Blockchain in food safety

Why digital traceability can accelerate the aquacultural revolution

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fisheryAquaculture has been going through something of a revolution. It’s easy to forget that aquaculture is a relatively new industry, with the most established farms having gotten their start in only the late 20th century.

However, it’s a good thing they did. Seafood producers using acquaculture now account for more than half of all fish we eat worldwide. In addition to building up a new industry from scratch, aquaculture is now poised to help feed a hungry planet. With population growth on the rise and the amount of farmland staying fairly stagnant — arable land only increased from 9.7 up to 11 percent of total land area in the last 60 years — seafood is the answer to maintaining a sustainable food source.

Aquaculture can help alleviate the impact on ocean stocks, an issue highlighted by the UN Sustainability Goal 14: Life Below Water, and even presents an alternative to red meat production, lessening the impact on the land. Research suggests that fish farms emit only 2.2 kilograms of carbon dioxide for every kilogram of fish, less than half the carbon footprint of the most sustainable terrestrial proteins. Each kilogram of beef produces an average carbon footprint of 37 kilograms.

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So if eating more sustainably-produced fish can be good for our health and our planet, why aren’t we doing it? Juggling sustainable practices, local regulations and proof of quality through all parts of the seafood supply chain can be difficult, which for consumers can cast doubt on quality. Regulators, food processors, buyers, suppliers and customers all need a way to share accurate and trusted information about the fish with each other and, most importantly, with their customers. A digital traceability solution, like blockchain, can help solve all of these problems by creating an unalterable record of every detail about the fish — from the egg to the fishmonger’s case.

Regulation and fraud in aquaculture

Aquaculture is haunted by its reputation as an under-regulated industry. Consumers today are still wary of farm-raised seafood even as the industry booms, but not without just cause. Before aquaculture entered global awareness, regulation lagged and questionable practices such as overcrowding and the use of chemicals to keep their fish clean of parasites were prevalent.

Governments like Norway and Canada have since caught up and passed stricter guidelines for how farmed fish should be raised. While these increased regulations are good for the sustainability and reputability of the fish farming industry, enforcement remains a challenge, and farmers that not only follow but exceed these standards have no way to get credit for their work.

In addition to the shadow of poor regulation, fish is one of the most mislabeled foods. A study by Oceana, a marine conservation nonprofit, found that 20 percent of the fish they tested in the U.S. was mislabeled. Much of this mislabeling is concentrated on the most popular types of fish, from salmon to seabass to scallops.

This kind of mislabeling usually happens in the middle of the supply chain, where unscrupulous distributors dilute high-quality fish with lower quality product. This mislabeling creates a massive issue of mistrust amongst consumers who want to be sure that they are receiving fish of the quality that they pay for.

Traced to the source

Traceability solutions built on blockchain technology are able to assist in overcoming many of these challenges, and our new IBM Blockchain Transparent Supply network being implemented for the Norwegian seafood industry by Atea leads the way. This is a significant milestone for aquaculture as Norway is the major global exporter, shipping more than 2.7m tonnes of seafood in 2019, equating to 36 million meals consumed every day in more than 140 countries. IBM Blockchain technology, based upon The Linux Foundation’s Hyperledger Fabric, creates a permanent record of every entry that is entered into its ledger. By distributing the record-keeping functions of the ledger across several organizations, no individual has complete control over the data, which assures its trustability.

This means the regulators can issue licenses or record the results of inspections on the blockchain ledger in order to track critical information about fish farmers. Farm operators can use the same blockchain networks to record vital statistics about the fish they produce including where they are located, when and what the fish were fed, when the fish were born, when they were harvested and what was done to preserve them for transport. They can upload video and images of their farms, and even recipes, further enhancing consumer trust and strengthening their connection to the producer. And of course, this information can be seamlessly shared across an entire supply chain, allowing food processors, distributors, grocers to work together to improve their processes and reduce inefficiencies and waste.

A recent IBM global study highlighted that 71 percent of consumers indicated that traceability was important to them and were willing to pay a premium for brands that provide it. As customers learn that there are options to buy farmed fish that was raised sustainably and safely, they will want to see traceability solutions that provide proof that their fish meets those standards, which blockchain can provide using a consumer app.

The aquaculture industry has come a long way since the 1970s and are well on their way to making fish one of the most sustainable and safest food sources, particularly for protein. However, those advances only matter if everyone from regulators to customers can trust that they aren’t being misled. By embedding trust throughout the ecosystem, blockchain technology can help ensure a more sustainable food supply, both now and in the future.

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