Expert opinion

"Irrefutable traceability data?"

The phrase “show me the money” might equivocate “show me the data” in some Canadian agriculture industry circles – at least, if predictions from proponents of blockchain technology are right.

Blockchain technology is, more or less, an electronic ledger that can span the entire supply chain of a product; all transactions involving that product are recorded; information entered is not alterable, thereby providing a secure means to record every transaction in a way that allows anyone with access to follow a product right from the place of origin.

Secure transactions for cryptocurrencies

The technology was famously created to provide secure transactions for cryptocurrencies (Bitcoin specifically), and has received notable attention from large food retailers – specifically the retail and grocery colossus Walmart.

Partly in response to issues tracing E. Coli tainted lettuce earlier in 2018, Walmart recently announced its intention to incorporate blockchain tech in the supply of certain fruits and vegetables. The idea being traceability issues would not happen if there was one clear, unalterable, metaphorical paper trail.

Overall, there appears to be a lot of interest in blockchain technology in this country. It’s been touted as a means to enforce and legitimize traceability standards.

Blockchain technology as a valuable export tool

Some commodity-specific groups see this type of technology as a valuable export tool. Representatives from the Ontario Corn Fed Beef brand organization and the management organization for identity protected soybean supply production – 2 examples of export-oriented commodities – have expressed interest in using blockchain tech to prove product authenticity.

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Display of fresh fruits in the Walmart Neighborhood Market in Panorama City, California. Walmart recently announced its intention to incorporate blockchain tech in the supply of certain fruits and vegetables. - Photo: ANP
Display of fresh fruits in the Walmart Neighborhood Market in Panorama City, California. Walmart recently announced its intention to incorporate blockchain tech in the supply of certain fruits and vegetables. - Photo: ANP

There have even been suggestions that blockchain tech could allow end consumers to tip farmers directly – yes, like in a restaurant – for products they liked, or allow for immediate payment when selling grain. Indeed, a grain-focused Ontario start-up is currently in the process of trying to make these specific ideas a reality.

While I’m personally unsure about the latter example, one can’t help but wonder if the former – vaguely reminiscent of Patreon in some respects – would actually happen to any significant degree.

More secure food business

Walmart’s notable efforts to better own supply chain traceability also raises some question, perhaps not dissimilar to those surrounding the company’s efforts of enforcing sustainability standards by investing in and controlling agricultural drones. Indeed, it seems both large companies and at least some commodity organizations have already connected blockchain technology with more secure food business.

Is there potential for those with blockchain data access to use that information in a way that might hurt farmers?

But where do individual farmers fit in? Like other data technologies, is there potential for those with blockchain data access to use that information in a way that might hurt farmers? Is there enough real on-farm value to make farmers enthusiastic adopters, or is it just another over-hyped sustainability technology for those further along the food value-chain?

Blockchain technology seems to fit

Of course, data traceability does have proven benefits, including when it comes to things like disease outbreak response or building buyer-seller relationships (notable cases of both can be found in Canada’s beef cattle industry, for example). Consequently, and as a Canadian consumer myself, any opportunity to further the effectiveness of food safety, export markets, and producer confidence is something I can get behind. Blockchain technology seems to fit – at least in theory.

Still, I can’t see my family or farm neighbours receiving unsolicited tips from end consumers anytime soon.

Also read: Digital solutions launched for feed producers

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