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Food is vital to life — what we often don’t realize is that food, which provides our nourishment, can be harmful — harmful to people and harmful to the environment. Costs associated with foodborne illness alone range from $55 – 93 billion in just the United States, and that is after one-third of the food produced for human consumption is lost or wasted globally, either for safety reasons or because of simple logistics. Several companies and organizations are exploring ways to use shared, immutable ledger technology known as blockchain to “upgrade” our food system.
Current challenges of the food industry
“Old colanders never die; they just can’t take the strain anymore.”
Our food system is straining. Manual, paper-based processes, onerous administrative tasks, increasing regulatory requirements (such as the Food Safety Modernization Act), growing fines for violations and lack of visibility into food safety certificates and audit reports are just some of the challenges facing our food system today. Simply getting food from a grower to a consumer’s table involves multiple intermediaries: food suppliers, processors, brokers, retailers, logistics and regulators. Data sharing in this ecosystem is usually limited to groups that have direct contact, and no one has a complete, end-to-end view of the supply chain. Although our current system works, information is often incomplete, comes from multiple sources and is in different formats.
When an apple or pork chop finally makes it to your dinner table, you have no way of verifying its origins or packaging claims such as “organic” and “non-GMO.” You also have to hope that the food isn’t contaminated because food recalls often aren’t issued in a timely manner. And if there is a recall, you’ll probably end up throwing out unaffected foods along with contaminated ones. These issues have consumers clamoring for improved transparency in the food industry. They want to know where their food comes from, as well as how it is grown, harvested and transported. That’s a tall order to fill, but blockchain could help.
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Tracking food products with blockchain
“We were going to ship a truckload of food, but we found it just wasn’t palatable.”
Blockchain provides end-to-end traceability because the entire ecosystem shares a single, tamper-resistant ledger of information that can only be updated through consensus. Participants can view their section of the same information in a permissioned, trusted and scalable network. This enables ecosystem participants to exchange data and transact with trust, improving transparency and efficiency within the supply chain.
Since October 2016, IBM and Walmart have been working together on a pilot study to demonstrate the benefits of tracing food products on blockchain. In an annual investor meeting, it was revealed that the initial trial had produced “very encouraging” results. Frank Yiannas, VP of food safety for Walmart, demonstrated how he could find out tracking information using blockchain in 2.2 seconds — a process that took almost seven days using previous methods. This will help reduce response time when contaminated foods are discovered as well as make it possible to perform selective recalls. You can read my previous blog post to learn more.
Not only can traceability facilitated through blockchain improve food safety; it can also help to reduce fraud in the industry. Earlier this month, it was announced that 50 companies are working together to stop illegal tuna from coming to the market. This open-source collaborative effort will use tools such as blockchain technology and satellite tracking to monitor ocean resources.
Explore blockchain opportunities
“Butchers link sausage to make ends meat;” we use blockchain.
I’ve given just a few examples of blockchain technology as a solution to challenges that participants in the food industry ecosystem are dealing with. However, there are many potential uses of this technology, and the upcoming 61st Global Summit of the CGF: Global Learnings from Local Success will be a great chance to explore them. Held June 20 – 23 in Berlin, Germany, this industry-leading event will bring together representatives from 400+ CGF member organizations. Register now and then join IBM and Walmart at the event for their Special Session at either 9 AM or 11 AM on Wednesday, June 21. Looking forward to seeing you there!
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