Chances are that this isn’t your only tab open about blockchain. If it is, open at least two more.
IBM Food Trust is the first implementation of blockchain technology in the food industry. In fact, Food Plant Engineering sponsored a talk by Bob Wolpert, senior vice president of Golden State Foods, at the 2019 Food Automation and Manufacturing (FA&M) conference on how his company implemented the program.
(You can view Wolpert's presentation in full by following this link and selecting the "Transparency and Traceability" talk under the FA&M conference and expo.)
Understanding the initiative doesn’t require much of a technical background: improve farm-to-fork traceability using a distributive, cloud-based ledger at each stop along a food supply chain. However, without a proper understanding of the history of blockchain, we’re left with corporate jargon, as detractors rightly point out.
Blockchain: what is it, and where did it come from?
The concept of a “blockchain” precedes its initial implementation by more than a decade. In 1991, two cryptographers (Stuart Haber & W. Scott Stornetta) recognized that digital documents shared between individuals were highly susceptible to tampering. Unlike physical bookkeeping, it was not obvious whether changes were made to digitally stored documents, especially when verifying data such as intellectual property rights.
In order to preserve the authenticity of a digitally shared document, Haber & Stornetta proposed a method of timestamping that would render backdating impossible, while making all future changes clear to whomever accessed the file. Their prototype was refined in 2009 by Satoshi Nakamoto, an unknown cryptographer (or group of cryptographers), who first implemented blockchain technology to facilitate cryptocurrency exchange—specifically, bitcoin transactions.
Essentially, a simplified blockchain process looks something like this:
- A single user uploads structured data referred to as a “block” (e.g. relevant agricultural information, product transportation times, temperature records, audit records, etc. at a single point along the food supply chain). From a remote location, each individual uploads relevant data to a cloud-based system.
- A block is assigned an identification called a “hash,” a long string of unique text to differentiate it from the next block. For the food industry, hashes represent which facility appended data to the blockchain at any given time.
- Apart from the first block in a sequence, each block added thereafter has its own hash, and the hash of its predecessor. Since no block precedes the first one, it only contains its own hash. This plays a substantial role in counteracting any tampering.
- Whenever data is affixed to the blockchain, the new block is verified by all members to ensure no tampering has taken place. For verification of bitcoin transactions, every computer in a blockchain runs energy-intensive “proof-of-work” software to solve mathematical problems. According to IBM, Food Trust relies on Trust Anchors, “leading participants in the IBM Food Trust network,” to preserve the integrity of data uploaded to the blockchain.
The hashing algorithm Haber & Stornetta initially developed ensured that any change in a block (i.e. editing its data) would alter its hash. Since each block contains the hash of its predecessor, tampering with data results in invalidating all blocks that proceed the alteration. Ideally, no data should require change because the system is append-only. Thus, any change to a block’s data requires redoing the verification process for that tampered block and those that preecede it.
This correction process would be cumbersome for everyone involved in a blockchain because no individual has complete control over verifying blocks. Again, all participants in a single Food Trust blockchain, including Trust Anchors, are responsible for verifying data.
A substantial divide: “Blockchain for bitcoin” v. “blockchain for business”
IBM’s blockchain is a permission-based network, meaning only those involved in a Food Trust blockchain can view their data and others. Even then, each participant can act as a gatekeeper to determine who can view their uploads and how much of it.
On the other hand, barring the volatility of current cryptocurrencies, bitcoin miners are incentivized to verify transactions with a “reward” in cryptocurrency. These verifications involve high-powered computing. The Food Trust pilot conducted by Walmart and IBM relied on image uploads that captured certifications and safety audits, but verification—in this sense—was predicated on trustworthiness of the parties involved to upload truthful information.
Regulatory compliance ought to be enough incentive for each participant to upload valid and reliable information. Food safety is a consumer’s expectation as well as a demand, and your blockchain is only as strong as your weakest link. Of course, Food Trust presupposes that you’ve done the necessary vetting of suppliers prior to forming business relationships. Thus, seeking consent from business partners for a Food Trust pilot of your own reinforces transparency.
Doing better: building a contextual blockchain for business
A consumer app for Food Trust is still in development, so this presents an opportunity from processors to provide data necessary to educate consumers downstream. Think of consumer demands you’re currently facing and how the data appended to the blockchain would help them.
Food Trust prevents its participants from altering data after the fact, but to be useful as a tool to gain consumer confidence, a perceptive shift is needed to engage with transparency efforts beyond an internal standpoint: demand contextual data that is more than just a timestamp; pull for agricultural data such as animal and crop welfare; list SQF/BRC certifications and regulatory compliance information for each party involved that would convey accountability.
According to the 2018 IBM Annual Report, Food Trust helped Walmart cut down traceability on packaged mangoes from nearly one week to 2.2 seconds. Rest assured though that despite its promising future, Blockchain is not threatening enterprise resource planning software anytime soon. Until confidence in the program moves beyond its current pilot phase and the ilk of cryptocurrency, there isn’t any urgency in making a paradigm shift.
Business blockchains like Food Trust are still a benefit for processors to get a head start on traceability and safeguarding their product. We at Food Plant Engineering don’t know how exactly Food Trust will affect a wide range of processors, but its impact on the food industry so far is worth the attention.
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