The use of blockchain in food supply systems is a fairly recent field of research. Electronic giants and start-ups are testing this technology to enter the market with a new tool to get more reliable information about what comes on our plate.
To understand how the blockchain can change our habits, we had a conversation with Sharon Cittone, seed content officer of Seeds & Chips, an international event held every year in Milan, Italy, to offer a broad overview of the Technological innovation in the food sector.
Could you explain (for dummies) how a system of food blockchain works?
Imagine a kind of mom and pop shop where people would buy things on credit and the store owner would keep track of all these transactions on a ledger that only he or she had access to. For much of our human history, these kinds of trust-based relationships were the backbone of our economy, where our word was our bond. However, if I had to resize it to a sort of intergalactic general store where personal relationships were not really possible, how would you be able to keep track of all the transactions? How can you trust someone in the system, if you did not even know who they were or where they came from?
This is where blockchain comes into play. This digital ledger is administered and monitored by a peer-to-peer network that records, watches and encrypts every single economic transaction, not just of money but of practically anything and everything that has value. Each transaction becomes a block, the blocks form chains. As such, no block can be modified without altering any other block that follows it in the chainand this requires the approval of all who control the system.
In a system based on food blockchains, the main one is the same, even if instead of cash transactions you will see pieces of the value chain loaded on the blockchain, at each stage of the process from farm to table. All you need is a smartphone, a bit of bandwidth – OK, lots of bandwidth – and something of value that you want to be included in the ledger.
The data recorded in a blockchain system can not be changed, this is an important guarantee. But who actually controls the reliability of the information entered?
Fraud is always a possibility in any value chain, and no one assumes that the blockchain is immune to these risks. However, IT companies are investing a lot in making the blockchain a secure, reliable and consistent system, and through their efforts and the logical structure of blockchain technology, it is actually one of the best ways to prevent fraud in the market.
As mentioned, blockchain is distributed among many different holders on a peer-to-peer network, which means there not one or a few people check all the data, but rather an entire network of people who monitor every transaction. If we refer back to the mom and pop store and the ledger, it's the same concept except that there are countless moms and pops who make sure the numbers are added together and this is a great way to make sure that nothing or no one have too much control at any time. Furthermore, blockchain transactions are immutable or immutable. Once you have entered the data in the ledger, you can not go back and fix it. Obviously, if you make mistakes, you can edit them, but the original data entered remains a part of the register and a consensus must be reached before the changes are added to the chain. This means that things can not simply disappear magically and therefore someone can declare ignorance: every detail is monitored and agreed by all these record holders. Long last, blockchain networks can be limited so that not everyone has access to the ledger, means that to be involved in the blockchain you must be verified and approved.
Why do we need this technological revolution?
One of the main reasons why the blockchain is so widely embraced in the food sector is because it addresses some of the most problematic aspects of our global food system and offers a real alternative. In particular, the blockchain has the potential to transform itself radically the main dilemmas that we all face: transparency and accountability, monitoring of best practices, origin and integrity of the process, access to the market for small producers and developing countries and guarantee of international labor standards.
If we are able to trace our food from the early stages of cultivation to the final stages of consumers, we know who managed it, how it was treated, how the products were maintained and what the true value is. In an ever-expanding market, people are increasingly asking for this information and making their decisions about which products they buy based on their answers. When we are able to take into account every movement produced by a product, we can give people honest answers and this increases the trust of the customers and, ultimately, the income of a company, a farmer or an individual. .
This is particularly important in the case of fraudulent or counterfeit articles, which is a huge problem within the global food system. For example, fraud is rampant in the olive oil sector, with an estimate 70% of olive oil sold in the United States is counterfeit or adulterated.
These fraud cases are not only economically harmful: in 1981, counterfeit olive oil sold in Spain led to thousands of deaths, after the product has been found adulterated with industrial grade grape seed oil. Because of the lack of transparency in the olive oil supply chain, the culprits were difficult to identify. To solve this problem, the Swiss startup Ambrosus used the blockchain protocol to track olive oil, map the supply chain and identify stakeholders and weaknesses in the system. They have studied in depth the ways in which olive oil can be mislabeled and mishandled, resulting in a poor quality product arriving at supermarket shelves around the world.
Is this technology already used in the food sector or is it still being tested?
Since the blockchain is just beginning to be a fully realized technology, we are certainly still in that experimental phase where we are really testing the limits of what is possible. This is absolutely true in the food system, but there are some amazing startups that are already doing well to demonstrate the feasibility of the blockchain for food and in turn are paving the way for even more companies to enter the field.
As I said, Ambrosus is doing a great job on specific products and their work on olive oil, Madagascar vanilla and cheese have been extremely instructive in understanding the path that raw materials take to get to our tables. We are also very enthusiastic about Ripe.io, a startup that uses blockchain in agriculture. It was started by two former Wall Street financiers who believed that the blockchain could be used in more meaningful ways than just cash mining. Their pilot project, on the Ward & # 39; s Berry Farm, outside Boston, traces and documents the chain of the first blockchain tomatoes. They monitor the ripeness, color and sugar content of 200 tomatoes on 20 different plants using sensors to record environmental factors including light, humidity and air temperature. Additional sensors placed in buckets where tomatoes are packaged for distribution keep track of moisture in storage facilities.
In addition, Ripe.io has partnered with Sweetgreen Inc., a bench farm salad franchise, to track their crops and distribute information to farmers, food distributors and restaurants they deliver to. The result is a superior quality product with a traceable chain of custody that can legitimately be called from farm to table.
Perhaps the biggest sign that blockchain means business is the August announcement that some of the major global food chain groups would collaborate with IBM on a blockchain protocol. designed to increase consumer confidence in their products. So far, IBM has provided its blockchain platform to over 400 companies including financial services, supply chains and logistics, chain stores, governments and healthcare systems. The food supply consortium includes Dole, Nestle, Unilever and Walmart among many others. We think projects like these are just the beginning and the collaborations that develop as a result are really encouraging for the future of food.
How do manufacturers, retailers put their data in the blockchain system?
When a product is on the blockchain, each phase of its life cycle is traced by the places and hands it passes through, so it is monitored effectively by the same people who are invested in seeing it succeed. In practice, a farmer who is part of the blockchain enters the data of his product, and the sensors he has on his farm confirm the integrity of the same for the next person, like the truck driver who comes to get his crop. The driver will then enter the temperature data of the cart pen, any leaks that may have occurred along the way and the distance traveled to the point of distribution, and so on until the product reaches a point of sale.
Entering this data is as easy as accessing digital technology and accessing the same accounting. Inevitably, there is also a certain degree of trust, because there could always be a way to fudge data in one way or another, and this could cause some people to sigh. But the advantage of blockchain is actually much simpler than the technology in question: it really works on a principle of enlightened personal interest, because the more each of us is transparent, the better the way we all do. In fact, part of its beauty is its simplicity, for counter-intuitive that may seem to people who are just beginning to know it.
How can consumers obtain traceability information from a blockchain system?
One of the great advantages of blockchain is that it can be integrated into existing technologies, such as smart labels or apps that help consumers track and learn about their food. It's as easy as having a smartphone and getting more products with smart labels, and customers will be able to find out when their products really expire and where they come from. In addition, companies like mature.io are pushing for greater transparency and make their data readily available to consumers. Traceability is becoming a very popular currency in today's market, and this is due to the consumer.
How will this technology affect particularly the short supply chain systems? Is its use feasible in this sector?
Short supply chains are a truly fascinating aspect of the global food system because they are one of the strongest links between consumers and producers, but at the same time they are incredibly fragile. A bad harvest, a bad period of time or a negative consumer experience can really devastate a small producer, and it's not easy for them to bounce. Moreover, their costs are often much higher than large-scale producers, so they are often in competition with large-scale operations; people are likely to buy shares from a short supply chain because they feel connected to the plot as much as to the product itself.
Thinking of applying the blockchain to short food chains is a really interesting opportunity, because we not only tell the same story, but we can also show the integrity of the product to consumers through the data they record. Furthermore, the use of technology can help protect against some of these obstacles and actually lead to better and more reliable crops. Finally, by aligning manufacturers, distributors, sellers and consumers, blockchain can create a real community short of supply chains and strengthen the link between stakeholders through the information they share.
What are the key topics of the next edition of Seeds & Chips (Milan, Italy, from 6 to 9 May 2019) in terms of technological innovation in the food sector? And in particular in the short supply chain systems?
In fact the next edition will be very focused on the blockchain for food, because it is one of the most promising areas in the foodtech world and has implications for every point in the food chain. We are also witnessing a tremendous spike in the amount of interest and investment in the Ag Tech sector (precision farming, for example), and this will be a crucial part of the next summit. Small producers and short food supply chains are instrumental in the developing world, where the overwhelming majority of agriculture is based on small farms that support families and communities. If we want to make real incursions into the development of sustainable food systems, we must pay attention to these people and develop technologies that respond to their needs and the context in which they live. We are committed to focusing on food and Ag technology, particularly in Africa.
As with the previous edition, we will dedicate a significant part of our time to talk about conservation and sustainable water management. Water is the fundamental element, the piece on which everything else is developed. We want to continue to look for new ways to innovate in the water sector, while identifying young and talented individuals from around the world is thinking about this problem and bringing them together to share their ideas.
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