Why Moore Gave $1.3M to a Bunch of Food Scientists

Do you know where the seafood you eat comes from? There's a good chance the answer is no, as there are very few systems in place to track fish from catch to table. That helps explain why the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation just gave a hefty grant to tackle this problem, which has deep implications for sustainability.

The idyllic concept of eating seafood involves a grizzled fisherman selling the day’s catch to a market on the pier, where you buy it and then turn it into dinner. But such a straightforward interaction is almost entirely lost in a sea of industrial players that make up a complex supply chain. As a result, it’s increasingly difficult to know where what’s on your plate came from, even within the industry. 

That’s where the push for food traceability comes in, and it's the subject of a recent $1.3 million grant from the Moore Foundation. Moore just awarded the grant to the Institute of Food Technologists, a society of professionals working in food science and the food industry, to improve the traceability of seafood across the industry.

Related - Can Better Data Help Save the Oceans? This Big Foundation Thinks So

At first glance it sounds like an unlikely grantee for Moore and its conservation program, but it’s within the funder’s subprogram on oceans and seafood markets. The initiative is focused on using market forces to drive sustainable fisheries, citing the approaching crisis of declining fish stocks. Moore points out that given current trends and a growing population, most of the world’s fisheries could collapse by 2050. 

The program’s market-based approach is often about convincing industry that taking sustainable approaches to fishing is in their own business interests. Instead of an emphasis on regulation, it’s about aligning incentives. 

The mission of the IFT, for example, is to strengthen performance of the food industry (as opposed to saving the planet). Its Global Food Traceability Center seeks to improve our knowledge of how food ingredients get from farm/catch to the table, encouraging businesses to be more transparent by promising more efficiency, less liability in the case of food borne illness, and ability to reach new markets. Meanwhile, it serves the public good by increasing accountability. 

You can see how that links up with Moore’s conservation program, which is interested in shining some light on the seafood supply chains and taking certain elements of these markets out of the shadows. 

As Moore’s program officer put it in the announcement, “Enabling companies in the seafood value chain to share information and trace products from the source is a key component to eliminating illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing and to improving seafood sustainability.” 

It’s reminiscent of Google’s effort to use fishing vessel mapping data to reveal illegal fishing activity. 

Related - Google is Getting Serious About Marine Conservation

The Moore grant to IFT takes a similar tool-building approach. The IFT is developing an architecture by which companies can trace the seafood supply chain. We often write about how philanthropy can act as a translator for disparate parties, and this is definitely one of those cases. Current tracking efforts are highly fragmented and don't speak the same language.

If IFT is successful, companies will be able to link up and use a shared platform to exchange information, steadily connecting the dots to make things run smoother. And, as Moore hopes, leading to less irresponsible and illegal fishing, and more carefully managed fisheries. 

We write often about rising funder interest in the oceans and protecting fisherieswhich are the world's food supply at a time of rapid population growth. It's a challenge that has galvanized a number of major givers. As Michael Bloomberg said last year, regarding putting $53 million into this area: "While billions of people depend on fish for food or income, only 13% of the world’s fisheries are safe from being over-fished."

Related - Since When Does Mike Bloomberg Care About Fishing?