The world is talking about blockchain technology and how it could change the way we look at our supply chains. The fact that it enables users to track ownership records and is tamper-resistant makes blockchain ideal for the food industry. In fact, it can stop spoilage and ensure safety recalls, writes Elaine Shuang Qiu.


Food safety is of paramount importance for a healthy society and nowhere is it an absolute must than India. Most foodborne illnesses, in fact, go unreported in the country. Added to that is the fact that the country faces poor environmental sanitation, lack of safe water, and poor disease surveillance.

In these circumstances, the government of India introduced the Food Safety and Standards Act 2006 to overcome the deficiencies in the Prevention of Food Adulteration Act, 1954.

ibmblockchain

IBM Food Trust™ uses blockchain technology to create visibility and accountability in the food supply chain. It is the only network of its kind, connecting growers, processors, distributors, and retailers through a permissioned, permanent, and shared record of food system data.

The Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) was set up as an autonomous body under the Ministry of Health & Family Welfare. It was established under the Food Safety and Standards Act, 2006 which is a consolidating statute related to food safety and regulation in India and is responsible for protecting and promoting public health through the regulation and supervision of food safety.

For food to be totally safe, food traceability is of prime importance and this is where blockchain technology can be put to use. It is all the more necessary since food by its very nature is perishable and when foodborne diseases threaten public health, the first step is to track down the source of contamination through blockchain technology.

Today, despite the country’s leaps in IT and communication, tracing from farm to fork remains a time-consuming and ineffective issue primarily because a number of those involved continue to use paper. However, that will not be the case with blockchain since it ensures that each player along the food value chain would generate and securely share data points to create an accountable and traceable system. Vast data points with labels that clarify ownership can be recorded promptly without any alteration. As a result, the record of a food item’s journey, from farm to table, is available in real-time.

Other than food safety, blockchain technology has other advantages. It adds value to the current market by establishing a ledger in the network and balancing market pricing. The usual way of buying and selling only has the views of two sides – the buyer and the seller – and does not take into account what is going on in the market. With blockchain technology, any user can get a comprehensive picture along with supply and demand. According to experts, blockchain technology for trades could change the way commodity trading and hedging is done. Blockchain technology enables verified transactions to be securely shared with every player in the food supply chain, creating a marketplace with immense transparency.

However, blockchain in the food supply chain faces problems. And, it is these problems that raise doubts about the implementation of the technology in the food supply chain.

To begin with, the food supply chain involves the participation of a number of players: farmers, wholesalers, buyers, and distributors. Add to that the fact that a typical agricultural production site, that desiring to usher in blockchain technology would have to contend with a wide variety of products, storage methods, handling processes, etc. The process of data collection, therefore, has to be modified and changed to suit the requirements of the blockchain users.

One of the major concerns against the use of blockchain is data transparency. Even if farmers were to mention the use of pesticides, would such information help the distributor – especially among health-conscious buyers today? Also, any information about pesticides, etc might hamper the creation of a level playing field for all participants in the blockchain technology.

There are also doubts about blockchain handling large quantities of data, especially those related to trading. According to experts, very little attention has been paid to the blockchain application in trades. A report mentions that “we have been seeing the deployment of blockchain mainly from large organizations because they have the infrastructure – both technical systems and data already in place – to support the automation of processing data at a farm level”. However, “as one of the constraints of the blockchain, the structure and scales have to be carefully planned out as each transaction added to the blockchain would increase the size of the database. Either a smaller ledger (not every node can carry a full copy of the blockchain) or a more centralized control should be built in the network. As a result, large pilots are demanded by corporations to test the limits of blockchain technology before it even establishes”.

What is important to note is that over the last few years, blockchain technology has evolved and is easily available today for the food sector. There are a number of innovators like Bext360 that use IoT, blockchain, machine learning, and artificial intelligence to set up a fully-transparent food supply chain. Among the others are IBM Food Trust, ChainTrade, Farm2Kitchen, ripe.io, Arc-net, Avenues-GT, Owlchain, and TE-Food. All of them are working to counter the challenges mentioned and creating the next phase of blockchain application from different angles.

What then is the future when handicaps – for example, it is impossible to identify a precise point at which a product was contaminated and assessing the losses for the distributor can take weeks – exist? Perhaps, what is heartening to note is that major food companies, including Nestlé, Unilever, Walmart, Dole, Driscoll’s, Golden State Foods, Kroger, McCormick and Company, McLane Company and Tyson Foods, have integrated a blockchain to work on the traceability of perishable food products and prioritise the areas where technology could be useful.

The results these companies have got is worthwhile. Way back in 2016, Walmart did a study for the development of a blockchain for pork in China. In fact, it took the company only a few minutes to retrace the origin of their products instead of several days. The tracked data included information on the products’ origin, their batch number, the factory which these came from, the processing methods as well as the expiration date, temperature during storage, and even distribution details.

With such advantages, Indian farm producers and food processing companies need to seriously take a look at ushering in the blockchain. Once implemented, it will help the economy and the well-being of the Indian consumer.