Want to know your food’s secrets? The blockchain knows.

By: Rachelle Dragani

Blockchain can track almost everything about your food.

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Supermarkets are packed with food, but also filled with questions. As more shoppers consider the ethical and environmental consequences of their product choices, they ask questions that can be hard to answer. Was this salmon really sustainably fished? Did the worker who picked this tomato receive a fair wage? Was this lettuce processed at a clean farm?

Many developers are now using blockchain to give consumers a complete history of their food sources. Contrary to popular belief, blockchain isn’t just for storing cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin. The security, efficiency, and transparency of the tracking platform is transforming industries far outside of cryptocurrency.

How does it work? A blockchain’s distributed ledger is stored across thousands or even millions of computer systems. When information is entered into a “block,” the network instantly attempts to verify the data. Once verified, that information is stored using cryptography, a timestamp and other methods to ensure that it can be shared, but not altered or deleted.

That inability to change or erase information is critical. For instance, a salmon fisherman in Alaska may have been hunting in an illegal area for years and lying about it. New blockchain platforms, such as one recently launched in partnership between the World Wildlife Fund and BCG Digital Ventures, can help pinpoint that location. A digital tag on the fish would alert the blockchain that the fish was caught illegally, and the blockchain consensus would refuse to verify a fisherman’s falsehood.

Consider another fishing scenario. A legally fished tuna is sold to a company that then ships it to buyers in Chile. The blockchain would digitally record every step of that journey from the Pacific northwest to Chile, with each step being a new “block” along the “chain.” So, it would be very difficult for a fish store owner in Santiago to enter information into the blockchain claiming the tuna was locally farmed.

New companies, such as London-based Provenance, are working to create apps where consumers can scan a code on a piece of clothing or a packaged tuna filet to learn exactly where the product originated.

In addition to improving accuracy, blockchain can drastically speed up the tracking process. Some grocery chains are already piloting programs to track products that have occasionally carried foodborne illnesses such as pork and lettuce. That ability is vital during an outbreak when faster contamination identification and logistics can save lives.

Current solutions like Verizon’s Critical Asset Tracking help address these issues for business owners using small sensors to follow food shipments. With near real-time data on everything from humidity levels to location, the sensors can trigger alerts if a shipment comes outside of a safe temperature range, is getting jostled around, or even tilts too far the wrong way.

All of that data and monitoring gives companies the information they need to help prevent the spread of foodborne illness and more efficiently manage their supply chain. In combination with blockchain technology, the two can give company execs and consumers a clear view into the steps along the supply chain.

Blockchain systems also help (legal) collaboration between competitors since they were designed to enable secure transactions between parties lacking trust.

“There is a growing need for companies now to collaborate for the benefit of customers,” said Rajat Rajbhandari, CEO and co-founder of dexFreight, a company implementing blockchain technology in the logistics and supply chain. “Companies are realizing they can do that on the blockchain, without having to expose their competitors to their internal system. They can choose what data they share and use this as a tool to come to a table and collaborate.”

An overhaul of the food supply chain won’t happen overnight. But blockchain has the potential to create a food future that is more safe and sustainable for both business and consumers, said John Monarch, CEO of ShipChain, a company working to bring visibility and trust to the global supply chain.

“Everyone wants to know where their food is from, or have more details and information about it today,” he said. “I think that with the power and trust of a blockchain tracking all of that, people will have much more confidence in their food. Waste will be reduced, and consumers will be safer and more empowered.”

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About the author(s): 

Rachelle Dragani is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn who regularly covers science, technology and innovation. Her work has appeared in TIME Magazine, Gizmodo, and Popular Mechanics.

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