Blockchain technology can revolutionize the food supply chain, says IBM VP


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02 Nov 2018 — Blockchain technology has the potential to revolutionize the food supply chain as manufacturers are forced to respond to consumer pressure around transparency of sourcing and the supply chain in general. This is according to Ramesh Gopinath, Vice President at Blockchain Solutions at IBM, who spoke to FoodIngedientsFirst at the Future Food Tech Summit in London last month. He discussed the launch of the IBM Food Trust platform, which is now commercially available.

A number of retailers, logistics firms and growers are working with IBM-developed blockchain technology – the IBM Food Trust blockchain network – adopting the game-changing technology to improve traceability of certain food products in the food supply chain. The blockchain-based cloud network offers businesses and food industry providers with data from across the food ecosystem to enable greater traceability, transparency and efficiency.

Last month, FoodIngredientsFirst reported that Europe’s largest retailer, Carrefour, is adopting blockchain which will quickly help trace food back to its source within seconds, unlike traditional transactions, with plans to expand to all Carrefour brands by 2022. The network is now generally available after 18 months in testing, during which retailers and suppliers have tracked millions of individual food products.

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Ramesh Gopinath, Vice President
at Blockchain Solutions at IBM

The move by Carrefour comes just a couple of weeks after Walmart, an early proponent of blockchain technology, announced that its leafy green suppliers would be required to capture digital, end-to-end traceability event information using IBM Food Trust. The new by these major retailers indicates that their suppliers will have little choice but to go on the blockchain bandwagon in the medium term before it becomes a prerequisite.

“The IBM Food Trust product itself is a platform for trusted permissioned information sharing in the food ecosystem. It is exciting for us because of so many of the issues we see in the food ecosystem today, including food fraud, food safety and food waste. Food waste is an important topic as a lot more organic food is produced than what is consumed for example,” says Gopinath.

A lot these problems we see today, can be traced within the food supply chain – from the grower to the packer, to the supplier and then to the retailer with logistic companies along the way,” he notes. “Trusted information sharing does not happen as well as it should happen, so this is the platform for that collaborative exchange. Once you have the platform in place, supply chain flows for the various food items, meaning that you can add value and solve many of the problems in the food system.”

Blockchain is very popular and topical in the food industry, but the technology itself is seen as elusive, according to Gopinath. “There is a lot of hype around it,” he accepts. “The way in which I would describe it is if you look at blockchain and its applications in this specific instance, IBM Food Trust, the problem you are trying to solve is trusted information sharing. If you have a farmer or a grower, for example, the way they should be looking at this is an information sharing platform. The questions they should be thinking about are – ‘how do I upload my information and share it with others?’ ‘How do I set permission so that only the people who are allowed to see get to see the information?’ ‘Is the data safe and secure?’” he muses. 

Those are the questions that companies should be considering, says Gopinath. “They should also be thinking about the mechanics of it and ensuring that all the appreciate information can be viewed and shared when relevant, engaging through the system and solving food supply issues,” he notes. 

“Consumers are the driving force today regarding trust and transparency,” claims Gopinath. “We expect third parties small and big companies to also deliver value on top of this platform, so that is how we share and utilize this platform to deliver value to others,” he concludes. 

Although so far there have been few examples of its large-scale application, blockchain is a burgeoning technology and many agile companies within and the food industry are adopting it as a transparency solution. Other industries such as finance and retail are also using blockchain solutions. 

The attributes of blockchain and the ability to permission data, enables network members to gain a new level of trusted information. Transactions are endorsed by multiple parties, leading to an immutable single version of the truth, says IBM, as momentum grows among users and third-party data suppliers on the network.

The IBM Food Trust network has expanded to focus on optimizing the food supply, including generating insights on product freshness, reducing waste and making the supply chain more collaborative and transparent.

IBM Food Trust uses a decentralized model to allow multiple participating members of the food supply chain – from growers to suppliers to retailers – to share food origin details, processing data, and shipping information on a permissioned blockchain network. A separate entity controls each node on the blockchain and all data on the blockchain is encrypted. The decentralized features of the network enable all parties to work together to ensure the data is trusted.

You can view the full video interview with Gopinath here. 

By Elizabeth Green and Lucy Gunn

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