Is blockchain and its associated ICOs just a fad? Many have made claims that blockchain will revolutionise things and make the world a better place. But how many actually live up to their promises? At the end of the day, blockchain is just a piece of technology. Like all technology, the application of it matters more than the technology.
Tracing your food
The key application of blockchain we see in food safety is food traceability. Digitising the supply chain, such that each actor in the food supply chain shares information and contribute to the same data pool. Consumers and retailers are able to track the source of their food in seconds. Such detailed information is beneficial in the event of a food pandemic. Making it easy to identify sources and to curb contamination quickly. It also allows retailers to better execute product recalls and consumers to take preventive action. At the moment, traceability only helps with the aftermath of food outbreaks. On the condition that the granularity of the product’s history is sufficient. Of course, over time, with large datasets, computers might be able to predictively identify problematic areas and flag them for enhanced testing.
Tracing poison does not make it safe to eat
It is important to note that, just because there is traceability, does not make the food itself safe. Indirectly, it might make producers more responsible and accountable, but one must realise that blockchain is just a digital ledger. There is no way to verify the underlying data. Producers who do not adhere to industry standards, but declare that they do on the digital ledger will continue to fly under the radar.
Tracing food from seed to harvest
Others have taken traceability to another level. Monitoring, not the just movement from harvest to the consumer, but from the day the pig was born. Capturing the type of feed that was used, the vital stats of the pig, the environment it was reared in till harvest. But the data is largely useless to the end consumer. Many do not even know the ideal cholesterol level, fat percentage and blood pressure for themselves, let alone that of a pig in rural China. For manufacturers and regulators, it might be useful for identifying anomalies and to proactively take preventive measures.
In short, food safety is currently being enhanced through traceability. But why blockchain? Shouldn’t a database suffice? After all, these initiatives are currently being enhanced by companies like Walmart, Alibaba. Can’t they just have a standard database, and create accounts for all of the parties involved? In my opinion, blockchain does have one key benefit over a traditional database. Assuming none of the entities has more than 50% control of the nodes, it makes data difficult to alter, making it difficult to cover up. Whether blockchain is the best remains to be seen, or it could just be a result of everyone calling themselves a blockchain expert.
It’s still a long road to getting everyone on board. At the moment, big players like Alibaba and Amazon are pushing for it. The other key driver of such an initiative will be the impact it will have to food prices. An extra scan event, the tracing network, the hardware, the effort, all cost money. The mass market will likely only tolerate a negligible price increase. After all, the regulators seem to be doing quite a good job to keep food safe for the general public. Perhaps we might see a separate food market segment of traceable food, just like the organic movement. In the end, it will only take off if the mass consumer market wants it and is willing to pay for it.