On Croutons and Bitcoin: How Blockchain Technology Could Save Your Caesar Salad

photo: AnuPrieto

As a salad-munching Bitcoin owner, I gotta admit the past couple of weeks have been trying, to say the least. Cryptocurrencies across the board have recently suffered breathtaking losses, while romaine lettuce has yet again been removed from store shelves in central and eastern Canada due to the second E.coli scare in less than a year. Chronic crypto skeptics have been falling all over themselves the past week to declare, yet again, that Bitcoin is dead. It’s most certainly not. But I really do have to wonder if we’re going to have to be saying our RIPs to that glorious American-Italian invention, the Caesar salad, in the very near future.

According to University of Guelph professor, Keith Warriner, a particularly virulent strain of E. coli known as O157 really loves to live on the Caesar salad’s star player, romaine lettuce, more than any either type of leafy green. That means that mass contamination can begin easily from just a bird or other animal casually coming into contact with one outdoor plant. And with global integration of food production, the contagion can easily spread thousands of miles at any point throughout shipping and processing operations. The romaine lettuce recall that happened this past summer was eventually traced to Arizona, but because of the possibility that the produce could have been used in many products across North America, thousands of pounds of likely safe produce, including pre-made salads and similar products, had to be disposed of. If O157 does prove to become a persistent problem, the romaine lettuce industry may well collapse, or we’ll have to become accustomed to constant recalls and increasing food waste.

Talking about Caesar salad and Bitcoin in the same sentence may seem nonsensical, but their futures are inevitably intertwined. Almost certainly, should the dish survive the bad PR it’s garnering through frequent recalls, we’ll be using some sort of cryptocurrency to purchase it within the next couple of years. And it’s Bitcoin’s underlying protocol, known as blockchain technology, that could guarantee we’ll be enjoying the garlicky, anchovy-soaked concoction well into the future.

Global Food Production in the 21st Century

The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that as the global population increases and the effects of climate change deepens, agricultural production will need to increase by 70% before 2050 if we are to adequately feed the world’s population. That means that agricultural techniques will need to develop more efficient and streamlined growing procedures, while our foodstuffs will become more globally integrated. So a small contamination that originates anywhere in the world could easily become a worldwide problem in a very short period of time. Current epidemiological practices could very well flounder when it comes to food safety if a new procedure is not adopted quickly.

Smart Contracts and Food Safety

AgTech companies around the globe are working hard to find ways to increase crop yields. Many are turning to IoT and AI technologies that can help farmers monitor and optimize growing conditions to head off possible problems. With the advent of blockchain technology, however, every step of the growing process can now be tracked. Not only does the protocol underlie the building blocks that make cryptocurrency, but it allows for the peer-to-peer execution of what’s called “smart contracts.” Unlike complex legal contracts that may need to be litigated in front of judges if they are not complied with, blockchain’s digital smart contracts are enforced by cryptographic code. The blockchain only allows payments to continue if certain conditions are met. So smart contracts can be programmed to hold crypto funds in escrow until certain conditions are met, and those funds are only released when the contract’s obligations are met. Importantly, because the blockchain is basically a large digital ledger, smart contract compliance means that food trace back becomes much easier as well.

Esssentially, blockchain technology makes every party in the food supply chain accountable. A Swiss- and California-based company called Pavocoin AG *allows farmers, procurers, and even consumers, to track food production from seed to growing conditions to delivery and storage. While Pavocoin’s primary target is farmers who can use the software to optimize growing conditions, the company’s IoT, AI, and blockchain capabilities will enable public health officials and customers to track exactly how a particular crop was cultivated, shipped, and handled. Their software will even track the working conditions for human labour. This latter capability will surely have an impact on child labour use, especially with crops like chocolate and palm oil.

Meanwhile, other companies like LaneAxis*, which has developed a patented blockchain software solution for the freight logistics industry, will play a crucial role in the safe handling and delivery of foodstuffs worldwide. In concert with a technology like Pavocoin’s, all of the shipping, handling, refrigeration levels, etc, can be tracked. So in the case of a food contamination outbreak, the culprit can be quickly and easily identified, which means that massive recalls could become a thing of the past.

Both of the companies I’ve mentioned here are targeting different markets, but together they create a kind of “curb-cut effect” that will have a massive positive impact on food safety the world over. The ugly reality of E. coli contamination is that the pathogen can only be killed by extreme heat — washing lettuce thoroughly won’t protect you. If you’re a Caesar salad lover, you’ll want to jump on board the blockchain bandwagon sooner than later so that you can continue to enjoy it without the fear of food-borne illness.

*Disclosure Statement: I hold Bitcoin and have received third-party remuneration for writing branded content for the companies mentioned in this article. I have received no payment for this article.