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(M)apping the Brazilian food system: a participatory approach to radical supply chain transparency and better food choices

A cutting-edge citizen science approach to supply chain transparency, empowering Brazilians to make informed food choices.

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Lead Applicant Organization Name

UCLouvain

Lead Applicant Organization Type

  • Researcher Institution

If part of a multi-stakeholder entity (i.e. team), provide the names of other organizations and types of stakeholders collaborating with you.

Stockholm Environment Institute, Researcher Institution. Reporter Brasil, Media Outlet. Environmental Investigation Agency, Large NGO.

Website of Legally Registered Entity

https://uclouvain.be/en/index.html

How long have you / your team been working on this Vision?

  • Under 1 year

Lead Applicant: In what city or town are you located?

Louvain-la-Neuve

Lead Applicant: In what country are you located?

Belgium

Your Selected Place: what’s the name of the Place you’re developing a Vision for?

Brazil

What country is your selected Place located in?

Brazil

Describe your relationship to the place you’ve selected.

Agriculture in Brazil is booming, but at the expense of nature, the climate, and public health - the challenge of creating a sustainable food system is perhaps more pertinent and daunting here than anywhere else. Brazil is home to 15-20% of the world’s biodiversity, but also some of the fastest rates of habitat loss: between 2001-2018, 15% of the world’s tree cover loss took place in Brazil - the majority driven by the expansion of agriculture. As hunger has declined, obesity is increasing. Our team has extensive on-the-ground experience in and passion for work in Brazil and provides a diverse set of perspectives on how the Brazilian food system can be set onto a more sustainable footing. The teams’ members have cumulatively conducted decades worth of research in Brazil at the nexus of sustainable development and food. The project lead did a PhD on sustainable cattle ranching in the Brazilian Amazon, driving around the Amazon to interview cattle ranchers and catalogue their success stories in delivering sustainable intensification. Several team members play a key role in the Trase initiative, which has produced the first maps of the origin, supply chain, and deforestation footprint of Brazil’s cattle and soy exports (https://trase.earth/), thereby linking agricultural production in Brazil to thousands of trading companies and international markets. The team also includes the co-founder of the Sustainable Amazon Network, a partnership of more than 30 institutions in Brazil and abroad generating scientific evidence to support sustainability in the Amazon region, and the leading investigative media outlet in Brazil, Reporter Brasil, who have done ground-breaking journalism on agricultural supply chains and their impacts.

Describe the People and Place: Provide information that would be helpful for an outsider who has never been there and may have no context about this Place to better understand the area.

Brazil is almost unfathomably big. The Amazon rainforest alone, which makes up less than half of Brazil’s area, could swallow the entire European Union. The Brazilian landscape ranges from rainforest in the North to the socio-biodiverse Cerrado, a savannah stretching across the center of the country, the world’s largest wetland, the Pantanal, in the South-West, the fertile Pampas grasslands in the South, the almost-desert like Caatinga shrubland in the North East, and finally the diminishing Atlantic Forest on the coast, only 13.1% of which remains, replaced by sugar cane, cattle grazing, and urban sprawl. This rich geography is home to an enormous diversity of people: urban, rural, rich and poor, Brazilians are descended from European settlers, sub-Saharan Africans, and indigenous peoples; the sound of their music reflects this blend of histories, the characteristic Bossa Nova, whose smooth rhythms emerged in Brazil in the ‘60s, is a fusion of jazz and samba, itself an import from West Africa. 

This diversity brings many apparent tensions - between urban and rural, development and the protection of nature. Brazil’s economy uses 85% renewable energy, mostly hydro-electric, and the country is home to 15-20% of the world’s biodiversity - the jewel in which is, of course, the Amazon rainforest, which Brazilians consider a source of national pride. At the same time, Brazil has some of the fastest rates of environmental destruction: between 2001-2018, 15% of the world’s tree cover loss took place in Brazil - mostly for agriculture, in particular cattle ranching.

Across all regions, ranching is key to the Brazilian identity. Brazil has more cattle than people and the fourth highest per capita beef consumption in the world. Wherever you go, you’re never far from the smell of churrasco, the traditional Brazilian barbecue where juicy skewers of meat are grilled over an open flame, ideally enjoyed with a smattering of farofa, a crunchy, toasted yuca flour.

But despite the ubiquity of churrasco and the importance of cuisine, Brazilians are increasingly disconnected from the origin of their food. As Brazil has urbanized, employment in agriculture has halved - from 20% in 2005 to 9% in 2018, and there is widespread distrust of the companies supplying those foods. Brazil has been rocked by sanitary scandals, the highest profile of which was the ‘Carne Fraca’ or ‘Weak Meat’ scandal in 2017. More than 30 meat processing companies were implicated in a web of bribery and fraud, with inspectors doctoring microbiological reports and workers treating rotten meat with potentially-carcinogenic chemicals in order to mask the odor and get them to market. This scandal has helped cause an awakening among Brazilian consumers - a survey of more than 600 Brazilians in six different states in 2018 found that 85% want to know more about the origin of their food and how it was produced.

What is the estimated population (current 2020) in your Place?

212000000

Challenges: Describe the current (2020) and the future (2050) challenges that your food system faces.

The Brazilian food system is huge and growing fast. Agriculture contributed BRL$304,4 billion/year ($72.4 billion) to the Brazilian economy in 2018, about 5% of Brazil’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP). The area of pasture and cropland in Brazil is expanding rapidly, increasing from 171,5 Mha in 1985 to 251,8 Mha in 2018, and now occupies around 30% of Brazil’s area. This land is used to feed 212 million people at home and millions more abroad, as Brazil has also grown into an export powerhouse, exporting 20% of beef, 60% of soy, and 66% of coffee production.


Brazil also has some of the world’s most ambitious environmental policies - the Brazilian Forest Code, for example, requires the protection of 80% of private land in the Amazon rainforest and 20-35% in the neighboring Cerrado savannah, and when launched in 2014, Brazil’s nutritional guidelines were widely lauded for being progressive and evidence-based. But these regulations and goals are not being met. Ninety-five percent of deforestation in Mato Grosso, Brazil’s leading agricultural state, is illegal, and without enforcement of the Forest Code, Brazil is expected to lose another 53.4 Mha of forest by 2050 - an area larger than Thailand or Spain. Obesity continues to rise; in 2017, 60% of Brazilians were overweight and 20% obese, with doctors warning that Brazil is on a path to become the ‘most obese nation in the world’ by 2030. 


Policies to protect workers and public health are also failing, not least on slavery (91 confirmed cases of slave labor in 2019 alone), and food fraud, as exemplified by the 2017 ‘Carne Fraca’ or ‘Weak Meat’ scandal where meat packers were caught faking microbiological tests, putting public health at risk and damaging consumer confidence. 


These trends in food production and consumption are interwoven with cultural shifts, not least urbanization (68% of Brazilians lived in cities in 1980 compared with 84% today), which has created a growing disconnect between consumers and the origin of their food. The supply chains which have sprung up to bridge the gap between producers and consumers are, however, an important structural part of the problem, because they mask impacts from consumers. As goods pass along the supply chain, from producers to traders, processors, logistics companies, and retailers, important information is lost about how the food is produced and where it came from. This lack of transparency allows forced labor, fraud, and illegal land use to persist, and represents a huge missed opportunity for a more sustainable food system. Brazilians, like other consumers, don’t want to buy products linked to unhealthy or illegal practices, and brands do not want to be associated with poor health outcomes, forced labor, deforestation, and climate change. Yet the lack of information on the origin of the products they buy leaves them with little choice - an information gap that we argue can be addressed by harnessing the digital technology revolution to deliver radical transparency.

Address the Challenges: Describe how your Vision will address the challenges described in the previous question.

The team’s ground-breaking previous work (https://trase.earth/) has shown how it is possible to harness publicly-available data to map supply chains in high detail. We traced the flow of cattle and soy from municipalities all over Brazil to hundreds of importing countries worldwide. Next, we want to crack the domestic market - which our work finds is disproportionately linked to deforestation - and empower Brazilian consumers to make informed everyday food choices. 


The data are out there. Brazil’s food system is increasingly digitized - already by 2015, 92% of food purchases took place in supermarkets which use barcodes to store information about each product. These barcodes can be mined for information - for example on the manufacturer, ingredients, and nutritional information. Over 95% of animal products, which are the leading drivers of deforestation in Brazil, are sold with a ID-label which provides information on the slaughterhouse where the animal was processed - giving an immediate connection back to a specific business and place. 


At the heart of our vision is a smartphone app which puts this information in people’s pockets. We will enable Brazilians to scan the barcode or ID-number of products in the supermarket and then by linking it with other public datasets, including deforestation in each region, records of forced labor, or fines paid by businesses for sanitary breaches, we will instantly provide consumers with a dashboard of information about the health, environmental, and social impact of their food purchases. 


Beyond empowering consumers, this vision is also participatory, converting their curiosity into citizen science. By recording the GPS location of the phone when a product is scanned, we will build a database of supply chain links - which companies are marketing which products, produced by which manufacturers. 


The mechanisms for driving change are several. First, we will create a culture of knowledge where consumers expect to know more about their food, to shift the norm away from supply chain opacity. Second, the app will tap into the power of social media, encouraging people to share their food discoveries with their networks, multiplying the reach of this powerful data. The platform will also make it easy for groups to organize and flag to retailers where product origins are unknown and people want more information. Third, by aggregating the information generated by users, we will build up a map of the flow of goods within the Brazilian economy. These data will allow the ranking of retail brands on the healthiness of their food sales, their role in driving deforestation, and links to illegal practices, including forced labor. Retailers will have to take responsibility for impacts within their supply chains, and begin an important dialogue with farmers, driving sustainability across the food system. 

High Level Vision: With these challenges addressed, now provide a high level description of how the Place and the lives of its People will be different than they are now.

What started with a traceability app has become a transparency-shift in corporate culture in Brazil. 


Consumers now walk into a Pão de Açúcar supermarket in São Paulo, or other shops in the country, expecting to know the story of their food - the name and location of the farmers who produced it, the company and facility which processed it, nutritional guideline recommendations for how to balance it with other foods, and how its carbon footprint compares with other products. As a result, consumers feel more connected with their food and empowered when making food choices; obesity has declined, and the traditional agricultural business model has been turned on its head. Where farmers once cleared land to expand production and were in a race to minimize costs, transparency has instead made legality, sustainability, and well-being the end-goal of production. The Brazilian food system is perceived across the world as a model to emulate and learn from, and similar systems are now being piloted in other major cattle producing countries that neighbor Brazil, including Paraguay and Argentina. 


How did we get here? When food companies began being ranked on their links to deforestation and legal-compliance, this started an important dialogue with farmers. Brazilian agriculture, once synonymous with Amazon fires and deforestation has become a model for sustainable food. Brazil has restored 15 million hectares of degraded pastures, illegal deforestation has declined to zero, and 12 million hectares of forests have been restored - helping Brazil meet its climate goals. It is often said that “you cannot manage what you cannot measure”, and these commitments, which date back to Brazil’s Paris pledges, were only realized because of transparency - the flow of data along the supply chain, from producers to consumers, which made it possible to leverage demand from ordinary Brazilians for sustainable food into real on-farm changes in agricultural production. 

Full Vision: How do you describe your Vision for a regenerative and nourishing food future for your Place and People for 2050?

Incentives matter. Agricultural supply chains, as they currently operate, create little incentive for sustainable production and consumption. Supply chains are opaque, so that consumers do not know where their food comes from, how healthy it is, how it is made, and what the impacts of its production are. As products pass among a variety of processors, traders, logistics companies, and retailers on their journey from producers to consumers, the only information that is usually retained is, in fact, the price. This provides a strong incentivise to each actor in the supply chain to keep prices low, at the expense of other measures of a healthy and sustainable food system.


Nowhere is this issue more pertinent than Brazil. Brazil is a mega-biodiverse, rapidly urbanizing, middle-income country with a booming agricultural sector. Brazil is, in principle, well-placed to manage the tension between growing agricultural production and nature conservation because of its framework of world-leading environmental regulations, nutritional guidelines, and ambitious targets for climate mitigation in the food system - though in reality none of these legal requirements, guidelines, or targets are being met. The Brazilian Forest Code, for example, lays down strict laws for the protection of nature on private property - farmers may only clear 20% of their land in the Amazon, or 65-80% in the Cerrado, with the rest retained as forest, savannah, or wetland; Brazil’s 2014 nutritional guidelines are the envy of many countries; and Brazil has set targets to restore 12 million hectares of deforested land by 2050. But illegal deforestation continues, obesity is increasing, restoration targets are not being met, and the food system is fraught with other problems - not least slavery (91 confirmed cases of slave labour in 2019 alone), and food fraud, as exemplified by the 2017 ‘Carne Fraca’ of 'Weak Meat' scandal where meat packers were caught faking microbiological tests, putting public health at risk.


Our vision is to change incentives for consumers, farmers and companies in the Brazilian food system, through radical transparency which means that impacts embedded in supply chains are no longer masked from consumers, governments, and civil society. We will do this by harnessing digital technologies to deliver a bottom-up, participatory mapping of food supply chains and of their multiple impacts that will put information in the hands of ordinary Brazilians and ensure accountability for brands operating in food supply chains. Ultimately, we wish for a future where transparency is the norm, and companies are incentivised to compete on sustainability and health, not just price.


Getting there will require two steps - consolidating a growing volume of public, digital supply chain information, and empowering consumers to peer into the supply chains behind their food purchases.


Supply chain data are out there, waiting to be consolidated. In our team’s previous work we traced the flow of cattle and soy products from municipalities across Brazil to hundreds of importing countries around the world via thousands of companies handling their trade - the data are publicly available at https://trase.earth/. Mapping the domestic market requires a slightly different approach, taking advantage of the growth of modern retailing and digitization. In 2015, 92% of food purchases in Brazil took place in supermarkets, supermarkets which use barcodes to store information about each product. The format of barcodes is often standardized, which means they can be mined for data on the manufacturer, ingredients, and nutritional information. For animal products specifically, which are the leading drivers of deforestation in Brazil, approximately 95% of beef, 98% of pork, and 99% of poultry are sold with a ID-label which provides information on the slaughterhouse where the animal was processed - giving an immediate connection back to a specific business and place - e.g. a JBS facility in Alta Floresta in the Amazon biome or Lins in the Atlantic Forest. 


Once consolidated, these data on supply chains need to be packaged in a readily-accessible format for ordinary consumers. Forty-two percent of Brazilians own a smartphone, with further rapid growth expected, as part of growing internet connectivity across the country - smartphones are already the primary source of internet connection for 60% of all internet users. Our transparency revolution will therefore begin with a smartphone app which allows users to scan product barcodes or ID-numbers in the supermarket, and then pull up a dashboard of information about the origin and health and sustainability impact of that food.  By putting information about food into people’s pockets, we will lead to more informed food choices.


This approach does much more than consumer empowerment - with each product that is scanned, we will build a database of which companies are marketing which products, produced by which manufacturers. By crossing this data against sustainability risks - fines paid for sanitary breaches, deforestation, links to slave labor, we will uncover the impacts embedded in supply chains. This powerful information will be made public to rank retailers or manufacturing brands on their sustainability risks. This public information will, for the first time, create a systematic incentive for brands to look into their supply chains, and to make procurement choices not just based on price, but explicitly on food safety, labor rights deforestation, and carbon emissions.


Ultimately, a transparency app is just the start. With each additional user and supply chain connection mapped, and with structured action to transform information into deliberative democracy and collective action, we hope to create a culture where companies are accountable for their supply chains, where transparency is the norm, and where price is only one of several metrics guiding choices in the food system.

How did you hear about the Food System Vision Prize?

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