article / 26 November 2015

Technology for Traceability

Traceability (knowing where products come from and how they are made) is a foundational pre-cursor for many sustainability interventions. While many tools have been developed to offer high-level insight about the products and commodities that are part of a company’s supply chain, in-depth traceability of much of the world’s commodities remains a challenge. In this thought piece for the Data Science group, Daniel Brizuela and Phoebe Racine ask how might we broaden demand for this information, collect data, develop tools and present information that facilitates company, and eventually consumer, understanding of environmental and social impacts across the supply chain?


Never in the history of human kind have we traded so extensively. Today we live in a virtual web of global trade, including complex supply chains that can touch down in ten or more countries before point of sale. Whereas historically food production was inherently local, today an estimated 23% of the food produced for human consumption is traded internationally (D’Odorico 2014). Timber product supply chains are similarly complex and can even bypass legal systems in some countries. These complexities leave significant room for bad behavior- it is estimated that 1.5% of the world’s GDP, or US $870 billion, is made up of illegal, unreported or unregulated commodities (UNODC). In order to ensure product safety and integrity, reward companies who are producing sustainably and promote a future where humans live in harmony with nature, we must have legal, traceable systems, from one end of the supply chain to the other.

With dozens of definitions for Traceability, we chose to use Olsen and Borit’s, who define it as “the ability to access any or all information relating to that which is under consideration, throughout its entire life cycle, by means of recorded identifications” (Olsen, Borit 2013). Here it is important to mention terms and concepts often associated with traceability. Transparency is often used interchangeably with traceability. However, transparency in supply chains is context-dependent. Typically it takes a systems-level view. Transparency does not necessarily mean all information is acceptable and readily available; rather, it means that information desired by different actors in the supply chain is available. (New, Westbrook 2004).Visibility – another term used - is often preferred over transparency, as companies want insight into their supply chain but do not necessarily want to share those insights. Legality is also often associated with traceability as a traceable system is likely to allow for identification of illegal behavior. Traceability of supply chains is especially critical when sourcing product from regions where governance systems have limited ability to ensure the source and safety of a product.

A barrier to traceability throughout supply chains has long been a lack of efficient, relatively inexpensive and easy to use technologies. Traceability technologies have undergone considerable changes, and today a number of technical solutions for gaining high-level insight into products exist. Finding technical solutions for in-depth, full-chain traceability, however, is still a challenge. The question remains: how might we broaden demand for this information, collect data, develop tools and present information that facilitates company, and eventually consumer, understanding of environmental and social impacts across the supply chain?


A Relationship to Conservation

Effective and publicly audited traceability systems are a key element that allows us to implement various interventions that ensure lasting conservation, as they ensure that responsible stewards are able to identify and access sustainable supply chains. Knowing how a commodity was produced and by whom, and how it got from point A to point B, gives us assurances that products from illegal and unsustainable activities cannot find their way to our plates and our homes.

Implementing robust traceability systems in supply chains makes it possible to obtain reliable, relevant information about a commodity’s origins, about the handling of commodities for health and safety reasons, or about their movements through supply chains (SFI, 2015). Without traceability there is no accountability. A lack of traceability provides shelter for bad actors and removes incentive for good practice. Complex and opaque supply chains have led to illegal logging activities, poaching of threatened or endangered wildlife, labelling fraud and have even facilitated enslavement.

World Wildlife Fund works on strategic projects for key commodities and actively engages across global supply chains. A call for improving the traceability of commodities is common throughout WWF projects concerned with forest products, and sustainable food production from land and sea. WWF engages many stakeholders, including government, management bodies, large corporations, small producers and at times, consumers to facilitate and create demand for traceability.

When appropriate, WWF will encourage or facilitate the uptake of technologies. WWF’s engagement in traceability systems design is well exemplified through its development of commodity standards and certifications, such as the Forest Stewardship Council, the Marine Stewardship Council, the Aquaculture Stewardship Council or the Round Table on Sustainable Palm Oil. Various forms of traceability are required as part of these standards and certification schemes, to ensure that purchasers are indeed receiving legal and sustainably produced goods.

WWF has seldom developed technology but rather sees itself as a facilitator and a catalyst for change. Currently, WWF is engaged in identifying technologies through support of barcoding, material analysis, eco-labeling, perimeter defense, smartphone sensors, citizen science apps, and has even started mapping supply chains through cloud-based programs.


Current Status

There is a global trend towards traceability across a wide range of commodities. This trend is fueled both by consumer demands and government regulations concerning food safety and legality (e.g., Lacey Act or Dodd Frank). A 2014 report from Allied Market Research predicts that the global market for food traceability technologies will grow by 8.7 percent annually through the remainder of this decade, reaching revenue of $14.1 billion by 2020 (Allied Market Research, 2014).

Traceability of supply chains, both high-level and in-depth remain difficult. Although the technological resources for high-level traceability are now available and are being applied for supply chain analysis, there is some debate whether current technologies can provide full-chain traceability. Those that believe the technology is adequate have cited that the main obstacles to traceability are no longer technical but are more likely to be political, and at times, social. The Expert Panel on Legal and Traceable Wild Fish Products reported that more than a few individual companies provide “boat to plate” information, and that even small-scale producers and businesses in developing countries can affordably access certain identification technologies (EPLAT 2015).

The most basic way to identify and track products is through a “paper trail” chain of custody. The paper trail has several shortcomings, first of which is that documentation is easily falsified. Misidentification and false declarations of species and origin have always been a problem throughout all supply chains. A variety of technologies have been developed to replace the paper trail and to go beyond its scope. Common identification and tracking technologies include, among others, material analyses, perimeter defense and computer software systems. Some identification and tracking tools are listed in Table 1.1.

The physical and chemical structures of a commodity and the nature of the supply chain are the two primary determinants of the identification technology that can be applied. For instance, wood can be analyzed with some accuracy through DNA or Stable Isotope Analysis; whereas with paper many of the physical and chemical structures that allowed for identification of wood are broken down during processing and can only be understood via fiber analysis.

PaperManual identification of products, follows products through parts of the supply chainAll
Bar CodeFollows products through parts of supply chainAll
Radio Frequency Identification (RFID)Identified individuals from field to processingLivestock, wild-caught fish
TaggingIdentifies individuals from field to processingLivestock, wild-caught fish
Vehicle monitoring systemTracks vessel behaviourWild-caught fish
Elemental analysisOrigin of product, potential for use to determine characteristics of culturingAll; farmed products
DNA analysisClade, species identification, potential of determining origin of productRaw commodities
Fiber analysisCharacteristics of raw materials, aspects of processing, more rarely: genus and speciesPaper
Sedimentation analysisOrigin of productsRaw commodities
Mass spectrometryStable isotope analysis, originRaw commodities
Machine vision wood anatomySpecies IDWood
Smartphone sensorsIdentifies activity in sensitive areasTimber products
Remote sensingSatellite vessel monitoring, high-resolution mapping of illegal timber harvest and land conversionAll
Cloud-based programsMap supply chainsAll

Leverage & Gaps

In all of these technologies, one key attribute is the necessity of reliable, well-developed reference libraries for the specific geography and the species being identified (Schneider 2015). The need for reference data, however, poses an ongoing problem, as reference data collection is both expensive and time consuming. In order to tackle this obstacle, a coordinated global response is needed. As there are many technologies in different stages of use and development, their effectiveness across scales and contexts needs to be determined. Additionally, commercial lab capacity is limited. Many of these processes were developed in government or university labs, which lack the ability, or charter, to carry out the work. With projected increase in these use identification tools, commercial lab capacity should be built in order to meet future demand (Schneider 2015).

More broadly, without demand from appropriate stakeholders, the development and uptake of traceability systems may be delayed. Furthermore, traceability alone is not enough to ensure conservation needs are met. Supportive policies and governance need be developed and applied, in addition to traceability technologies, for effective results. Other critical activities include effective monitoring, control and surveillance systems, capacity building, good governance and enforcement.


Together Possible: A Way Forward

While enormous challenges face us, there is more willingness to engage than ever before. A different world is possible. The groundswell of momentum towards traceability is here and it is time to harness that momentum towards building more reliable and efficient traceability technologies and the frameworks that can confidently support them.



  1. Allied Market Research. “Food Traceability Market (Tracking Technologies) Global Industry Analysis, Size, Share, Trends, Opportunities and Forecast, 2012–2020.” January 2014.
  2. Diana JS. 2009. Aquaculture production and biodiversity conservation. Bioscience. 59(1):27–38.
  3. D’Odorico, P., J. A. Carr, F. Laio, L. Ridolfi, and S. Vandoni (2014), Feeding humanity through global food trade, Earth’s Future, 2, 458–469
  4. Hamilton, Stuart. “Assessing the Role of Commercial Aquaculture in Displacing Mangrove Forest.” Bulletin of Marine Science: 89(2): 585-601. 2013.
  5. New, Steve and Roy Westbrook Understanding Supply Chains: Concepts, Critiques, and Futures: Concepts, Critiques, and Futures. OUP Oxford, 2004.
  6. Olsen P and Borit M. How to define traceability. Trends in Food Science and Technology. Vol. 29, Issue P. 142-150.
  7. Schneider, Tina. “Tree Talk.” World Forestry Conference. Durban, South Africa. 2015.
  8. United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. “Environmental Crime: trafficking in wildlife and timber.”
  9. World Wildlife Fund: “Recommendations for a Global Framework to Ensure the Legality and Traceability of Wild-Caught Fish Products.” Expert Panel on Legal and Traceable Wild Fish Products. March, 2015.
  10. World Wildlife Fund. “Traceability Principles for Wild-Caught Fish Products.” Smart Fisheries Initiative. April, 2015.

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