A paradigm shift in food safety and produce management
by Amy Wu, THRIVE Editor
When romaine lettuce fields in Yuma, Arizona were struck with an E.Coli outbreak last spring the impact was significant and stark.
Over 150 people reportedly became ill in 29 states across the U.S., and supermarket shelves — typically stocked with prepared salad bowls and bagged lettuce mixed with romaine — went empty and were replaced by signs of apology to customers.
The outbreak was a financial hit to an industry critical to the state economy; leafy greens contribute some $2 billion in annual sales to Arizona where agribusiness is a $17 billion industry. What could have prevented this, growers asked?
Technologists and food industry experts are increasingly pointing to blockchain, a technology that uses cryptography to link information and also maintain a record of a transaction. Blockchain is often readily associated with finance and high-level government information but is now extending into agriculture where food companies and farms are beginning to adopt the technology to improve traceability and transparency in the supply chain for produce management.
Blockchain is steadily growing in the agriculture sector and will be a spotlight topic at the upcoming annual THRIVE Innovation Summit, and at the same time THRIVE will be reviewing leaders in this space as part of the annual THRIVE Top 50 report.
To be sure, the conversation over the opportunities of using blockchain in farming is gaining momentum.
Several weeks ago during Silicon Valley Forum’s Seeds for the Future immersion conference in Salinas, Mareese Keane, THRIVE Platform Director, led a panel discussion on the opportunities for blockchain in the fresh produce supply chain.
Deborah Magid director of software strategies at IBM Ventures, gave an overview of the technology and IBM’s Hyperledger — an open source platform for blockchain collaboration.
In 2017 IBM launched the IBM Food Trusta network of over 30 growers, retailers, wholesalers and manufacturers including Walmat, Kroger’s, Dole and Driscoll’s, that use IBM’s blockchain platform (Hyperledger) to address issues from food safety to fraud.
IBM’s first blockchain project was with Walmart where it started with a package of sliced mangos.
“What if there’s an outbreak, what if someone gets sick from one packet of sliced mangoes? So, the team ran a test, and the people in the company were able to determine where that package came from in 6 days, 18 hours and 26 minutes,” Magid said. “With the IBM Food Trust block chain, they were able to do it in 2.2 seconds and pinpoint exactly where it came from…So it’s been a very exciting year.”
The Food Trust Project was “experimental at the time and now it has gone commercial,” she added. To date, over 2 million food products have been digitized and reached retailers and a small number of customers are able to scan in foods with a QR code.
Driscoll’s Berries, one of the largest berry growers in the world and a THRIVE partner, joined the IBM Food Trust pilot so that they could be part of direction setting team for blockchain technology in the fresh produce world. The benefit of providing information to the blockchain is that they can receive insight into other parts of the supply chain which previously may not have been available, said Brendan Solan, Driscoll’s director of supply chain platforms, one of the forum’s panelists. Since all parties are aligned in their desire to bring the best product to the retail shelves, this is a synergistic endeavor, he added.
A growing number of agtech startups around the world are pegging their innovations to blockchain, and starting to see momentum building. The Turatti Group, a large agri-business company based in Italy and a THRIVE corporate partner, recently collaborated with Italy-based agtech startup EZ Lab to launch a blockchain platform that is able to trace the supply chain from “field to the supermarket shelf,” said Massimo Morbiato, CEO and founder of EZ Lab, also a THRIVE accelerator company from 2017.
Alessandro Turatti, President & CEO of Turatti, North America and a panelist on the blockchain panel at SV Forum panel, said EZ Lab and Turatti have integrated blockchain technology into the produce processing equipment that Turatti manufactures for leafy greens processing, grape washing and they are looking to expanding into medical cannabis processing. The blockchain technology can integrate certifications with time stamped processing data. This can significantly help the food producer to meet regulatory requirements and also provides transparent information on food processing to the wider supply chain.
Morbiato said: “Food safety topics are becoming central, consumers are rightly more and more concerned with this aspect, they ask for guarantees, they weigh their purchase choices.”
Challenges and opportunities
Blockchain is growing in the agriculture sector but it is still early in the game, growers concur.
While an ideal blockchain for fresh produce will have visibility from farm to form, Driscoll’s Solan said the challenging part is “actually getting the technology in the field, getting it to work reliably in the field and truly capture the information.” Big retailers want details on the genesis of the strawberries when they arrive in the store, which can prove difficult since Driscoll’s works with third-party growers too.
Solan continued: “They (retailers) want to know exactly where that came from, for every tray. That means, you have to put tech and field in order to do that.” Driscoll’s is now working with a vendor in finding solutions.
For now, IBM’s Magid said the focus will be on expanding IBM Food Trust’s network.
“It needs to have some critical mass, we need to digitize a lot more products,” she said.
Moreover, there is further understanding the needs of growers especially in Salinas Valley where many of the largest agriculture companies are based.
“There are so many steps along the way, this is why it’s complicated to keep the data in a format that everyone can understand, and, as I said before, not interfere with the jobs that all these people have,” she said, noting that she’s always on the lookout and keen to work with startups with innovations to shorten the supply chain.
Finally, there is an aspect of educating retailers, growers and consumers about what blockchain is and how it helps in the food system.
“In the scheme of things this is a relatively new technology,” Magid said. “It’s not really understood and it is overhyped in some cases, people need to feel comfortable and sometimes they need some help to do it. I think it’s a matter of maturity.” The IBM Food Trust is a long-term play, she added.
In a May column published in AgFunder, Remi Schmaltz is CEO of Decisive Farming, a Canadian precision ag software program for growers, forecasted that the fast-growing demand for organic foods will also drive need for blockchain.
“Blockchain is coming for agriculture in a big way. It will make it easier to track, manage, and transact in all kinds of agricultural assets, from crops, to inventory, to precision data. When blockchain comes, however, you might not even notice it,” Schmaltz wrote.
Success in many ways, Schmaltz insinuated, can be gauged by seamlessness and the reality that blockchain might someday soon be a necessity and backdrop farming across the board rather than a curiosity.