The invisible fingerprints all over our food could help producers verify claims about the origins of their food and their environmental credentials.
Four of Australia's top research agencies are working together with the Australian Research Data Commons to develop a new platform, bringing a wealth of public "isotopic data" together in a single and accessible location.
CSIRO trusted supply chains expert Dr Nina Welti said isotopic data has been used in science for decades, but the ideas behind the so-called "chemical signatures" haven't yet found regular use in the food system.
"The beauty of stable isotopes is that they get measured for lots of different reasons," Dr Welti said.
"How does water move in the environment? What do kangaroos eat as they migrate?"
What is isotopic data?
Stable isotopes can be described as the "naturally occurring differences" in elements such as carbon, hydrogen and oxygen, according to Dr Welti.
Because those differences reflect environmental factors and processes such as water sources, evaporation, fertiliser use, soil types and food webs, researchers can measure the isotopes in almost anything to build a history and garner information behind a given product.
"It's not around one piece of information or one measurement that's going to tell you where it's from or what it is, it's combining all of these," Dr Welti said.
"This requires a lot of data, and no one producer is going to do this. Nobody has access to these instruments in your back paddock."
While the CSIRO, Geoscience Australia, the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation and the National Measurement Institute already have large databases, they've never been brought together in a national archive.
"It's really hard to access [this data] at once, to see all of it across Australia, between all of these organisations," Dr Welti said.
"We're trying to make it easier to do that, and combine forces to make a one-point source for accessing all of this information. We want to create a foundational data resource, just to make it more accessible and usable.
"We're not making new data - we're taking what's already out there in public, common good... and highlighting it, making a shopfront."
Putting data in producers' hands
For agriculture, there's no shortage of possibilities - isotopic data can tell us about cropping and horticulture operations, feeding regimes in livestock, or even the difference between wild cod and farmed fish.
It's hoped the new national dataset could pave the way for new technologies, such as tools which could verify the sustainable practices behind Australian exports to meet trade requirements.
CSIRO currently makes greenhouse gas assessments of Australian canola exports to make sure they meet European Union standards and can be used in biofuel.
With a better understanding of what the overseas market is looking for, it could also help producers make decisions when it comes to farm practices.
Industry and research organisations will help inform the development of the national platform, but Dr Welti said there are "tricky questions" to answer.
"We also have to make sure the data is used appropriately and provide benefit for everyone in our country, because it is a common, public good resource," Dr Welti said.
"The taxes have already paid for it, so we really want to make sure people are using it and it's effective.
"This is not easy, because it requires these organisations to trust each other and think long-term about how this data can be used and how they work together and make sure that it's self-sustaining."