Knowing Your Roots

med322050When you ask most people “do you know where your food comes from,” what do they say?  Probably “from the grocery store” is the typical flip answer.  Read the labels and all too often you find “produce of Chile” or “grown in Mexico” even “green beans from Kenya”!  We are spoiled in the US and have come to expect all of our fresh food to be available year round.  We do enjoy a truly global marketplace these days, but there is an increasing voice out there that is starting to ask for more details on where their food comes from, so that they can make choices based on broader criteria than what is on the shelf and how much it costs.  Most of us know that food comes from farms, and some know where those farms might be located, but only when there is a problem—or a food safety concern—do we really demand to know the details of who grew it, where it was grown and what practices were followed.  Now, thanks to the efforts of many people—from citizens to scientists—and new digital technologies, we are beginning to be able to “trace-back” where many of our food products grown in the United States come from.  

Through innovative and advanced information technology systems, consumers can accurately trace at least some of their food supply back to the specific load, field and seed source it came from using new traceability systems used in the US food supply.  The initiative of our growers combined with the proactive concerns of citizens has resulted in dynamic and continually evolving systems that address the needs of everyone—from retailers and suppliers to farmers and truckers. It hasn’t been an easy task, but everyone agrees that it is an important one.

Accurately tracking food products is a relatively new idea in modern agriculture, and with globalization the challenge is even tougher.  But with technology and the human drive to tackle challenges, it is fast becoming a reality. Already people are using their smartphones to scan barcodes in the stores.  For now, the information gained is mostly about nutrition and safety.  There are apps for finding out what an eco-label really means, or how many diet points a food item is, but soon you will be able to scan a barcode on a product and be able to trace back all of the ingredients to their point of origin; you’ll be able to find out where the farm is located and what practices are used to grow the food you are eating.  Does all this sound too futuristic?

In Central Wisconsin, the growers don’t think so, and for a group of innovative fresh potato growers, the future is now. A cutting edge initiative to advance ecologically-sustainable production systems for potatoes, known as the Healthy Grown program, has ensured that traceability is part of their certified Healthy Grown potatoes. Certified growers can accurately tell you what field the potatoes were grown, what was done to produce them, what practices were introduced to enhance local ecosystems, and where the potatoes are sold. This ensures credibility and a safe and sustainable food supply.  Everyone involved in effort is proud of their work, and it has already been recognized with national awards from the World Wildlife Fund and the USDA.  Now, if they could just figure out how to grow a potato with a bar code!

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