Food provenance and food safety are enormous concerns. Blockchain technology is seen by many industry experts as providing the answer to these concerns. That is because it creates a permanent public record of the provenance of the food in the supply chain – from farmer to fork.
That is great news for consumers concerned about where their food comes from and this technology can address their concerns around animal welfare, use of pesticides, farming methods, places of origin and manufacturing methods.
It is also good for food manufacturers who can be sure that what they are buying is exactly what it says on the label.
The World Health Organisation estimated in 2015 that almost 1 in 10 people fall ill every year from eating contaminated food, and 420 000 people die. So, for public health professionals blockchain means that, in the event of food-related public health issues, they are able to scrutinize the whole food supply chain, from farm to store, rapidly and accurately and hopefully save lives in the process.
The problem with modern food supply chains
To understand how blockchain might impact the food supply chain let’s look at the problems with existing supply chains.
Modern food supply chains can be long and complex. So, there are opportunities for human error, food fraud, and adulteration.
Various certifications and guarantees exist already that have been designed to reassure manufacturers and consumers about the provenance and safety of the food that they buy. However, existing regulatory systems rely on inspections by trusted third parties, records stored on computerized databases and paper-based systems, possibly located long distances from one another. These systems can add additional costs, can be subject to fraud and none of them are infallible.
How blockchain helps prove food provenance
Blockchain technology is more commonly associated with cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin. However, that same technology can be used to produce a trustworthy record of the entire supply chain, from farmers through to consumers. It introduces a previously impossible level of traceability and transparency into food supply chains.
Blockchain technology can provide this level of security because it is a distributed ledger system where multiple copies of the same database are stored across multiple computers. When transactions between parties take place these transactions are recorded in a way that is verifiable and permanent. While changes can be made, everyone involved in the blockchain must agree to those changes.
So, this technology creates secure and reliable records of the whole food supply chain. Consumers, retailers, manufacturers, and suppliers will be able to access this public information trail revealing each transaction in the supply chain.
Using blockchain technology in agriculture
Blockchain technology is a game changer in the agricultural industry where incidences of bacterial contamination, food fraud, and adulteration can be expensive and can have serious and long-lasting implications.
A number of companies are already demonstrating how blockchain technology can improve supply chain traceability and transparency.
San Francisco based Ripe.io uses blockchain technology to create secure and reliable product histories for a variety of foodstuffs.
AgriDigital is a Sydney, Australia based company that has created a blockchain enabled commodity management platform to revolutionize the supply of grain.
Beef Ledger is an Australian company using blockchain to prove beef provenance and safety for customers in Asia’s growing middle-class market.
Researchers from Russia’s Peter the Great St.Petersburg Polytechnic University have created a blockchain system that proves the provenance of dairy products to help prevent counterfeiting.
Walmart and 9 food companies including Unilever, Nestle, and Dole are collaborating with computing giant IBM on a project exploring how to apply blockchain technology to food supply chains.
Blockchain technology and public health
Locating the sources of food-borne illnesses such as Listeria, E.coli and Salmonella can be a time consuming and at times difficult process. One benefit of blockchain technology is that it enables the origin of contaminated food to be traced right back to the food producer. Furthermore, where a whole batch of food is contaminated, other contaminated items in that batch could also be rapidly located and removed from food stores.
Demand from consumers for more information about the origin of their food is only going to increase as the public concern grows about the quality and safety of the food that they eat.
Blockchain offers everyone involved in the food supply chain the opportunity to track the provenance of their food — from farmer to fork — perhaps by simply scanning a product’s barcode or QR code. For consumers, and food companies, this offers the reassurance that the food that they buy is exactly what it says on the label. For public health officials, it makes identifying and dealing with the sources of food-borne illnesses faster, and easier, than ever before.