Already today, companies and certifiers have a whole bunch of digital tools available to conduct and document their organic audits and inspections. The corona pandemic has given this development an extra, well-overdue push: remote controls had to be planned and implemented on short notice without inspectors travelling to personally visit the respective operators. So far, the taken measures have been largely limited on what could be implemented quickly, such as online meetings or the use of smartphone cameras. Most businesses still lack a long-term, digital strategy as well as the ability to adapt to digital challenges.
The new reality of organic controls
Not getting up at five o'clock in the morning to be at the organic farm at nine, where the entire rest of the day will be needed to check compliance with EU and a few private organic standards. Simply booting the computer whilst having a cup of coffee instead of driving 300 kilometres back and forth. No travel expenses, no traffic jams. Nine to five instead of five to nine: Corona has changed the working life of many auditors and inspectors and shot them into the digital reality of the 21st century. But is it really possible to check a company’s conformity with a norm or a standard without being on-site? One year after the outbreak of the pandemic it can be stated: it depends!
Some aspects of a business can readily – and maybe even better – be checked when the inspector can focus on his or her tasks from home. And some companies are so simply structured that an on-site visit is not absolutely necessary. Because in reality, most controls consist of checking documents, such as overviews of procurement purchases and cultivated areas or accounting reports. For manufacturing companies, the number of documents that must be checked is significantly larger than for farms, because they have to keep more records – for instance about their company structure or their complaint management. On top of that, processing plants must document all their processes in a so-called quality manual which serves as a guideline during controls. For the inspector who has to work his or her way through all of this, a quiet place with no distraction is needed. Certainly, it does not help if the quality manager of the controlled business is constantly around, shadowing every move and looking over the inspector’s shoulder because he or she is scared to fail the audit or the inspection. It can therefore be stated that a certain distance to the controlled operation can have its advantages.
Complexity defines the necessity of an on-site inspection
But audits and inspections are more than just document reviews. To check a company's compliance with a norm, inspectors sometimes have to be able to look into corners and behind closed doors and examine aspects which are not in the centre of the operational processes. During a remote audit or inspection, all of this takes place via online meetings. With his or her smartphone, the operations manager takes the inspector on a tour through the facilities. "Let's take a look at the calves", could be the instruction of the inspector to get a virtual picture of the animal’s health and check that the husbandry conditions from the documents match with reality. However, whether a particularly sick calf was moved to another location prior to inspection, which would obviously raise questions, cannot be detected from afar. And this is not the only case in which the limitations of digital controls become apparent. At a certain level of process complexity, on-site visits are indispensable, for example when a company's flow of goods has to be retraced.
Digitalisation during on-site visits
For any control – remote or personal – the availability of clear, complete, well-structured information is essential. As far as this is concerned, digital controls are advantageous, because the companies must make all documents electronically available beforehand. Long waiting times on site with endless rummaging through dusty folders whilst receipts ultimately have to be submitted retrospectively, are a thing of the past. On top of that, online and cloud applications, where farmers, processing companies and traders upload the required data and documents to secure portals, can substantially facilitate digital collaboration. Inspectors can review this information prior to inspection and thus get an idea of the company’s situation beforehand. Were there any deviations in the past? How is the company structured? What does it produce? With the help of analytical evaluations of certification data based on Artificial Intelligence (AI), inspectors can decide whether a remote control is sufficient or whether an on-site visit is essential. If the latter is the case, it is advisable to record data digitally during the inspection. Some IT applications can do this offline via an app. Photos of a specific control point that provide valid and clear evidence can be saved and uploaded later. The final control report can then be created in the office within a few mouse clicks. This is not only convenient for inspectors, but also facilitates the review or certification process, during which another person checks the results and finally makes a certification decision. If all information is made available centrally and in digital form, the entire process can be accelerated and its quality improved.
Safeguarding organic integrity
It is often quoted that organic products are among the best monitored foods. Although the digital options available for ensuring organic integrity are continuously being improved, the digitalisation of remote controls is by no means exhausted. So far, hardly anyone works with satellite data, which in other sectors has long been common. Insurance companies, for example, already assess their clients and entire countries systematically and fully digitised, using algorithms and AI to detect risks and assess the economic consequences of climate change. And in agriculture and the food industry, sensors of the “Internet of Things (IoT)” control and monitor cultivation and processing. In the organic sector, digitalisation can particularly improve problems with data quality and availability as well as the data networking for control purposes. The means to digitally record cultivated areas, yield quantities, and flows of goods are available. By comparing such data, the entry of non-certified fraudulent goods into organic supply chains could be prevented – not only within a company, but also across complex supply chains, regions, countries, and different legal systems. This would make life much easier for inspectors. But unfortunately, many organic actors, including inspectors, are still concerned about whether the digitised data is safe from being misused, for instance by their competitors. In view of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and the comprehensively regulated access, writing and reading rights in the available databases, this distrust is often unsubstantiated. Although it cannot be eradicated overnight, it can be eased through anonymisation of data. This way, the necessary product chain transparency can be created – despite existing reservations.
Removing reservations and taking advantage of opportunities
Although many parties meanwhile agree that the future of organic controls is digital, the limits of this future are still evident: changing political frameworks, adapting regulations, distrust, the slowing down of necessary change for personal or economic interests, inadequate internet infrastructure and a lack of education and training opportunities not only bother the organic control sector, but society as a whole. And when we look at less developed countries, illiteracy, corruption, immobile bureaucracies, dictatorial structures or simply a lack of resources block the way to rapid change. However, the digital progress forced by the pandemic is a reality. Now, the organic control sector must ensure not to come to a halt, but to use the momentum and innovative strength to be part of the digital future – and to grow further.
This article was first published in German in the journal “Ökologie & Landbau”, the leading German medium for organic agriculture and food.