Blockchain Technologies Driving Transparency in Food Value Chains

Nicolas Heath
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The CEO of Walmart set a seemingly simple challenge to his supply chain team in 2016: find the exact origins of the mega-store’s mangoes that he had just placed on the boardroom table. The timer was set, and six days, 18 hours and 26 minutes later the supplying farm was located. He then attempted the same challenge with a packet of mangoes that had been linked up to the trial blockchain system they had set up. Through this new technology, the supplying farm was found in just over 2 seconds.

The blockchain system, which enables transactions to be connected through a decentralised online ledger shared between members, means that food value chains now have the potential to become completely transparent and instantly accessible. This transformative technology is attracting millions in investment funding from the food sector, including the likes of Nestlé and Unilever. In fact, a group of 10 global food leaders (Walmart, Nestlé and Unilever included) have recently announced a partnership with IBM to help drive progress and the uptake of blockchain in the food economy.

The potential benefits of this are clear, and every day new trials are proving the usefulness radical transparency can bring. The source of contaminated food stocks usually take weeks if not months to locate, implicating millions of pounds worth of good produce as a risk item in the meantime. Through the blockchain, the source and risk profile of any batch can be immediately and invariably tested; risk to customers can be alleviated and revenues protected in seconds. Then there are the untold benefits that total mapping of supply chains can bring to operational efficiency, and the possibility that the burdensome paper trail can finally become a thing of the past.

As a new technology, blockchain is exciting food industry professionals potentially more than any other that we have seen in decades. The risks of implementation are still being explored, and progress to a food system where the use of blockchain is standardised will be tantalisingly slow. However, if there is one technology that is well placed to transform the food industry in the next 10 years, blockchain will be it.