The transparent supply chain

I finally got around to reading Michael Pollan’s excellent The Omnivore’s Dilemma which traces several different food chains from source to prepared meal. As I’ve mentioned here before, a remarkable follow-on dialog took place beween Pollan and Whole Foods’ CEO John Mackey, in the form of a blog exchange and a joint public appearance. That dialogue, which explores the book’s critique of “industrial” or “big” organic operations, is a great example of how in the blog era a book can sustain a lively follow-on conversation.

It’s a huge book, and there are a number of other conversations that might spring from it. One I’d like to see would focus on the possibility of a more transparent food supply chain. It’s true that there’s much about that supply chain we’d rather not know, but it’s also true there’s much that we simply cannot know. As service-oriented information systems increasingly control the supply chain, that knowledge — of how food is produced, processed, and transported — becomes, at least in principle, more discoverable.

The same applies more broadly to all supply chains. When Jeff Bezos spoke at MIT last year, several different folks asked variations of the same question: Can you expose more information about the production and transportation methods employed by the makers of your products, so we can factor those into our decisions?

Unlike government data, which is nominally ours, most corporate data is not something we’re obviously entitled to. Governments might compel a certain level of supply-chain transparency. Corporations with good stories to tell about ethical/sustainable practices might reveal them voluntarily. One way or another, we may begin to expect that supply chains ought to be more transparent than they are today.

In the case of our food system, making the supply chain more transparent would be a radical innovation — painful, but health-promoting.

7 Comments

  1. Last year one of my graduate students at the UC Berkeley School of Information wrote a short paper on “The Future of Food Information Services” that takes a more humanistic perspective on this issue of supply chain transparency. Jessica Kline’s concern was that she could learn a lot about food — cooking TV channels and web sites — but not about HER food, the stuff she was going to eat. So she wrote this provocative little essay about it herehttp://repositories.cdlib.org/ischool/2007-007/. Jessica is a self-described “foodie” and she lives a block from Chez Panisse in Berkeley…

  2. “The Future of Food Information Services”

    Thanks for the pointer Bob. I remembered her talk from my visit there, but wasn’t able to pinpoint it.

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