Could Blockchain help to Build a More Ethical Food System?

Article by Ryan Whibbs PhD, George Brown College

In recent months, discussion about potential applications for blockchain technology has exploded. Nearly every major sector of the economy has at least some parties examining how blockchain might be applied in finance, supply chain management, manufacturing, education, government, security, and even in food systems. Key to many of these discussions are questions about data: what information is significant? To whom? How can it be used? Who can access it? When it comes to the role of food in highly dynamic, information-driven societies, the answers to these questions can be complex.

In a recent article posted on LinkedIn, Offering Manager for IBM Blockchain, John Widdifield, outlined the problem insofar as coffee is concerned: “we typically delegate the responsibility of knowing a product’s origin to the organization from which it was purchased. However, the organization itself is often unaware of the product’s origin and unable to verify any existing knowledge. Consequently, there are significant challenges in trust and transparency across the complete supply chain for coffee and other products.” Indeed, although proponents of sustainable food systems have made strides in increasing awareness of the interconnectedness of macro-level food systems, consumers are often still in the dark when it comes to product origin, production locale, labour conditions, and transit itineraries and timelines.

For many chefs and consumers, supporting an ethical food system is an ideal that they strive toward. Very often, discourses among chefs stress the need for local and sustainable ingredients, waste reduction, and resource conservation in order to lessen the foodservice industry’s environmental impact. The ideal exists; the degree to which these discourses result in tangible effects is something that requires more nuanced research.

In fact, any movement toward a more carbon-neutral, sustainable ingredient selection requires a good deal of constant research. In the restaurant industry, chefs and purchasers do much of the connecting with suppliers, while in the grocery sector consumers usually leave this research to brands themselves. Still, suppliers change and unless chefs, purchasers, and consumers are prepared to do constant research for the same ingredient every time they purchase it, they may or may not be achieving sustainable ideals that they set out for themselves. Especially when one considers colder northern climates where imported perishables are necessary, separation between consumer and producer is accepted and rarely recognized.

The major problem here is transparency. How do I know that the lettuce I bought is actually local? Is it produced on an industrial farm, or is it from a family farm? If these are important factors to me –and they are to many– I may decide to go to retailers who offer access to product information that helps to verify product source and production conditions. Sustainable eating could, with much effort, become sustainable shopping.

With much effort? Yes. Chefs and buyers seeking specific ingredients from specific sources invest hundreds of hours each year into research about product origin, supply chain, producer, and production capacity. Still, product substitutions and changes happen continually, so even they find it difficult to keep on top of current market conditions. Domestic consumers at the grocery store have even fewer options given that they must select from what is available at the time. No one has time to trace every product they eat.

This is one of the most exciting potentials that a food blockchain holds. In much the same way as it does with cryptocurrency, a food blockchain would capture and hold data associated with a food item, and allow consumers access to this data when seeking to trace or verify information about safety, product origin, product quality, or even to geolocate and map the journey an item took to your table. At the beginning of 2017, almost no one was mentioning the connection between blockchain and food. By the end of 2018, investment in food blockchain technology will easily have eclipsed investment in developing any other food data technologies. It seems that, shortly, the food blockchain will be at our doorsteps.

Still, whereas questions about environmental sustainability are often front-of-mind, questions about social sustainability can lag behind. Who produced this? How much were they paid? Is it a living wage in their region? Many consumers are asking these questions, in addition to questions about environmental impacts. Along this vein, a passage in Widdifield’s article caught my attention: “One of the biggest problems facing coffee plantations are lack of worker documentation, non-existent labor contracts and forced labor or low pay. When plantations utilize forced labor, one of the first things they seek to do is erase documentation associated with the workers; as such, the first step in addressing this problem is to document the workers. Once each worker has trusted identification [TI] represented on the blockchain, plantation owners can then create and record a labor contract that specifies information such as payment terms, expected work hours or output, contract length and labor conditions. Workers can then receive payment digitally, of which the receipt is automatically recorded to the blockchain and payment confirmation is shared with organizations downstream.” Therefore, the technology will exist for consumers -even those who live in cold climates that depend on long-distance imports- to learn more about the people who produced their food. Whether governments force compliance or not will likely impact greatly on the strength of TI. Sustainably-minded consumers, however, will likely demand this information in the future, and retailers and restaurants seeking to attract eco-consumers will undoubtably find ways to leverage this data.

One wonders, though, how restaurant consumers will access this information, and through what filters? Suppose a restaurant customer wants to order a low-carbon, socially and environmentally sustainable meal. How will they be able to verify this information? Will it be possible? Will that be up to the restaurant, or will there be a credible third party who can somehow assist customers in accessing this data? Are there innovations being planned to help foodservice customers acquire more transparency about the food on their plate, independent or at least arms-length from the restaurant operator? As well, will TI extend to restaurant workers closer to home? Can restaurants who wish to add this level of traceability and transparency to their operating ethos be able to do so? It seems that this would be key to the system maintaining credibility in the public eye.

Certainly blockchain has potential to fill one of the major gaps that currently exists in sustainable food system movements. Access to impartial information is exactly what so many consumers invest time and money into achieving. With blockchain, much of the important data -even living conditions of workers- could be demanded by consumers. Without such demands, retailers and operators will likely control information flow. However, if the system is to maintain widespread credibility for both consumers and producers, it will be important for developers to establish ways for consumers to access product information independent of vendors.

Bio of Ryan Whibbs PhD

Experienced Professor with a demonstrated record of interdisciplinary teaching and scholarship in the fields of Food Studies, Cultural History, and Culinary Arts. Skilled in Research Design, Lecturing, Curriculum Development, Academic Writing, and Copy Editing, Dr. Whibbs co-developed and coordinates Canada’s only Culinary Arts undergraduate degree program: the B.Comm. (Culinary Management) program at George Brown College. A Subject Matter Expert advising on the newly revised Provincial Cook Apprenticeship Curriculum of the Ontario College of Trades, Dr. Whibbs also possesses extensive project management and foodservice management experience.

Photo by Nandhu Kumar on Unsplash

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