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Blockchain systems trace food security and origins

When a Chinese consumer buys a package labeled "Australian beef", it is only a 50% chance that the meat inside is, in fact, Australian beef. It could just as easily contain rat meat, dog, horse or camel – or a mixture of all. It is serious and dangerous, but also expensive.

Fraud in the global food industry is a multibillion dollar problem that has lasted for years, deceiving consumers and even falling ill. Food producers around the world are worried: as many as 39% of them are worried that their products could easily be counterfeited, and 40% say that food fraud is difficult to detect.

In the blockchain search for more than three years, I am convinced that the potential of this technology to prevent fraud and strengthen security could combat agricultural fraud and improve food security. Many companies are in agreement and are already conducting various tests, including wine-to-bottle wine monitoring and even the follow-up of individual coffee beans through international trade.

Trace the foods

A first experimentation of a blockchain system to trace the food from the farm to the consumer was in 2016, when Walmart collected information on the pig raised in China, where consumers are rightly skeptical about the vendors' statements about what their food is and Where does it come from. The employees of a pork production company have scanned images of farm inspection reports and livestock health certificates, filing them in a secure online database where the records could not be deleted or modified – only added.

Government inspectors examine treatment facilities for safe handling practices.
American Department of Agriculture

As the animals moved from farm to slaughter to processing, packaging and then to stores, drivers of freight trucks played a key role. At each stage, they collected documents detailing shipment, storage temperature, and other security inspections and reports, and official stamps, while the authorities controlled them, just as they normally did. In the Walmart test, however, drivers would have photographed those documents and uploaded them to the blockchain-based database. The company controlled the computers that run the database, but government agency systems could also be involved, to further ensure data integrity.

While the pig was being packaged for sale, a sticker was placed on each container that showed a code readable by the smartphone that connected to the disc of that meat on the blockchain. Consumers could scan the code directly in the store and make sure they were buying exactly what they thought they were. The latest advances in adhesive technology itself have made them more secure and resistant to counterfeiting.

Walmart has done similar tests on mangoes imported into the United States from Latin America. The company found that it took only 2.2 seconds for consumers to find the weight, variety, cultivation position, harvest time, the date it passed through US customs, when and where it was sliced , what was the cold mango structure he was kept in and how long he waited before being delivered to a store.

Prevent counterfeiting

In addition to following the origins of the products, blockchain systems help to ensure that the economic plonk is not sold in bottles promising expensive wines. Some counterfeiters put their hands on empty wine bottles with high quality labels, fill them with cheaper wine and collect fraudulent profits.

A secure database could help buyers identify if one of these wines is counterfeit.
Matt Pourney / Wikimedia Commons

In December 2016, the Maureen Downey wine expert presented a blockchain system that gives each bottle a unique digital identity that combines more than 90 pieces of data on its production, properties and storage history, including high resolution photographs and data from glass and cork. As the bottle passes from the cellar to distributors and retailers, the data is updated and can be easily controlled by warehouses, retailers and even auction houses.

More recently, the Downey system has been updated to combat even more sophisticated wine counterfeiters, who have decoded a wine storage system to extract wine without opening the bottle. The updated protection incorporates a small microchip above the top of a wine cap, so if someone removes the capsule shell or pierces the chip, it will be illegible.

Guarantee the subsistence wages

Consumers are concerned not only with contaminated or counterfeited food products. Many consumers say they prefer products that respect the environment and contribute to improving the living and working conditions of small farmers and workers. Intermediaries siphon much money. For example, in the $ 200 billion global coffee sector, only 10 percent remain in producing countries.

Global sales of products approved by Fairtrade, an important certifier of products that respect environmental and human rights concerns, reached $ 9.6 billion in 2017. But Fairtrade and other programs like this have not substantially improved the lives of poor people . A study of small farms that cultivated flowers, coffee and tea in Ethiopia and Uganda indicated that the areas dominated by fair trade producers paid lower wages than the larger, commercial and non-certified Fairtrade farms.

Each of these cherries is unique, ready for a 3D scan that helps determine quality.
P-Fotography / Shutterstock.com

Coda Coffee, based in Colorado, seeks to secure fair payments using a blockchain system to trace its coffee from African farms to US cafes. The system includes a camera that performs a three-dimensional scan of the outside fruit of each bean, called cherry, paying more farmers if they provide larger and more mature cherries and recording the amount paid in a blockchain database to allow consumers to inspect later.

The bean record is updated as it is processed, packaged, mixed with other beans, roasted and ground, allowing consumers to know who did what for the bean and how much they were paid. Wholesalers and coffee roasters can know where they come from and how they have been managed, and evaluate their taste, informing future purchase decisions.

These are far from the only examples: countless others around the world are underway.

Ensure data integrity

Blockchain systems are secure, but their data – like other databases – are as accurate as those entered. Scammers could try to forge certifications of organic processes or company inspections.

In addition, most food products in developing economies such as Africa and China are produced on very small farms that do not have access to technology or Internet connectivity. Blockchain systems can also be expensive, which is part of the reason why the first tests involved high-end beef, wine and coffee.

The research already underway promises to develop cheaper systems that are easier to use and reliable, both for farmers, for food processing plants and for customers.

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