Blockchain and food: silver bullet or just part of the process?

There has been a lot of talk about blockchain as a tool (platform?) that will help food systems to become more sustainable, transparent, accountable and many other things.  But on its own, blockchain is just a ledger, albeit one that is distributed and in theory cannot be altered.  But it is still a data in / data out mechanism at the end of the day.  Here are some thoughts on how blockchain solutions can really add value, what we should be wary of, and where they would need some "help".

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Ingredients

The good bit...

- it should be possible to verify that your beef does not have any horse in it.  Or that your honey has not been bulked out with sugary syrups.

Be wary of...

- who will police this?  This is a potential issue that we come back to often later on.  It does not mean that all information on a blockchain will be false, but we do need a verification mechanism.

Needs help with...

- making this information truly valuable will need some thought.  Yes, it is good to know your beef is beef not horse, but what are the truly dangerous things that we need to catch?  These are the bits that are really going to matter in the future.

Sourcing & supply chain

The good bit...

- transparency for sourcing and across the supply chain.  It can give you a map of what happened to your food, from farmer to delivery at point of sale, without lots of human hours to connect the dots.  Great potential for food safety as well.

Be wary about...

- what does this really mean to a consumer?  People get very excited about being able to prove food is "local" but that in itself is a pretty meaningless concept because it says nothing about the actual sustainability of the product.

Needs help with...

- augmented data from specialist analysis could add KPIs to this and show, for example, the environmental impacts of that product across the whole supply chain and what the key impacts across the supply chain really are.  In winter, should you buy tomatoes from spain or the UK, and why?  For those who lose sleep over this, the answer could be forthcoming!

Certification

The good bit...

- providing verification across the supply chain that certain criteria have been met.  Sustainable seafood is an obvious example.

Be wary about...

- it still needs policing in some way.  So audits will not become a thing of the past, because a verifiable system still needs verifying.  Most things can be faked unless you do some audits or have a system for catching the cheats.  How this will work is not yet clear.

Needs help with...

- certification schemes are only ever as good as the criteria behind them.  As we learn more about food sustainability, will certification schemes keep pace with research or will they remain based around "old knowledge"?  For example, organic certification is based around certain criteria, but increasingly research is suggesting that non-organic farming is, if done right, just as or more sustainable along different criteria.  The organic label, even on a blockchain, would not help us move forwards unless it evolved the criteria to reflect new knowledge.

Animal / human welfare

The good bit...

- proving that welfare standards are met, that all farm employees have proper contracts and a living wage etc.

Be wary about...

- as with everything else, it still needs policing.  Most things can be faked one way or another, so someone still needs to check things.

Needs help with...

- this is a very complex area, and we still need better definition of good welfare, for both animals and for people.

Environmental impacts

The good bit...

- sustainably-sourced products such as sustainable soy and so on.  This overlaps somewhat with certification points of course, and could make it much easier to differentiate between similar products based on whether they are meeting certain sustainability criteria.

Be wary of...

- whether a product has a positive or negative impact on the environment is more complex than just having a sustainable label attached to it.  For example, does chicken that has been fed "sustainable soy" have lower impacts than farmed salmon that has been fed insect-based feed?  With too many labels, how can foodservice procurement managers (let alone consumers) make sense of this?  Data needs to be meaningful and comparative.

Needs help with...

making sense of this!  For example, it is possible to give more accurate carbon footprint, land-use and biodiversity impact KPIs for products when production and supply chain data is exposed on a blockchain (assuming the above challenges around policing are met).  This evidence-based data will be more useful for making comparisons between and within food product categories.  But on its own a blockchain approach will not give you this.  (if you are interested in this, see IntoFood's new research project "Beyond Carbon" here).

So blockchain is no silver bullet, but it is a strong contender to increase transparency and, if combined with other research and data solutions, it can give us better indicators with which to make sustainable purchasing decisions.  If blockchain enthusiasts are willing to collaborate with other specialists, this could be a reality.  What we do with such knowledge remains to be seen.  Will this be a powerful tool for improvement or just more information that everyone ignores as cheaper, unsustainable consumerism wins the day?  Let's hope for the former!

IntoFood provides sustainability metrics and KPIs to foodservice businesses, via reporting on menus, sales and procurement, either as standalone reports or integrated with recipe, procurement and compliance systems.  We also provide online learning programs for your chefs and F&B managers in food sustainability, and run consultancy services for sustainability project implementation.  If you want to here more about ow we can help you to improve and prove your food sustainability credentials, please get in touch here.