At a Q&A I attended earlier this year hosted by Square Roots in Brooklyn, company CEO Tobias Peggs explained that the average apple travels nine months before it reaches you, at which point it’s basically a ball of sugar coated in wax. Aghast, I wandered Brooklyn for the next several months wary of apples, wondering where they came from, how long they’d traveled, how much nutritional value was actually left in them by the time they got in my hands.
Square Roots uses hydroponic farming to grow herbs and leafy greens inside refurbished shipping containers in the company’s Brooklyn HQ. Its software lets the growers control things like climate and light remotely. (The container farms use LEDs.) Onsite farmers employed by the company produce all the products that ship with the Square Roots label.
Square Roots doesn’t grow apples in its indoor farms yet, but they are helping tell consumers the full story behind their food. Today, the Brooklyn-based company announced it will provide total transparency for all its products via a QR code on the packaging.
Starting with basil, customers will be able to scan the QR code on Square Roots products and trace the food from seed to grocery store aisle. This “transparency timeline,” as Square Roots calls it, includes information like where the seeds were sourced, when they were planted, when the produce was harvested, when it was delivered to the store, and links to more information about the farmers.
Check out the timeline for Genovese Basil:
Right now, Square Roots’ timelines are fairly simple and straightforward. In the future, the company says it plans to include information like climate data or the recycling process behind the packaging materials for each pack of greens.
And Square Roots, of course, has far fewer steps in its supply chain to track than, say, an industrial food retailer. The company employs its own farmers, grows all its products onsite in Brooklyn, and none of its produce leaves the confines of NYC. The company also stated, in the press release, that should it expand, it would follow a similar setup in other cities, to ensure the food arrives as fresh and local as possible.
But food traceability gets a whole lot more complicated with Big Food, which is where we really need supply chain transparency. If a local company with a known reputation for fresh greens tells me my herbs were hand-harvested yesterday, I have no reason not to believe them.
In contrast, getting Big Food from seed to store typically involves the farm, a storage warehouse, a packaging facility, and moving through the hands of multiple distributors before the products hit store shelves across the country and sometimes the world. Besides racking up an enormous carbon footprint, all this transition also exposes the food to potentially harmful foodborne illness, like the recent E. coli outbreak that left all romaine lettuce to rot in the trash nationwide.
Technology like this new initiative from Square Roots is probably not robust enough to handle tracing nationwide food outbreaks like the current romaine-ia (please kill me for that). But I don’t think that’s the point here. Square Roots isn’t a national company, yet, and the company has stated that, should it ever choose to work with an industrial-scale retailer, the company’s data “is structured to be easily accepted by a partner’s blockchain.” Blockchain, of course, is one way many startups are looking to solve the food traceability issue that larger brands and CPGs encounter.
For now, though, Square Roots will be keeping it local. If you’re in the NYC area, basil with a traceability timeline is in stores today where Square Roots products are sold.