Russell Cann, Chief Customer Success Officer, discusses how blockchain technologies can help make secure traceability a reality in the agricultural industry.
More so than ever, members of the public are seeking answers about how their food was made. Were the ingredients grown using pesticides or was the product grown pesticide free in a greenhouse? Were any genetically modified materials used in the recipe? Was it packaged in a production plant where allergens such as peanuts are also processed? Was it locally grown or shipped across the country? Was it even grown in the USA?
Being able to store and access information of this sort is essential, but complex. Fortunately, blockchain and agriculture can work hand in hand to make this complex kind of traceability possible.
Inputs and Ingredients
A vast array of inputs are used in even the smallest produce-growing operation. Growers need to have a constant, real-time awareness of thousands of data points, including (to name but a few) ambient temperatures, humidity, moisture, and chemical concentrations in the soil and air.
Since almost every food item, no matter how processed it may be, is ultimately made from inputs grown or raised on a farm, the more information that everyone involved in the food supply chain—not only farmers, but also processing plants, distributors, and retailers—has about the inputs that they work with, the better informed people can be about what they eat. Was the tomato I just ate actually locally grown without pesticides?
However, the food sector, like many other industries where consumers are demanding an unprecedented level of transparency, faces a big challenge when it comes to gathering and sharing this information: the reliability and trustworthiness of the data. Labels alone mean little, since there is little to prevent, for instance, an unscrupulous actor from ordering a run of stickers bearing the word “organic” and affixing them to produce that does not meet any reasonable definition of that word. Or worse, buying from a grower that has a track record of e coli outbreaks.
There is therefore a need for an absolutely reliable security system that makes sure that all the claims made about a food item and its inputs are accurate and truthful.
How Blockchain Brings Traceability to Food Supply Chains
Blockchain is one of the most effective technologies that we have for guaranteeing traceability. When it is integrated into database systems, all the information that goes into the database is secure and irrefutable. Moreover, blockchain is designed to handle unimaginably large volumes of data. So when it comes to the challenge of providing comprehensive traceability in our food supply chains, blockchain and agriculture are the perfect match.
The volume of information that can be gathered and processed by a blockchain-backed system is almost infinitely large. When information on a particular seed planted by a given farmer is entered into the blockchain database, stakeholders in the food supply chain can track that seed to its planting in the greenhouse, through the growth cycle and the harvesting process, to the production plant, to the distributor, to the delivery truck, and to the grocery store.
Just as importantly, blockchain’s traceability solutions for the agriculture sector can easily be integrated into retrieval systems that let every stakeholder involved in the food supply, including consumers, access that secure and tamper-proof information.
The technology has developed to the point where, through using everyday consumer electronics such as smartphones or tablets, anyone can scan the QR code on, for instance, a tomato pack and find out everything that a person might conceivably want to know about how its contents were made—for example, when and where the tomato seeds were planted, which products were used to fertilize and nourish them, when the tomatoes of the plants they grew into were picked, who picked them, how long the tomatoes sat at a distribution center, when they were placed in the grocery store’s produce section, and how long consumers can expect them to stay fresh in their refrigerator.
How Traceability Can Save Lives and Livelihoods
It is easy to appreciate how using blockchain for food-supply traceability purposes could be critical to public safety and well-being if we imagine the scenario of an E. coli outbreak among American lettuce growers. If there is no secure traceability in the sector, as has been the case during the various E. coli outbreaks that have occurred in the past, the public becomes alarmed, and consumers stop buying lettuce for two or three months.
With blockchain tracking, it becomes possible to deal with the outbreak in a focused, level-headed way. By looking at the blockchain database, we can find out exactly where the lettuces grown by farms affected by the outbreak were sent—not only the lettuces that go to the grocery store, but any that have been used as ingredients at food-processing plants or have been mixed in with other produce items.
With that information, all the retailers and distributors holding the contaminated lettuce can be informed, and they can withdraw it from sale immediately. The need to panic is eliminated, and every other stakeholder in the food supply chain can continue to operate as usual. The disruption to consumers and to people whose livelihoods are tied to farming and food production will therefore be minimal.
The fact that blockchain can be used in this way might come as a surprise to many people. But how we use blockchain has evolved dramatically since the technology’s beginnings in the cryptocurrency sector. It is now a technology that can manage and guarantee any information that the functioning of society depends on.
When it comes to food safety and food supply, information—not to mention the ability to access it instantly and trust its accuracy—becomes important very fast. It might not seem important when everything is working correctly, but imagine, for example, what would happen if the United States were hit by another pandemic, or if the country became caught up in war, a terror attack or some other geopolitical threat. We would have to close our borders, and all of a sudden the what, how much, where and when of our food supply would become very important, very fast. In fact, virtually any event that disrupts the food supply chain, be it an economic crisis at home or a natural disaster overseas, will be much easier to navigate if blockchain underpins our food-production infrastructure.
Contact us to learn more about how Core Scientific is moving forward agriculture and blockchain with use cases focused on traceability and more.