Scientific rationale

Food systems are highly complex, and each supply chain is unique, therefore there is currently no single approach to assuring supply chain integrity (ref 1). The horse meat scandal in 2013 highlighted the prevalence of criminal networks in adulterating food products for profit, and raised concerns regarding the traceability of food supply chains. Furthermore, the Grocery Manufacturers Association estimates that fraud may cost the global food industry between $10 – $15 billion per year, affecting approximately 10% of all commercially sold food products (ref 2). Similar scandals have become more frequent globally, and harm people’s health, impede development of the economy, and endanger the stability and security of society (ref 3). The recent egg contamination scandal in Europe shows there is still a need to provide transparent, safe, traceable and secure food supply chains. Food manufacturers and retailers cannot quickly identify the exact origins of a particular product, and in the past this has led to recalls of products, contributing to higher levels of food waste in the retail sector.

Ledgers have been used to record assets such as money and property since the development of commerce in ancient times, but now algorithms enable the creation of digital distributed ledgers that exceed the capabilities of traditional, paper-based ledgers (ref 4). ICT-based techniques are already being used in agriculture, to monitor farm conditions, to manage irrigation systems and water management systems, and to access soil moisture and nutrient content.

Blockchain technology is a decentralised transaction and data management technology developed first for Bitcoin cryptocurrency. This shared ledger compiles a list of each asset, all transactions in its history and its current ownership. Each change to the ledger must then be verified by all parties which provides trust and transparency in the system, and participants along the supply chain are unable to tamper with the recorded information. ICT-based techniques are already being used in agriculture, to monitor farm conditions, to manage irrigation systems and water management systems, and to access soil moisture and nutrient content. Literature searches suggest that there are currently few publications discussing the use of blockchain within agriculture and the wider food system (ref 5).

Blockchain technology has the potential to be used in the food system to provide enhanced security, and data integrity without the need for a third party organisation, and therefore could become an important disruptive technology in the future. Blockchain can also be used by smallholders in Lower Middle Income Countries (LMICs) to reduce fees paid in each transaction, by removing barriers and freeing up financial systems. Blockchain could also benefit consumers, by reducing the risk of food contamination, and allowing them to trace exactly where a product has come from.

References

  1. GOV.UK: Elliott review into the integrity and assurance of food supply networks: final report
  2. Federation of American Scientists: Food Fraud and “Economically Motivated Adulteration” of Food and Food Ingredients (PDF)
  3. IEEE Xplore Digital Library: An agri-food supply chain traceability system for China based on RFID & blockchain technology
  4. Beyond Blockchain
  5. Blockchain: The Evolutionary Next Step for ICT E-Agriculture