Blockchain technology could transform the entire food industry, some bullish tech prospectors say, by increasing efficiency, transparency and collaboration throughout the food system.
Shippers could see if a truck is full before they schedule a delivery. Grocery stores could verify if a carton of eggs is actually cage-free. Or could they? As blockchain gets closer to its marketplace debut in the food system, it’s important to scrutinize just how the technology will actually work.
Blockchain was initially developed as part of the cryptocurrency Bitcoin, but the technology in the cryptocurrency context looks different from how it’s being developed for the food space. Bitcoin’s blockchain is an immutable digital ledger that works through a consensus of computer systems.
Computers on the Bitcoin blockchain are essentially racing to correctly solve a calculation, and when one “wins” the race, it wins a unit of cryptocurrency and a block of data is added to the chain. The huge numbers of computer systems on the Bitcoin blockchain are why there’s a huge energy cost associated with Bitcoin, a feature that would be detrimental in the agriculture space, where farmers needs to grow more and use less.
In the Walmart-IBM blockchain that made news this past week, the system is far more limited in scale. It’s only open to those in Walmart’s leafy green food supply chain, which will likely translate into hundreds of users, not tens of thousands. As a result, there are fewer digital additions to the data chain, which means fewer verification nodes and, most importantly, far less energy expended overall. The IBM system also isn’t trustless because its members are known to each other in the supply chain.
Blockchain is just a digital ledger, a digitized record of whatever data is added by its members, with no ability to verify the accuracy of the underlying data itself. Because the truth of that data isn’t actually evaluated, there’s no aspect of blockchain technology that can make sure that the cage-free egg is really cage-free or that the lettuce is actually free from contamination.
For Walmart, the technology will be used to tell stakeholders that a particular head of lettuce came from a particular harvest on a particular farm, so if a consumer gets sick, government investigators will have a head start on the investigation. Rather than chasing a paper trail for days, they can get to the source of a tainted head of lettuce within seconds, and that should mean less wasted produce, fewer sick people and more confidence in the food system.
Though blockchain is being touted as the technology that could potentially solve all of agriculture’s challenges, it’s not necessarily clear why blockchain is better than something like a database or any other form of digital information storage. Companies could simply build a database rather than build a blockchain, particularly as some of the original features of the Bitcoin version, like trustless verification, aren’t a feature.
It’s not entirely clear why blockchain is the best technology for the job of transforming the food industry, and it may not be. It may just be that it’s the one getting attention right now, particularly as technology experts look for ways to transfer their experience and make their mark in the burgeoning agritech sector.
Where blockchain starts to reach its potential is when it’s used with other technologies and systems. At the same time that the blockchain is implemented for food traceability, for example, producers can also put into place systems like enhanced water testing mechanisms or increase buffer zones between leafy green growers and livestock operations.
When used with sensors and precision delivery systems for pesticide and water all connected to a network, as with the Internet of Things, the blockchain can be used to gather a wealth of data and employ it in the field.
While blockchain can’t verify that an egg operation is truly cage-free or what that cage-free operation really looks like, it might offer a way for farmers to get more information to consumers. Farmers, particularly the ones who don’t sell their food to a farmer’s market or get an opportunity to interact with consumers, often struggle with how to engage with the public, looking for ways to explain how and why they grow food the way they do. Blockchain enables farmers to get data to consumers, but what if it could provide more context too? That’s the thing consumers really need to make informed decisions about their food.
Blockchain could be used to tell consumers that the corn was grown with herbicide, for example, but maybe someday there could be a mechanism for explaining why that herbicide is used, or a comparison of that herbicide to other weed prevention systems or removal methods. The complicated nature of agriculture doesn’t always translate so well to a smartphone app, but then again, that might be a challenge that’s too big for blockchain to solve anyway.