Technology Solutions

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.

What the future might hold: Food service in 2025?

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In a staff restaurant, somewhere near here, 2025...

Wednesday morning 8.30am, April 30th.  Weather: cloudy and cold.

Executive chef Maria checks the app for meals ordered, showing how many guests are due to eat lunch today, and who has pre-ordered the hot main dishes, salads and take-away.  Her team uses this to plan the production for the day, combined with historical data showing them how much food from the salad bar and deli station is normally eaten on a cloudy day in April, the average portion size per guest, and how much is normally wasted. 

The hot main dishes are designed to provide 30% of the daily recommended volumes of all key nutrients, and stay within the suggested carbon, water and resource-use budget per person.  They do not always stick to these limits, because not all guests like the same thing, and Maria and her team have license to create their own menu plans as long as it keeps them within reasonable boundaries.   They also receive the allergy and nutritional alerts for the guests who have specific dietary requirements, so they can ensure every guest has a good lunch option.

By developing food concepts that are optimised for health and environment, and by minimising waste, Maria has been able to cut environmental impacts by 40% in the last 2 years, without having to make drastic changes to the way she runs the kitchen.  She just has better information, especially now that guests can provide accurate feedback on the lunch app.  Back in the old days, she never really knew which dishes were most popular, so there was always a bit of guesswork as to whether new dishes would fly or not.  Maria can now predict pretty accurately which new ideas will be popular by looking at the guest satisfaction history.  If you're going to try a new dish, fail early and fail gently.

She is even trialing RoboSoup, the first product designed for large scale catering that takes data from their stock control and creates soup recipes that will use up any food at risk of going out of date.  The soups are pretty good too, and this could be extended to the salad bar and delis soon, as well as providing take-away suggestions.  The "food to go" trend of 2018 & 2019 didn't really last, but the remnants of it can be seen in the small but regular number of guests who want their lunch to take-away.

Wednesday morning 9.30am

In his office, Ed receives an alert on the lunch app asking him if he would like to choose his lunch for tomorrow.  He doesn't always choose, because sometimes he needs to be elsewhere at short notice, but because he has joined the company's Green & Mean cycling group, he has signed up to get recommendations for the healthiest and most "planet smart" choices for each day.  To be honest, Ed's not too sure what all the different metrics are, but the gizmo that shows him which dishes will give him the biggest nutrient bang for its environmental buck does the job.

Wednesday lunch

Ed gets an alert showing 30 seconds queuing time for lunch, so head downstairs to the restaurant, scans his smart phone and collects his lunch.  After lunch he swipes right for sweet potato curry, but swipes left for the root vegetable panna cotta, and later that afternoon Maria gets all of the feedback on her phone for that day's service.  She was right, the root vegetable panna cotta was a step too far.

Wednesday 2pm

 Maria needs to make her food order for next week and she still does most of her ordering for twice weekly deliveries.  The really fresh produce from the indoor salad gardens can be delivered every day by drone, but she only uses this for the ultra perishable produce and at certain times of year when the ordering system shows her it will be a better choice.  For everything else she gets recommendations based on previous orders, the time of year, best price options, and which producers have updated their sustainability data.  Apparently this is all provided on the Foodchain, which is a bit like the system they used for bitcoin before the crash but it deals with food not money.  Maria doesn't really care how it works as long as it helps her make good ordering decisions from the different suppliers she uses.  She knows really talented chefs who still have their recipes in their heads so that they can be creative every day, but even they use the Foodchain for making purchasing decisions because it can all be done on their smart phones.

Because it is also the end of the month, she gets her sustainability report for the food they have bought, sold, and wasted for April.  Good news; she is 8% better than March for total procurement, with 99.2% production effectiveness.  Guest food waste is down to 10g per guest as well.  Her food costs are within budget, the nutritional quality of food served in April is within the recommended ranges, and they only used 80% of their carbon, water and resource budget.  Still, she's done her six hour day, so anything else can wait until tomorrow.

 

In an office in oslo, 5th january 2018...

You may not think all of the things that happened above are (a) on the cards or (b) will be used by everyone, but the reality is that by combining better information with human talent, we can create a food service industry that is a cause for good in ways that are measurable and evidence-based.  And in fact the underlying technology for a lot of the things I described are in some shape or form already here, or at least not that far away.  The question is, how far down the road are you and how far do you want to go?  I know caterers who get accurate daily waste reports, who know the environmental impacts of their recipes (at least on some metrics), and most caterers have "level 1" nutritional and allergy data.  Guest feedback systems exist, and we are learning more about communicating healthy and sustainable diets every day.  Indoor food production systems are all the rage in the urban agriculture world and drone delivery is not that far away.  Caterers can already get monthly and quarterly data showing their sustainability across multiple dimensions (clients of IntoFood can at any rate), and a "blockchain for food" has been successfully tested for food safety.  The gaps are only really in some data areas, scale, and software integration.  Seven years to get there, so who'd bet against it?

PS - with apologies to fans of root vegetables and panna cotta, and soup gurus the world over.

PPS - I checked, 30th April 2025 will be a Wednesday.

3 tech trends that can help food service to become more sustainable and profitable

Tech and food sustainability: the right data in the right place at the right time

Food systems contribute around 30% of man-made greenhouse gas emissions, are responsible for 70% of water consumption, cause deforestation and both terrestrial and marine biodiversity loss, and yet about a third of the food that we produce is never actually eaten.  Added to that, food demand is predicted to increase globally by a further 50% before 2050.  I think we can call that an unsustainable system.

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Food service businesses can take a leading role here, and that is where technology and data can help.  Smart systems can allow customers and food service providers to understand their impacts in terms of menus, waste, procurement and sales.  This can give businesses insights that go beyond profit and loss and allow sustainability to be built into business processes.  The key is to have the right data in the right place at the right time, so that people can make decisions from a triple bottom-line perspective: environment, health and economy.  How, for example, can a restaurant serve meals that minimise environmental impacts, optimise nutrition, and are still profitable?  And still delight their guests?

Here are 3 trends I see helping to drive sustainable food service:

1.       Sustainability data in kitchens.  Understanding the impacts of your recipes, your production, your waste.  And joining it all up so you can really aim for sustainability.  Companies like Winnow Solutions (www.winnowsolutions.com) are nailing the waste issue, and my own company IntoFood (www.intofood.no) is tackling some of this from a recipe and procurement angle.

2.       Sustainability reporting that is data-driven and research-based.  Integrated reporting can apply sustainability to standard KPIs (revenue, sales, costs and so on).  This allows food service businesses to understand how their food concepts are performing from a business perspective as well as a sustainability perspective, and adds value in a number of ways.  Firstly, unless you are measuring your sustainability, you cannot really communicate it and, in the future, your brand is going to be tied more and more to your sustainability.  It also allows businesses to identify which sites are high performers for both the financial and environmental bottom line, and then build best practices across the business.

3.       Communication with customers.  We are only really dipping our toes in sustainability communication, but new apps and platforms are coming to the fore where customers can make sustainable choices.  Customer-facing portals will allow guests to understand more about their food choices and, when applied to a pre-ordering solution, restaurants can encourage guests to make sustainable choices and simultaneously benefit from pre-sales information.  This helps front of house to manage bookings and helps the kitchens to plan their production better.  Customer feedback can then help to develop menu plans that move continually in a more sustainable direction. 

Which all then looks a bit like this (if tech folk ran restaurants!) :

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The hunger for sustainable solutions seems to be growing in both the industry and with consumers, so it is key that both research and technology come together to create credible solutions.  Many of these solutions exist in some shape or form, but they are not yet very well integrated.  It is this integration that will give the full picture.