Blockchain offers critical links to food security

By Jana Manolakos

Every year, one in eight Canadians – roughly four million people – gets sick from contaminated food. With shipments coming into the country from every corner of the world, it gets challenging to secure a safe supply of food in an increasingly complex process. 

For some, blockchain technology promises a failsafe. Blockchain is entering the mainstream among food suppliers looking to avert a contamination crisis, like the one that hit last November, when three major grocery chains – Loblaws, Sobeys and Metro – had to remove lettuce suspected of E. coli contamination. Another retailer, Walmart, took it one step further, asking its leafy green vegetable suppliers to join IBM’s blockchain-based food traceability initiative.

The previous year, Walmart worked on a blockchain platform introduced by tech giant IBM, along with a number of other companies, including Dole, Driscoll’s, Golden State Foods, Kroger, McCormick, McLane, Nestlé, Tyson Foods and Unilever, to digitize the food supply process and help offset potential cross-contamination, illness and waste. Walmart expects its fresh leafy green suppliers to trace their products back to farms in seconds – not days, as it currently stands. It’s something blockchain technology can deliver, so the company is encouraging its suppliers to join IBM’s Food Trust platform.

Just like its name suggests, blockchain links chunks of information together, uploaded to the Cloud by trusted members on a secure network. Every member of the chain can see changes made to blocks of data along any part of the chain. For example, it could be used to record the details of agri-food products moving from the farm all the way to the consumer, with entries made and verified at each step in the production chain. 

Evan Fraser, Director of the Arrell Food Institute at the University of Guelph and Canada Research Chair in Global Food Security, explains, “In essence, blockchain gives us the tools to track and verify almost anything we can imagine in complicated global food supply chains.” And this means consumers will know exactly what they’re eating, how it is produced and where it has come from, he says.

Fraser notes, “Regulators will be able to devise policies that reward food products that have low carbon emissions; public health officials will be able to track pathogens; and the industry will benefit by being able to develop niche products for specific markets.”

Unleashing the technology’s potential will make it faster for organizations of all sizes and in all industries to improve business processes. “Unlike any technology before it, blockchain is transforming the way like-minded organizations come together, and enable a new level of trust based on a single view of the truth,” says Marie Wieck, general manager of IBM Blockchain. 

Both in Canada and the United States, food recall processes have been criticized for slow response times across the supply chain. So in the case of the E. coli–contaminated lettuce, the vegetables’ provenance from seed to table would have been traced easily within seconds through the blockchain – by some estimates as quickly as 2.2 seconds, as compared to days and sometimes weeks.

In a letter to its suppliers, Walmart explained, “By quickly tracing leafy greens back to source during an outbreak using recent advances in new and emerging technologies, impacts to human health can be minimized, health officials can conduct rapid and more thorough root cause analysis to inform future prevention efforts, and the implication and associated losses of unaffected products that are inaccurately linked to an outbreak can be avoided.”

Walmart has given its suppliers until the end of this September to upload their data to the Food Trust network, promoting it as “a user-friendly, low-cost, blockchain-enabled traceability solution that meets our requirements and creates shared value for the entire leafy green farm to table continuum.” A tool kit and webinars are offered to suppliers to help them get up to speed.

Retailers like Walmart aren’t the only ones in the food industry who are jumping on blockchain technology. The University of Guelph has partnered with IBM Canada and industry groups such as SoyCanada and Grain Farmers of Ontario to look at ways of applying the system for expansion of export markets, where authentication is an important selling tool.  

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