Everyone close to the tech sphere has been hearing the term “blockchain” for a couple of years now—and many shrug it off as a subject most interesting to serious techies and cryptocurrency evangelists. Yet the reason blockchain has cultivated such an ardent following is the same reason it may prove useful to the food-production sector: This is a technology built to maximize transparency and traceability, and that could prove enormously useful in an industry where sourcing is sometimes a matter of life and death.
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IBM is betting the technology can make a serious difference to the way food companies keep track of their products and sourcing. In early October, after 18 months in testing, IBM announced the general availability of its IBM Food Trust solution on the IBM Blockchain Platform. The company believes this blockchain-based cloud network can decrease the time it takes for participating retailers, suppliers, growers, and food industry providers to trace sourcing while using indelible records to maintain transparency.
“IBM Food Trust is an example of how IBM is using blockchain to solve business problems that have previously been unsolvable,” explains a representative of IBM, “due to the inability of organizations to share information in a trusted manner. This solution allows members of the food ecosystem to collaboratively address fundamental business issues that have prevented sharing of critical data in an effort to transform the food industry.”
Blockchain is like a spreadsheet replicated on many computers at once that’s constantly updating itself against the cloud, so any change to its contents by any computer (and the source of that change) gets noted permanently in its record. In effect, it can offer users the ability to see a tamper-proof history of everything that has taken place with a particular file.
With IBM Food Trust, it uses a decentralized model to allow multiple participating members of the food supply chain to share food origin details, processing data, and shipping information on a permissioned blockchain network. Each node on the blockchain is controlled by a separate entity, and all data on the blockchain is encrypted. The decentralized features of the network enable all parties to work together to make certain that the data is trusted. The network also includes compatibility with the GS1 standard to ensure interoperability for traceability systems.
The most prominent discussions about blockchain are related to cryptocurrency, since blockchain allows holders of cryptocurrency to hold a trustworthy record of everything that has ever happened to the piece of currency they own. Yet in food safety, blockchain may be even more valuable, as it allows companies the ability to access an unbroken sourcing record for all products—and very quickly. In the instance of a product recall, the time saved by increased efficiency like this may even be measured in lives saved.
“Traditionally, documentation in the food supply chain has been largely manual,” notes the IBM representative. “By automating the recording of transactions via the blockchain, an entire network of trading partners has access to critical data in near real-time. For example, Walmart conducted a test in which they traced a package of sliced mangoes from the store shelf back to the farm. Using traditional methods, this trace took more than six days. When done using IBM Food Trust, the solution was able to identify the exact source of the fruit in 2.2 seconds. This can be the difference between life and death and major financial losses in the case of a recall due to contamination.”
While blockchain’s future is not guaranteed, as technology insiders continue to wonder whether there’s a business application to the technology, there are plenty of companies that are already onboard. French hypermarket multinational Carrefour signed on to deploy IBM Food Trust across its 12,000 stores in 33 countries. Other major companies have followed suit, including giant Illinois group-purchasing organization TopCo Associates and WalMart, which will apply the technology to its leafy-greens sourcing.