By: Venkat Maroju
The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has shown that food safety is not a local or national issue anymore. Unsafe practices in any corner of the world can have global repercussions. The question is while the threat has escalated due to rise in global trade; have tools to ensure food safety evolved too?
As per World Health Organization, almost one in 10 people – fall ill after eating contaminated food each year, resulting in 4,20,000 deaths. To manage an issue of this scale, we need interventions at every touchpoint in the food industry – from farm to retail. One way to monitor and control the issue is to look at it as a data problem. And, that’s where blockchain comes in.
Food safety and Data
Let me explain this. At every stage in the food value chain there is relevant data that needs to be tracked. In production, it can be the farm, the farmer, quality of seed, condition of soil, farmer trainings and certifications etc. In the supply chain, it is the details of logistics, condition and duration of storage and chain of custody. At the consumption end, the consumer needs tools to verify the origin and quality. It can be achieved through QR codes and smart labels etc.
The answer to managing, sharing and authenticating all this data is blockchain. Currently, food value chains even in developed economies are not adequately digitized and are extremely fragmented. By using blockchain, trust can be brought into disparate ecosystems and passed on to the consumer.
Transformation at business level
A food business works with multiple farmers and sourcing agents. Traditionally, keeping track meant working across legacy ERP systems, lot of paperwork, dedicated staff and a lot of trust based on personal relations. This has led to debates about quality, confusion about origin, food fraud and business loss due to returns. There is no way a business can have complete control over quality under such circumstances.
Blockchain enables a business to bring all these stakeholders on one platform, makes their data verifiable and tamperproof and alerts others if one player resorts to malpractice. In April and September of 2018, shrimp exports from India were rejected by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration due to the presence of the harmful bacteria salmonella and antibiotics. In 2019, we saw Walmart piloting a blockchain project for end-to-end traceability of shrimp sourced in Andhra Pradesh. They are not the only ones.
Nestlé and Carrefour are enabling end consumers to access safety data for Mousline purée in France using blockchain. Italy’s Spinosa launched Blockchain-certified Mozzarella. Australia is enabling Chinese buyers of its beef to view complete details of the meat via a blockchain platform BeefLedger. This is a trend that will only rise in a post pandemic world.
Transformation at an ecosystem level
Blockchain can dramatically improve transparency not just for businesses but government agencies and regulators too. The Telangana government is undertaking a project to bring PDS distributions onto a blockchain platform. Guangzhou in China has used blockchain to bring transparency to its food markets and enforce food safety. The platform covers 8,018 businesses across 90 agricultural markets. UK’s Food Standards Agency carried out two pilots on blockchain to bring transparency into beef and pork value chains.
World over, blockchain experiments are being carried on to bring visibility into complex and murky ecosystems. The goal is food safety but goes beyond – eliminate corruption, weed out malpractices and empower the farmer and the consumer.
Blockchain brings new opportunities for new businesses and food startups too. An organic startup trying to build a clientele in a crowded market with older players would have taken years to get a toehold and marketing expenses would have soared. These startups can now use traceability and blockchain as key differentiation, something that tells about their superior product or practices and makes a value proposition no customer can refuse.
From the initial days of hype when blockchain was seen as a cure all, it is now seen as a technology that can make definite and concrete improvements and transform the food world. It has moved from being a promise to a reality.
(The author is Chief Executive Officer at SourceTrace, a SaaS-based company that provides comprehensive solutions to manage all aspects of the agricultural value chain and the views expressed in this article are his own)