“Hello, my name is Blake, and I’ll be your farmer tonight.”
The French grocery chain Carrefour has announced that they will be using blockchain technology to provide complete traceability for the products they sell. Every transaction from the farm to the consumer will be readily identifiable.
There’s an outside chance that some of the soybeans and corn I grow on my farm are eaten by French livestock. Point your phone at the meat counter in the most fashionable arrondissements of Paris, and with any luck, my smiling face will appear.
I’d better shave.
This is the inevitable end to our present labeling craze, the epitome of transparency. It’s also slightly crazy. Our high living standards are in large part the result of trust, or as an economist might say, our centuries long drive to lower transaction costs. When we enter our local supermarket, we don’t have to worry over much about safety, quality, or freshness. We trust, or at least we have until now, that the brands available to us are jealous of their reputations, forced by competitive and regulatory pressures to provide the best product available at a price we are willing to pay. Now, consumers are clamoring for more information, or at least Carrefour is convinced they are, and blockchain will make that information possible.
If complete traceability on French grocery store shelves ends up on my farm, there may be some difficulties. France has outlawed the planting of genetically modified (GMO) seeds, while still allowing the importation of soybeans grown from GMOs, perfectly willing to outsource industrial agriculture to farmers like me. It wouldn’t surprise me if the blockchain breaks somewhere between beautifully pastoral free-range chicken farms in rural France and my admittedly less than perfectly picturesque fields of genetically modified corn and soybeans here in Missouri. But just in case, I’m trading in my seed corn cap, courtesy of Monsanto, for a more evocative straw hat and my tennis shoes for a pair of Wellies.
Don’t misunderstand. If French consumers have a hankering to meet me, then I’m up for some cross-cultural conversations. Like the famous scene from the television show Portlandia, chickens that eat soybeans from my farm have a story to tell. Everybody that works here is a member of my family. By any definition, we are the quintessential family farm.
We spend tens of thousands of dollars each year improving the soil, including structures that cut down on erosion, and we use the latest technology, precisely applying only the nutrients essential to raise a crop. Our grandkids show pigs in the county fair, act in community theater, and recently placed second in the annual countywide Battle of the Books.
On the other hand, and here’s what I’m worried about, we live in a county that gave over 80 percent of its votes to Trump, we drive fuel guzzling four-wheel drive pickups, and we don’t even know any vegetarians. In a word, we lack the right sort of “authenticity”. Not only that, but we plant those awful genetically modified seeds. Will blockchain mean that our farm won’t meet the exacting standards of French Consumers, and soon enough, U.S. Consumers, who will no doubt be demanding complete transparency as well?
Our farm was born in the Great Depression. It has survived droughts, floods, and tough economic times. We’ve always prided ourselves on conservation, prudent management of resources natural and financial, and the ability to thrive as both a family and a business. By the measures that we learned in our church, school, 4-H, and Future Farmers of America, we’ve been successful. But compared to the merciless and intrusive logic of blockchain, we’re bound to be found lacking.
We lack diversity, eschew the organic label, can’t qualify for that GMO-free butterfly, and are only sustainable in the sense that we continue to thrive, but not according to the definition of “sustainability” that so occupies marketer’s minds and twitter feeds. We are so far from being politically correct that we could serve as a poster child for a past that consumers who matter would just as soon leave behind. We’ll have to adjust, because the consumer is “Queen,” and when she finds out about us, she may well run screaming from Whole Foods. Blockchain might be the guillotine for our kind of farm.
So, we are going to outlaw gluten here at Hurst Farms. We’ll only plant seeds that were unearthed by shamen in ancient Native American burial grounds, untouched by any corporate influence. We’re working toward being more authentic, as soon as we figure out what that means. I’m sure it will help to have a Bernie Sanders bumper sticker on our brand new electric car, so consider it done.
Or, maybe the best strategy is just to wait this madness out. The state of California has required Starbucks to label its coffee as carcinogenic, joining beer and wine as known carcinogens to California, and surely, inspiring a kind of fatalism about all labels. Without beer, wine, and coffee, why prolong life by studying food labels? Your life will already seem endless. And without hope or happiness.
People are laughing, or at least a lot of people are laughing, at labels that brag that salt and bottled water are GMO free. I’ve been studying up on food labeled “Clean,” and it’s pretty clear to anybody paying attention that the Clean food label doesn’t transmit much useful information and implies something different for every company that uses it.
There is a real fad for “raw” milk and “raw” water. Huh. We’ll lose a few consumers to both those fads, in the most permanent sense imaginable. Unlike most of these labels, “raw” milk and water labels provide real information for consumers, and wiser consumers will avoid both.
Using blockchain to trace food production through every step of a complicated and confusing distribution system will overwhelm consumers with information. Proliferating labels are already causing information overload. Some labels are meaningless, some valuable, some nothing more than the most manipulative marketing imaginable, but the pure volume of information is overwhelming to all but the most dedicated grocery shopper.
My smiling face and industrial farm will surely be lost in the confusion as thousands of marketing MBAs jostle for attention. Millions of labels, all finely tuned to attract the most affluent and discerning consumer, will end up as nothing more than background noise.