Farm to Fork: Blockchain in the Food Ecosystem and IBM’s Food Trust Initiative

By Helen Zhang

Do you know where your food comes from?

In 2013, the infamous Horsegate, in which horse meat was discovered to be advertised as beef, shocked Britain and the rest of the world. Along with other instances such as corn-syrup honey, resin-infused eggs, and non-organic products being passed off as organic, fake food sheds light on the scope of food fraud and the lack of integrity in the modern food industry. It is evident that as food processes become more complex, the threats to food safety increase as well. In a deeper context, the current system is unable to share information in a transparent, immutable and trusted manner. Hence there is now an urgent need for end-to-end visibility and digitization of information that is indelible in the food system. Consumer confidence in food products is key. They want the ability to trace food back to its origin, and assurances that their food is safe, nutritious, and sustainably produced.

IBM’s Food Trust system addresses these problems through blockchain technology to connect participants through transparent, permanent and shared record of food information. Its goal is to efficiently and securely trace food, reduce waste, digitize records, and increase visibility during all steps of the food supply chain to ultimately establish trust and veracity in the ecosystem (1).

The main issue that Food Trust tackles is the lack of communication and traceability among actors in the food ecosystem. Evident from the horse meat scandal, the current fragmented nature of the supply chain indicates difficulties to trace food from farm to fork on a global scale. IBM Food Trust improves the food industry’s data-sharing continuum by involving every participant from the growing, harvesting, processing, packaging, transporting, holding, and selling of a food product. From the farm and the processing factories, to the logistics manager and retail stores, data such as remaining shelf-life and average dwell-time spent at each location highlight the potential risks and inefficiencies to stakeholders on an integrated platform.

Consequently, better communication improves food traceability and quality. The wealth of information helps minimize safety issues such as contamination and spread of food-borne illness, and mitigate unnecessary waste which could otherwise take weeks to determine. It speeds up the identification process. Clients can now trace from store back to the farm in 2.2 seconds, hence the power to trace beef back to cattle is placed at the customer’s fingertips. This improved traceability keeps all stakeholders accountable and responsible as customers become increasingly more aware and well-informed about their purchasing decisions.

Food Trust utilizes the distinct feature of blockchain — decentralization — to allow multiple participating members to share food details on a permissioned blockchain model. Each node on the blockchain is controlled by a separate entity, and all data is encrypted, thus promising that the data is inerasable and trusted. Data privacy and ownership are also taken into account in the development of Food Trust. The Hyperledger Fabric that Food Trust is built upon is fundamentally different from other forms of open source technologies such as Ethereum, which also allows smart contracts to be hosted on the network. However, in contrast to Ethereum’s permission-less network, where data stored on the ledger is accessible to all participants, Hyperledger Fabric’s refined permission-based feature accommodates companies with higher degrees of data privacy and flexibility. In doing so, transaction partners can only access the data they are permitted to view, thus ensuring organizations have full control over data access on the blockchain network.

With companies such as Walmart, Nestle and Carrefour being the early adopters, the industry is already recognizing the power of IBM Food Trust. In the broader scheme, Brigid McDermott, the vice president of IBM Food Trust explains that the program overcomes five critical barriers to the enterprise blockchain implementation (2):

· Building an ecosystem

· Creating a business model that adds value for all parties

· Implementing a governance structure for securing data and access rights

· Ensuring interoperability and standardization of different platform integration

· Building the system on battle-tested enterprise technology

Successful solutions would require interoperability in both business and technology, and cooperation with regulatory bodies. Food Trust’s framework was developed through working with industry leaders and regulators such as the FDA and GFSI (Global Food Safety Initiative) to ensure industry standards on sustainability, food safety and quality assurance. While Food Trust focuses on improving the food industry, it can serve as a model for other blockchain solutions to follow. In the world of fake news and fake food, food supply chain and management optimization is a weapon to combat such issues. In the end, integrity, visibility and transparency will be of the utmost importance in everything that we do and experience.