How blockchain can help us have trust in the food we eat

Nish Kotecha and Noslen Suárez
August 3, 2020

Today’s food supply chains are global, connected and generally efficient, but the COVID-19 pandemic has shone a spotlight on areas of weakness. The urgent need for robust and resilient systems and processes has been brought sharply into focus, and the combined food industry, like so many other sectors, has an opportunity to “build back better” through the adoption of revolutionary technologies such as blockchain.

The problem

The food industry has long been beset by health and safety issues, given the complexity of its supply chains, and, unsurprisingly, the COVID-19 outbreak led to calls for urgent reforms. The food supply chains are complicated and generally characterised by long shipment distances and lengthy processing times, resulting in there being little trust in the process.

There are numerous participants involved in each step of the chain, including farmers, processors, manufacturers, quality control agencies, government agencies, logistics companies, distributors, retailers and so on and so forth. Each participant keeps information about the product and their part in the process inside their organisation, typically only passing on the most basic details. Furthermore, this information is usually stored on their own in-house server, which increases the chance of fraud or misinformation. Everyone in the supply chain relies on what they have been told by the party behind them in the chain and, despite current tracking systems, mistakes are still made.

As a result, traceability is critical for ensuring long-term trust in our critical food supply chains. But what if one link is out of action? How can the adjacent links build the bridge and keep the information and the supply chain moving?

The role of blockchain

The focus on cost efficiency throughout supply chains demands evidence-based delivery: every ingredient and process needs to be tracked to ensure that the final product can be verified and traced back to its core ingredients and processes. This not only ensures cost efficiency, but also that the final product is safe to consume.

Blockchain has the unique capability of being able to provide a secure environment where each of the participants in the network can add and submit their records related to their part of the process, which, once entered and verified, cannot be modified. The technology delivers full traceability and transparency by keeping track of who recorded what data and when, thereby providing a robust audit trail and enabling a food item’s journey to be monitored from farm to table in real-time.

This benefits both the farmers, who can prove the quality of their products and therefore increase their value in the marketplace, and the consumers, who are increasingly conscious about the provenance of their food. The hope is that this will eventually lead to sustainable farming practices and responsible consumption.

Blockchain in action in food supply chains

Around the world, there are already some good examples of blockchain implementation in the food industry. In the US, Cargill’s traceable turkeys programme allowed consumers to text a code to find out where their turkey had come from, see photos of the farm and read messages from the farmer. There has also been positive feedback from Walmart’s proof-of-concept projects with IBM’s Food Trust platform.

Companies like Finboot, which deliver sophisticated middleware solutions, offer enterprises the optimal way to engage with the technology. We have already seen success in the agricultural industry with Spain-based AgriTech start-up Fidesterra, which has recently integrated our middleware product MARCO into its platform in order to securely record all of its clients’ agricultural data.

Fidesterra’s CTO and Co-Founder Jesús Pavón has been extremely impressed by the technology, saying: “By using blockchain, we are able to empower farmers by securely recording all available data about their crops, from sources such as remote sensing tools, satellite and drone imagery, and IoT devices, so that they can verify their good practices. We are also looking to build an agricultural insurance system on blockchain technology, whereby key weather incidents and related payouts are drafted on smart contracts that are linked to mobile wallets. Then, in the case of a drought or flooding in the field, immediate pay-outs can be made to farmers.”

Looking forward

COVID-19 has highlighted the need for reliable and resilient digital infrastructure within businesses, and the agricultural and food processing industries are no exception. While there are admittedly some barriers to overcome with regards to blockchain adoption, such as integration with existing legacy systems and connectivity for suppliers with limited digital capability, these are by no means insurmountable. In fact, a recent survey by Deloitte saw increased positive thinking among enterprises around the usage of blockchain-based applications, and we expect this trend to continue as the abundant benefits become clear.

With sustainability now a top priority globally, consumers are demanding ever more accountability, and blockchain is the tool that will strengthen global food supply chains for the future, improve agricultural and food processing standards, and give us all true visibility over what we eat.