How greater transparency can make food complexity less confusing
The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not reflect the views of Rolling Stone’s editors or publishers.
Our food system is incredibly complex. Consumers are confused by competing claims. As a result, people are getting sicker, the planet is heating up, and the diversity of ingredients is shrinking. As a chef, I’ve always led with flavor and reliability – meeting diners where they are, then pushing them a little further. I also struggled to explain our efforts to find regenerative ingredients and how they align with shared values in a concise way.
The complexity of food and consumer bandwidth for information prompts most brands to fudge the facts with ambiguous, toothless terminology. Consumers reward a trend towards binary simplicity, which makes it nearly impossible to prove claims and attributes. Loud ones grab consumers’ attention, while those who are cautious in defending credibility get lost in the noise. As a result, value chain actors receive confusing signals from end users about what really matters, leaving them lost in a guessing game about what the market will demand tomorrow.
I am not a fan of absolutes. No one is pure. Not the Pope, the Dalai Lama or even Alice Waters. And certainly not me or the brands I work with. But we live each day on a pragmatic path towards a purer version of our current selves. It is in this reality of imperfection that I would like to plead for absolute transparency. With technologies such as blockchain, QR codes and smartphones, we have the capabilities to ensure transparency for all.
Imagine a world where one could scan a QR code on a menu, product label or market shelf with instant access to every point in the value chain. That a consumer could “tip” the farmer who tended their food directly through a token incentive system. And that this ecosystem has allowed consumers and farmers to interact (virtually) as they have done for centuries on farms, uninhibited by marketing spin or the fog of repeated false claims by unscrupulous brands.
At a recent accelerator I’m part of, members around the world worked on a model to advance these theories. We have established the Principles of Agrobiodiversity so that everyone is aligned on what to measure and why. Next, we mapped the value chains of three ingredients – fonio from West Africa, finger millet from India and amaranth from Mexico – to understand how it might work with obscure ingredients from different parts of the world. We have created partnerships with all chain members, backed by blockchain. This is still in pilot. As hypotheses are tested in the wild, the group will refine and iterate with the goal of disrupting.
What difference would transparency make to climate change or better human health outcomes? Well, we don’t know. But providing people with cleaner, clearer, and more digestible information about what they actually choose will give them a better idea of which choices align with their values. In a post-truth era, I’m sure some will debate the value of transparency. Others will feel threatened by the pressure to reveal their practices. Doing nothing has us limping along the same path to destruction that we have been following for half a century. Creating a culture of transparency can simply inspire more to do better. Such a boost could simply help raise awareness that changes behaviors so that we can meet the demands that lie ahead.