By Gene Lin
The modern day food system is a massive web of global networks made to feed the world’s population. But as the food supply chain becomes more complex, it has also become harder to trace the origin of our daily meals, which has broad implications for food safety everywhere.
“When you think about the modern food system, there are big companies, big suppliers, big countries that have an Achilles’ Heel, and their Achilles’ Heel is traceability and transparency,” said Frank Yiannas, Vice President of Food Safety at Walmart, during an IBM conference in 2007.
When a certain food product is suspected to be dangerous to the public, countries tend to order an indiscriminate recall of the same types of products, regardless of their sources, to minimise the damage. The lack of traceability in the food system often results in a loss of industry-wide revenue and public confidence in food safety, according to Yiannas.
In response to this glaring problem, some have turned to blockchain to increase transparency in the food supply chain, allowing the public to examine each product’s source at unprecedented detail.
Blockchain technology is unusually suited to tackling the food traceability problem because it allows consumers to trace their food products without the need to rely on corporations to monitor the supply chain for them. Proponents of blockchain technology argue that an open, peer-to-peer record-keeping system makes the supply chain more transparent.
At a basic level, blockchain is a piece of computer programme installed on several computers. But unlike most programmes that run independently from each other, blockchain programmes constantly “talk” to each other, forming a network of computers running the same programme.
Blockchain programmes have three jobs:
- Write data into computers
- Ensure all data in each computer are synchronised at all times
- Ensure no data can be erased or modified once written into computer memory
The advantage of this programme design is that no person has total control over the entire network. If a computer in the network burns down, you still have several copies of the same data stored safely in other computers. If a bad actor tries to tamper with the data in one computer, that person’s computer is automatically kicked out of the network.
The disadvantage of this programme design is that it is only secure when the network stays decentralised. If the number of computers in a blockchain network decreases, or if a bad actor manages to gain control of a majority of the computers in the network, then the data stored in the blockchain might become less secure.
By using this public record-keeping system, every stakeholder can potentially verify information and processes involved in the food supply chain at every step of the way. From the farmers to the consumers, the trail of food products is transparent to all.
Decentralisation and Data Security
Today, several companies have been implementing the blockchain technology to enable food traceability. According to a 2019 report published by the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, companies have started using blockchain to trace products such as pesto, fisheries and lumber. However, each blockchain network may vary in strengths of data security, depending on its implementation method.
For instance, IBM Food Trust, one of the most prominent and ambitious blockchain projects today, aims to use blockchain to improve traceability in a wide range of food supply chains. In this project, IBM chooses to implement a type of blockchain where only certain computers that have been granted permission are allowed to join the network. This system design is easier to implement, but also less decentralised – meaning that those who rely on this blockchain must have a high degree of trust in the chosen parties running the computers.
On the other hand, groups like OriginTrail have opted to accomplish similar goals as IBM using Ethereum, one of the world’s largest open blockchains where anyone can join the network without permission. This system design is much more decentralised but also harder to implement, meaning that those who join the network must have a high degree of trust in the system’s ability to resist attack and stay decentralised.
“When we say blockchain, we are referring to public networks. If you use public blockchain, you essentially get the highest level of [data] integrity,” said Žiga Drev, founder and managing director at OriginTrail.
Despite ample promises of blockchain’s application in food traceability, experts generally agree that the technology has yet to mature due to bottleneck issues such as interoperability, data trustworthiness and incentive for producers to adopt these new technologies.
Interoperability – the ability to exchange data with another system – is considered to be very difficult between separate blockchain networks, since blockchains are by nature unable to modify their own data. This creates a problem since various players in the food industry have already started using different blockchains, making it harder to consolidate everyone’s data in the future.
Another issue with blockchain and food traceability technologies in general is data trustworthiness. Regardless of how data is stored in the food supply chain, there is still no definitive way to verify whether the data is truthful in the first place.
Moreover, it is difficult to create an incentive structure for small farmers to adopt a new food tracing technology, especially when doing so would incur additional costs to their farming operations.
“You have to talk about incentives: Incentives [for smallholder farmers] to participate in the ecosystem, otherwise how can the ecosystem have blockchain as a component?… These are some of the building blocks that need to be established before blockchain can really pick up,” said Gerard Sylvester, digital agriculture investment officer at the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations.
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