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Do you really know where the food on your plate or the beverage in your glass came from? Probably not. And checking the label may not help.

Blockchain technology can help ensure the provenance — not to mention the safety — of the food you eat and the wine you drink. It can do this, as it does for other products, by providing traceability across the supply chain.

Just this month, Carrefour, Europe’s largest retailer, announced it would use blockchain to enable shoppers in France to trace where certain food products are sourced, according to Reuters. Carrefour currently uses blockchain technology to trace the production of free-range chicken in parts of France, but it plans to expand to honey, eggs, cheese, milk, oranges, tomatoes, salmon, and hamburgers by the end of 2018.

Such an approach makes sense: There’s a lot of room for error — or malice — in food labeling and distribution. Consider this bit of insight from shipping giant Maersk: One shipment of refrigerated goods from East Africa to Europe can pass through roughly 30 entities, with more than 200 interactions among them. All sorts of things can happen.

Now, when we talk about food and drink, the first concern is safety. Opening a bottle of fake extra virgin olive oil can be frustrating, but salmonella can kill you. So let’s start there.

As we’ve mentioned before, IBM is partnering with Dole, Nestlé, Tyson Foods, Walmart and others to determine how the global supply chain can benefit from blockchain. The first initiative: Reduce the time it takes to pinpoint and eradicate the source of food-borne illness.

Many food safety issues could be avoided with proper data, supply chain transparency and traceability. Currently, it can take weeks — sometimes months — to identify the source of contamination, or the point at which a product became contaminated. Worldwide, one-in-ten people fall ill, and roughly 420,000 die annually, due to contaminated food, according to the World Health Organization.

But safety is just the beginning.

“De-Risking” the Agriculture Supply Chain

"Without understanding the impacts of goods and services, we buy into systems that deplete natural resources, worsen environmental and social problems and endanger humans and ecosystems. Supply chains are conventionally held secret, limiting the stakeholders who can prevent environmental, social and health and safety problems." — Leonardo Bonanni, founder and CEO of the supply chain transparency website, Sourcemap.

S&P Global Platts, in a 2017 blog post, relates what may be the origin story of blockchain for agriculture. On Dec. 8, 2016, Australian wheat grower David Whillock delivered 23.46 metric tons to Fletcher International Exports in New South Wales. The deal was executed via a smart contract by AgriDigital. The smart contract automatically valued the delivery, verified the buyer had adequate funds, held the funds in the grower’s name (pending delivery), and released the payment upon delivery.

Emma Weston, co-founder and CEO of Full Profile, which owns and operates AgriDigital, explained the benefits to S&P Global Platts. “De-risking the agri-supply chain through real-time settlement of physical commodity transactions has broad benefits for all participants by increasing efficiency, trust and security. For growers, blockchain technology provides enormous benefits by providing fast and secure payment,” she explains. “Finally, the entire agri-supply chain will have access to verified data on each commodity, meaning consumers can trust where their food comes from.”

And that is precisely what consumers want, according to the 2016 Label Insight Food Revolution Study. Only 12 percent of consumers say brands are their most trusted resource for information about what’s in their food; 94 percent of consumers say it’s important to them that the brands and manufacturers are transparent about what is in their food and how it is made.

Blockchain Provides Radical Transparency

When it comes to agriculture, blockchain supply chains have huge potential in three key areas, according to various experts.

  1. Provenance and radical transparency
  2. Mobile payments, credits and decreased transaction fees
  3. Real-time management of supply-chain transactions

We’ll focus on the first.

Consumers are clamoring for clean, “farm-to-table food,” but how do you verify the accuracy of data from farm to table? One solution is made possible with the increasing popularity of  blockchain technology.

And “clean” has implications beyond the food itself.

“Currently, there’s no easy, accurate and efficient way for manufacturers to know about issues like slave labor and pollution, or to identify the exact origin of a commodity. Yet consumers, especially within niche markets like organic food, are increasingly willing to pay for products that provide this information,” Weston explains.

Adulteration is an Area Ripe for Blockchain

The Grocery Manufacturers Association estimates that food fraud costs consumers up to $15 billion annually. Overall, about 10 percent of commercial food is affected. Among the most commonly tarnished foods are milk, olive oil, honey, organics, fish and seafood, coffee, tea, grain-based foods, and spices. This adulteration occurs in a number of ways, but most involve replacement (substitution), addition or removal.

Take, for example, olive oil. In case you’ve missed all the headlines, you might be surprised to find out that 80 percent of the olive oil in the United States is fake. Edible oils are relatively easy to distort, hence the reason they comprise roughly 26.5 percent of all documented fraud cases in the USP Food Fraud Database, according to the consulting firm Gro Intelligence’s insights.

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Wine and Blockchain: A Most Excellent Pairing

“Blockchain will be coming for the wine industry and will change it radically.” — wine economist and expert Paul Howard

Understanding the provenance of your wine is more than knowing the bottle labeled “Champagne” actually came from the French region and not, say, Napa. (Yes, they can call it “Champagne,” much to the chagrin of the French and those who know the difference.)

Let’s start with the wine investors, who spend millions every year. Even they are duped. “Verifying the origin of the wine, its storage, and the credentials of the owner/seller are fraught with difficulty. Scams are commonplace and occasionally headline news. Even experts can be wrong,” Howard writes in Wine Alchemy. And for the connoisseur, it’s not just where the wine is from, but how and where it’s been stored. By combining IoT sensors and blockchain, we could create a supply chain to verify wine’s authenticity.

The average wine drinker also benefits from verifying authenticity, he says. And, he adds, the risk isn’t just bad wine. It could cost you your life. He relates it better than we can:

“Fraudsters substitute cheaper inferior wines, cut them with water, (called Jesus Units!) or use food additives. They have even added dangerous chemicals such as Diethylene Glycol and Methanol which killed people. […] To avoid this, growers could attach an independent DNA fingerprint, Isotopic data, smart sensor data or chemical analysis to the initial Blockchain transaction. That would remain with the wine throughout its life. In other words, verification of wine quality, safety and origins are possible from grape to glass. […] Organic certification? Easy.”

In fact, in December 2016, Everledger, the blockchain technology firm, became what’s believed to be the first company to secure a wine’s provenance via blockchain. It partnered with a wine fraud specialist to create the Chai Wine Vault, which is built on Hyperledger Fabric.

This digital proof travels with the wine and is updated as it moves across the supply chain, Finextra reports. Retailers, warehouses, auction houses, etc. can verify provenance which, according to Everledger, will lead to an increase in value over the years.

Then last year, EY — the parent company of Ernst & Young — partnered with the startup EzLab to launch Wine Blockchain. The goal: certify, and then communicate to the buyer, the quality and geographical origin of Italian wines. The final customer just scans the QR code printed on the wine label to read about the wine producer as well as the process of cultivation, production and processing of wine, Coin Telegraph reports.

Ensuring “Clean” Coffee

Blockchain can also ensure the coffee on your table came from where the label says it’s from. The benefit isn’t just for the coffee aficionado who wants to know where her coffee was cultivated; it also protects farmers against the exploitation so prevalent in the industry.

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Gro Intelligence Insights offers small coffee farms in Kenya as an example. Coffee at the Kenyan exchange typically sells for about 15 times what farmers get paid, and roasters pay even more. Blockchain can add pricing transparency between farmers and the marketplace. Each participant along the supply chain reports to the sender and the recipient of the delivery; this means the true value of the coffee harvest can be readily verified.

Bext360 is using blockchain technology to track the worldwide coffee trade — from farmer to consumer, reports Bitcoin Magazine. After several pilots, it’s now live. Ireland’s Moyee Coffee expects to have all its coffee fully blockchain-traceable this year.

You Say Tomato...

Ripe uses blockchain and IoT to create “a radically transparent digital food supply chain… a Blockchain of Food.” The founders were looking for a more meaningful application of blockchain.

In their model, farmers can use IoT and sensors to automate processes and efficiently meet market demand for high quality, sustainable products. Distributors will be able to transparently track food products, providing real-time data on food safety and delivery. As a result, consumers will have trusted, validated information on the “journey of their food.”

“There’s a lot of fraud in food origins, especially now that it’s hot,” Caroline Myran, a project manager for Ripe, tells Bloomberg. “People say ‘this is local,’ or ‘this is organic,’ or ‘this is grown using certain practices.’ With this system, you can prove it.”

In writing about this, The Future of Agriculture podcast coined a term we hope will stick.

“Now sensors that monitor everything from sunlight to temperature to humidity to color and beyond give us an abundant amount of information, even down to the individual tomato. This ability to collect and interconnect data via the internet is commonly known as the Internet of Things (IoT). Or in this case, the Internet of Tomatoes.”

Challenges on the Plate

As with any other aspect of blockchain, challenges abound. Of course, security, as well as regulatory and market uncertainty — as with other blockchain applications — can be a hurdle. But other issues, while not unique to agriculture, are uniquely pressing.

For instance, there’s the need for innovative commodity management software solutions: Blockchain technology needs to integrate with existing commodity management software, but too often participants use older, legacy software and systems that won’t integrate.

Gro Intelligence analysts identified a related issue. “All parties in a supply chain must adopt the technology, and all companies and organizations are not equally nimble."

They also point to something much more basic: The need for a reliable internet connection. Broadband is not a viable option for many farmers living in rural areas — and we’re not just talking about developing nations. Approximately 10 percent of the United States population lacks high-speed internet and, perhaps more relevant, 39 percent lack it in rural areas of the country.

And finally, they cite the human factor. “The adoption of new technology requires trust, which may be hard to come by with farmers skeptical of new technology that’s been in the news and who don't have access to high-speed internet access.”

But all of these can be addressed, in time. Meanwhile, observers are bullish. Let’s end with a perspective from Information Age: “Blockchain technology will continue to vitalize the agriculture sector, offering transparent means to understand, identify and record the source of produce and its journey.”