How Greater Transparency Can Make Food Complexity Less Confusing

Opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not reflect the views of Rolling Stone editors or publishers.

Our food system is incredibly complex. Consumers are confused by competing claims. As a result, people are getting sicker, the planet warmer and the diversity of ingredients narrower. As a chef, I have always led with flavor and reliability—meeting diners where they are at, then nudging them a bit further. I have also struggled to explain the lengths we go to source regenerative ingredients and how they align with shared values in a concise way.

The complexity of food and consumers’ bandwidth for information prompts most brands to fudge the facts with ambiguity and toothless terminology. Consumers reward a tendency toward binary simplicity, making it near impossible to prove claims and attributes. The loudest win the attention of consumers, while those cautious in defense of credibility get lost in the noise. As a result, those along the value chain receive confusing signals from end users on what really matters, leaving them lost in a guessing game of what the market demands tomorrow.

I am not an advocate 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 do live each day along a pragmatic path toward a purer version of our current selves. It is in this reality of imperfection that I would like to make a case for absolute transparency. With technologies such as blockchain, QR codes and smartphones, we have the capabilities to provide transparency for all.

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Imagine a world where one could scan a QR code on a menu, product label or market shelf with instant access to every point along the value chain. That a consumer could “tip” the farmer who cared for their food directly through a tokenized incentive system. And that this ecosystem enabled consumers and farmers to (virtually) interact as they have for centuries at farmstands, uninhibited by the marketing spin or fog of false claims repeated by unscrupulous brands.

In a recent accelerator I’m a part of, members from around the world worked on a model to advance these theories. We set the principles of agrobiodiversity so everyone was aligned on what to measure and why. Then we mapped the value chains of three ingredients — fonio from West Africa, finger millet from India and amaranth from Mexico — to understand how this might work with obscure ingredients from different regions of the world. We created partnerships with all members along the chain, supported by blockchain. This is still in pilot. As assumptions are tested in the wild, the group will refine and iterate with the goal of disruption.

What difference would transparency make to climate change or better human health outcomes? Well, we don’t know. But equipping people with cleaner, clearer, more digestible information on what they are really choosing will give them better insights into which choices align with their values. In a post-truth era, I am sure some will debate the value of transparency. Others will feel threatened by the pressure to reveal their practices. Doing nothing leaves us limping along the same pathway toward destruction we have been on for half a century. Creating a culture of transparency may just inspire more to do better. Such a nudge might just help raise awareness that changes behavior so that we can accommodate the demands in front of us.

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