The food blockchain can re­store trust

Irish Examiner - Farming - - TECHNOLOGY FOCUS - Stephen Cado­gan

Shop­pers in Car­refour su­per­mar­kets in France can scan a code on a pack­age of chicken, with their smart­phones, for in­for­ma­tion en­tered by farm­ers on where and how the chick­ens were raised and the meat was pro­cessed. They can trust the in­for­ma­tion, be­cause it is pro­tected by the same kind of blockchain tech­nol­ogy used for trans­ac­tions in cryp­tocur­ren­cies like bit­coin. Blockchain is de­scribed as a dig­i­tal ledger

In com­put­ing terms, it is a “dis­trib­uted gov­er­nance sys­tem through a peer-to-peer net­work that of­fers val­i­da­tion of trans­ac­tions in a de­cen­tralised way”, Car­refour orig­i­nally turned to blockchain tech­nol­ogy to trace the pro­duc­tion of chick­ens in France’s Au­vergne re­gion.

It plans to ex­pand its blockchain trace­abil­ity pro­gramme to eggs, cheese, milk, or­anges, toma­toes, salmon and ham­burg­ers, by the end of the year. It can be key to sat­is­fy­ing the in­creas­ing de­mand in so­ci­ety for greater in­for­ma­tion about food, which is partly due to an in­creas­ing risk of fraud (sell­ing un­qual­i­fied prod­uct with high-qual­ity la­bels or claims) and adul­ter­ation.

Blockchain tech­nol­ogy pro­vides a means to en­sure per­ma­nence of records, and po­ten­tially to fa­cil­i­tate shar­ing of data across a food pro­duc­tion chain. Fa­mous for its en­abling role in the cryp­tocur­rency boom, this tech­nol­ogy may yet have much wider ap­pli­ca­tion in the world of agri­cul­ture.

It may of­fer a bet­ter way of es­tab­lish­ing own­er­ship of land, which is a con­tro­ver­sial topic in coun­tries all over the world, lead­ing to sub­stan­tial con­flicts which can last for decades.

Ja­clyn Bolt is one of the ex­perts at Wa­genin­gen Uni­ver­sity & Re­search in the Nether­lands, which is a lead­ing author­ity on blockchain for agri­cul­ture.

She says: “Even reg­is­tra­tion through a cer­ti­fied author­ity does not al­ways guar­an­tee prop­erty rights. “A ti­tle deed should be clear and se­cure and handed over from owner to owner. “But this trans­ac­tion could be ham­pered by flawed pa­per­work, forged sig­na­tures, and bribed politi­cians. “Cre­at­ing an in­fra­struc­ture for land reg­istry on the blockchain could fix these prob­lems as trans­ac­tions re­lated to land own­er­ship would be­come pub­licly avail­able and ver­i­fi­able. “This would lower the trans­ac­tion costs and would in­crease ef­fi­ciency and reli­a­bil­ity.

“BenBen Ghana is an ex­am­ple of a plat­form cre­ated to cap­ture trans­ac­tions and ver­ify land own­er­ship data, en­abling smart con­tracts through the blockchain. In Ghana, land-records are pa­per based, which are eas­ily lost, de­stroyed or cor­rupted. The lack of trust in these records leads to long court cases and of­ten vi­o­lent dis­putes.

With­out trusted land records, fi­nan­cial in­sti­tu­tions are un­able to pro­vide loans, in­di­vid­u­als can­not prove own­er­ship, and land in­vest­ment stays stag­nant. BenBen is an in­ter­ac­tive map plat­form and con­sen­sus data­base that aims to tackle the in­ef­fi­cien­cies of land ad­min­is­tra­tion, to pro­mote in­vest­ment, re­duce poverty and en­cour­age trans­par­ent nat­u­ral-re­source man­age­ment. Ja­clyn Bolt at Wa­genin­gen Uni­ver­sity & Re­search also ex­plains how blockchains of­fer the pos­si­bil­ity for each link in the food chain to work on the same dig­i­tal in­fra­struc­ture for shar­ing data. “The data moves with the prod­uct through the value chain, to which each of the value chain play­ers has ac­cess. This would also of­fer new pos­si­bil­i­ties to in­clude cer­ti­fi­ca­tion or other la­belling in­for­ma­tion with the prod­uct, so that the con­sumer can see the steps the prod­uct has gone through till it reaches the shelf.”

She says: “One of the strong po­ten­tials for blockchain tech­nol­ogy is to es­tab­lish a cost ef­fec­tive re­ward sys­tem for ser­vices that might other­wise not be mon­e­tised.”

For ex­am­ple, so-called pub­lic goods pro­vided by farm­ers, she says. “Farm­ers could be mo­ti­vated to in­vest in field bor­ders with trees if nearby cit­i­zens can re­ward them in a cost-ef­fec­tive way through to­kens. “To­kens can be on­line mon­e­tary units that can be pro­grammed for spe­cific pur­poses. As they are on­line, they can be ac­cessed from any de­vice with in­ter­net ac­cess. “This cre­ates more direct pay­ments where ‘pay­ers’ could be as­sured that their spend­ing is dis­trib­uted to the right cause or per­son de­pend­ing on the setup of the pro­gram. To­kens can be used to pay, to re­ward or to cre­ate a new type of fund­ing.”

The blockchain tech­nol­ogy be­hind cryp­tocur­ren­cies such as bit­coin is be­ing used to pro­vide trusted food in­for­ma­tion for shop­pers, and blockchain may have nu­mer­ous other ap­pli­ca­tions in the world of agri­cul­ture.

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