From coffee to fish to palm oil, blockchain, a digital ledger technology, is being applied to global food supply chains in ways that promise to benefit producers, distributors, retailers and consumers.

Based on its ability to provide enhanced visibility into the contracts and connections that make-up complex food supply chains, blockchain can help producers and retailers guarantee the originality and quality of produce; can help to combat fraud and illegality within the food chain; and can facilitate the tracking and recall of defective or contaminated goods.

However, despite early successes, the application of blockchain to food supply chains faces several hurdles, including the persistence of entrenched industry interests; potentially prohibitive deployment and operating costs; and the challenge of verifying the authenticity of the data supplied to the blockchain.

Regardless of concerns, the blockchain provides greater visibility into the contracts and connections that make-up complex food supply chains, allowing producers and retailers to guarantee the originality and quality of products, while helping with efforts to identify fraud and illegality within the food chain and facilitating the tracking and recall of defective or contaminated goods.

Food chain blockchain solutions examples:

Tracking tuna

The World Wildlife Fund is working with global blockchain venture studio ConsenSys, technology implementer TraSeable, and tuna company Sea Quest Fiji on a project that aims to eliminate illegal fishing and human rights abuses in the Pacific Islands’ tuna industry.

The project uses blockchain and other technologies – including radio-frequency ID (RFID) tags, quick response (QR) code tags and scanning devices – to track tuna from the moment they are caught by fishing vessels right through to the points of delivery to consumers.

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By providing consumers and retailers with information about where the tuna came from, and how and by whom they were caught, the blockchain-based traceability platform is designed to provide reassurances that the tuna was not caught using illegal, unreported, or unregulated (IUU) methods. The idea is that, although the technology won’t prevent IUU fishing methods, it will make them more discoverable and facilitate action against them.

Coffee whereabouts

A separate collaboration between Ireland’s Moyee Coffee, blockchain platform provider, bext360 and the Netherlands-based FairChain Foundation aims to make all of Moyee’s coffee fully blockchain-traceable from point-of-origin washing stations in Ethiopia to the company’s customers in Europe.

The bext360 platform gives all stakeholders – farmers, roasters, and consumers – access to data across the entirety of the supply chain.

For consumers this will mean being able to access information about the origin and quality of the coffee they are drinking, including the ability to follow real-time payments to Ethiopian farmers for their coffee beans.

Other examples of efforts to apply blockchain to food supply chains suggest that collaboration is becoming the norm, with specific initiatives bringing together technology start-ups, food retailers, NGOs and professional services firms.

Plenty of challenges still need to be overcome

Nevertheless, despite early successes, the application of blockchain to food supply chains is not without its challenges.

Although several food and drink industries are seeing early first movers embrace new blockchain technologies, most industries have entrenched interests that will be harder and slower to change.

For example, it is difficult to imagine a scenario whereby larger global food conglomerates support consumer transparency down to the level of payments to individual farmers and producers.

Other concerns focus on how to verify the authenticity of the data supplied to the blockchain, and the possibility that the cost of deploying and operating blockchain-based solutions could be prohibitively high for some companies.

Expect the next wave of innovators to try to address some of these concerns.