Depending on the source, it might refer to a new kind of money, a solution for supply chain traceability, a new class of decentralized network protocols, or a fast-growing technology domain.
Experienced developers and users generally think of blockchain technology in simple terms: they’re a new form of distributed database technology with a singular, unique property: immutability – a state that cannot be modified after it is created.
In technical terms, this means that once data, say an ingredient or certificate data, has been cryptographically ‘wrapped’ and added to a blockchain, it is impossible to erase the record of that addition without detection. This property of a blockchain is fundamentally different from a traditional database, where it is simple for authorized parties to change a record without leaving any trace of who altered it, when, or even what the original entry was. By design, blockchains preserve not only the current state of the data contained within, but also a complete history of every interaction with it.
Let’s take the most public example of blockchain, Bitcoin. This immutability is critical, as anyone is welcome to download the public blockchain and network protocols and begin verifying transactions. New users joining, years after the launch of Bitcoin, can be certain that the current entries are accurate because they can access the entire history of the chain, from the very first transactions, doing so using methods that cryptographically prove the authenticity of any entry.
This characteristic is often seen as the second core property of blockchains: the ability to trust the blockchain without having to rely on third parties to verify it. Because of the way it works, Bitcoin’s blockchain can be trusted to provide every user with an identical representation of its state, and every Bitcoin that’s ever been created can also be similarly trusted.
Here, then, is a crucial question: Can these core blockchain properties - immutability and trust – be leveraged to improve food safety and quality through the logging of audits, registration of certificates, and the tracing of food as it moves along the supply chain?
You didn’t misread. In and of itself, a blockchain provides little or no improvement over established supply chain data management solutions, because like any ledger or database technology, a blockchain cannot confirm the truth about external assets or events. It’s garbage in, garbage out.
Surprisingly, nearly every blockchain technology in the food safety or supply chain space swaps out existing, time-tested, highly-performing database solutions with fairly pedestrian, blockchain implementations. While we’ve not been a party to these implementations, we’ve heard participants often come away with less than favorable impressions of the impact and benefit that ‘blockchain’ could have on their food safety and supply chain processes.
Does this mean blockchains aren’t useful in food safety and supply chain?
No. We believe the proper deployment of blockchain technologies will fundamentally transform safety, transparency and trust in global food supply chains. To understand how, we must revert to first principles.
Ask a food industry professional what’s the most important thing they need to meet requirements for increased safety, reduced waste, and true farm-to-fork tracking and you’ll generally get the same answer: data. More data. Better data. Data from auditors, farms, product or lot tags, drivers, DNA scanners, shoppers – everyone and everything, wherever ingredients and food is purchased and consumed which is, well, pretty much everywhere.
This is not new; the industry has been collecting as much information as it can for years, and enterprise class IT solutions already store and mine that data for deeper insights. Storing and analyzing data – these things are not the problem. The problem is collecting data. More specifically, the problem is collecting accurate data.
The question isn’t whether a blockchain is a better way to store or trace supply chain data. It’s whether a blockchain is a better way to get supply chain data.
We think it is.
Consider this: The Bitcoin network operates around the clock, 24/7, consuming 32 Terawatts per year of electricity. That’s roughly equivalent to the entire energy usage of Denmark!
That entire electric bill is paid for by the Bitcoin network itself. That’s right – the internet now hosts a fully-decentralized application (many, in fact) that nobody owns, nobody controls, that’s growing at a prodigious rate and is able to organize and pay for its own compute, storage, and network requirements.
How is this possible? Because the true innovation of blockchain (and associated technologies such as consensus models) is the ability to organize and incentivize people and technology resources.
A properly-designed and deployed blockchain transforms the way every participant in the global food supply chain, from farmer to shopper, engages with and interacts with the food they grow, process, manufacture, sell, buy and consume.
We’re building that technology at greenfence.
As one of the longstanding partners of the Global Food Safety Conference, we have taken part in many groundbreaking conversations on food safety. We look forward to continuing these conversations and share our insights on blockchain at the upcoming GFSC 2018 in Tokyo.
Come talk to us in our booth and learn more in our Special Blockchain Session on Wednesday, March 7, at 8.15am.
This post was written and contributed by:
Blockchain Solutions Leader