In September 2018, orange pickers in Brazil began seeing video compilations of photos of smiling Dutch people. The satisfied customers were drinking juice almost 10,000km away from where Brazilians had grown the oranges it was made from, and their enjoyment had prompted them to send the growers an appreciative selfie.
Using Quick Response codes, better known as QR codes, the consumers could generate a map of their juice’s journey to their breakfast tables, see all the stops along the way, and see what percentage of their juice had come from any number of 29 certified-sustainable orange groves. And they could send their selfies back to the farmers.
The idea was simple – to draw a connection between a bottle of juice and where it originated. But the implications of this simple connection are much more profound.
The origins of many of the items on our tables are unknown to the everyday consumer. The expectation is that the information behind the product is lost – how could we possibly know which orange trees gave rise to this bottle of juice, or which field of wheat was responsible for this loaf of bread?
Both new technologies and traditional ways of farming are closing this information gap between the farmer and consumer. As a result, the demand from consumers for better information could transform our food system from the ground up.
So far, there appears to be a real hunger for this information.
The QR code idea came from Albert Heijn supermarkets, which had noticed people wanted to know where their products were from. The supermarket company approached Refresco, the company that bottled its orange juice, and Refresco approached its own orange juice supplier, Louis Dreyfus Company Juice.
“The information was there but it was in everyone’s own systems and the systems weren’t talking to each other,” says Refresco’s communications manager Nicole McDonald. “We found that for people to be able to see how many orange groves their oranges were from and where they were from, as well as how they were transported, was interesting to consumers.”
The businesses absorbed the cost, so making the juice traceable didn’t change the price. Shoppers were pleased and a little surprised when they saw the new QR codes, says McDonald. At first there was a flurry of selfies, although, since juice is a repeat purchase, the pace slowed once people got their second or third QR coded bottle. “Now we are seeing other customers in other countries saying, ‘We can also switch to sustainable juice and…maybe we can find some way to supply traceability.’ It’s a trend and it’s building,” she says.
“It can bring those pickers, who were invisible before, closer to consumers, and vice versa.”