The food supply chain is one of the most important sectors on our planet: it literally keeps us alive. Yet as the world reaps the benefits of digital transformation in other areas, such as social media, retail and the financial sector, it is time now to apply the technology at hand to radically improve how our food travels from farm to fork.
Author: Nitin Metri (European Head of SAP Analytics at Cognizant)
I believe we could all truly stand to benefit from having access to a complete, real-time overview of the food supply chain, down to the nittiest, grittiest, granular level of data. Whether it concerns the type of breed your steak comes from, the feed quality at the farms you source your beef or chicken from, how much fuel the ship is using to transport them all—you name it. If each step in the journey that our food makes from farm to fork is fully documented and accessible, the opportunities to improve the chain as a whole skyrocket. Yet as these things often go, the parties involved either still use paper to document their activities or disparate IT systems that hinder any impactful collaboration on relevant data.
Blockchain offers the opportunity to achieve this kind of collaboration in the food supply chain. At Cognizant, we’ve developed a working solution that offers the exciting prospect of becoming an overarching ‘standard’ solution for the food supply chain. Blockchain’s success is based on a combination of how it uses cryptography and what is called the ‘distributed ledger’. These two aspects are why blockchain allows cryptocurrency such as bitcoin to hold value and gain popularity. The distributed ledger is a way of storing data in a decentral way, which means you don’t need a central authority. Cryptography is used to keep any data (‘blocks’) entered into the system (or ‘chain’) secure and authentic. You can view the information, but if you don’t have the authority to change it, you can’t alter it.
From farm to fork: towards a blockchain-powered food supply
Our demo for a blockchain solution in the food supply chain focusses on animal husbandry. But the concept could easily be applied to other sectors. The solution, called Farm to Fork, makes each step in the journey from farm to table fully trackable and traceable for all those involved in the chain. Imagine a farmer has a batch of chickens. In the Farm to Fork application, the farmer records information about those chickens into his or her’s dedicated ‘block’ of the supply chain. This might include the breed of livestock such as chickens, the quality of the feed, data about the work environment, or other kinds of relevant information. All this data entry can be done with a simple smartphone. This makes the application accessible to even the smallest farmers.
After the farmer, the rest of the supply chain follows suit: processing, packaging and shipping all enter their data into their own block, then wholesale, then retail. The result is a chain of blocks with relevant, detailed information about the chickens’ journey along the food supply chain. Because it is based on blockchain, all those involved can read every block, but only the block owners can write or edit it. Now you have a wealth of granular data, available real-time and accessible to everyone in the chain if needed, ready to be analyzed and used to improve the flow of food supply.
The future of food is in our hands
What are the benefits of a blockchain-powered food supply chain? First of all, whatever is considered ‘relevant data’ to input into the solution will grow over time as the solution becomes integrated into the daily workflow. But we can already imagine some revolutionary applications. For example, the prevention of food-borne epidemics could be improved. With avian influenza, or bird flu, the standard reaction when a disease spreads is to ensure safety by destroying massive amounts of uncontaminated products and livestock. Yet detailed insight into the food supply chain might seriously contribute to isolating any issues earlier on. It could also lead to using smarter prevention measures. The result would be an enormous reduction of collateral damage in food waste, economic loss, and possibly human lives.
There are many ways to apply this kind of technology and here I’ve only scratched the surface of what’s possible. For example, as the infrastructure grows and more data points are added, blockchain can improve the flow of (perishable) goods, lowering the ecological footprint and economic costs. But on the other hand, it could also do much towards restoring the faith of consumers by offering them real-time insights that are relevant to ethical work environments and ecological information. Really, it’s up to us how we apply it, who gains access, and how we organize the technology. But if we do it right, blockchain can transform the way our food travels from farm to fork for the better.
Want to witness Farm to Fork in action? Come and see my demo of the blockchain-powered food supply chain at Connect to Innovate, Wednesday 3 October from 11:30 – 12:10 in Zaal 19.