost a lawsuit that found that the "all natural" claim was false because it contained synthetically derived soy. And if you can remember all the way to last month, Subway agreed to remove azodicarbonamide, a chemical also used to make yoga mats and linked to a higher cancer risk, after public pressure. And let's not forget 'pink slime'.

Every year the fresh produce industry girds itself for the publication of the Dirty Dozen list by the Environmental Working Group. The levels of pesticides are so absurdly tiny that an independent toxicological report finds that a small child could eat 154 servings of apples every day without any impact from any residues that might be present. But "Dirty Dozen" is a catchy, viral sound bite that resonates with some consumers' fears and suspicions. As a result, the produce industry is forced onto the defensive, justifying something that is overwhelmingly safe and trying to poke holes in research methodology.

The trend is clear. Food is under increasing scrutiny from the public. Regardless of whether the amount of the ingredient present is deemed harmless by authorities, there can be a PR nightmare that the brand has to deal with.

The other common thread is the ability of the protagonists to paint the food industry as callous by creating catchy-sounding horror-ingredients: flame retardant, yoga mat chemical, pink slime, and 'dirty dozen'. I doubt a rallying cry for Subway to "stop using azodicarbonamide" would have gone viral.

So how do brand owners get ahead in the event of an unsubstantiated backlash generated by a vocal minority?

We think the PMA's approach is the most rational. Counter press-friendly, scientifically weak claims with independent, credible science and easy-to-grasp facts (like having to eat 154 apples). Get early alerts to stories going viral (the "dirty dozen" is at least published on schedule) and be prepared to respond fast. The fact is some NGOs, journalists, and consumers will never believe the industry. Dangerous chemicals should certainly be removed from food, and a brand may choose to reformulate rather than be convicted by a court of (misinformed) public opinion. But transparency is coming, and any 'spooky sounding' chemicals that have been used for years are about to get their 15 minutes of fame. Brands have an obligation to be ready and not get caught on the back foot.