Steve Cubbage: Are You Ready for the Blockchain Bandwagon?

04:11PM Dec 18, 2018
As a precision ag consultant, Steve Cubbage works with farmers to implement and manage hardware and data and bridge the gap between the two.
( Farm Journal Media )

For those who thought blockchain technology is just another passing fad like mood rings, eight-track tapes and Rubik’s Cubes—think again.

In early October, blockchain technology took a big step toward becoming a permanent part of the daily agriculture landscape. After 18 months of testing, IBM has greenlighted the commercial availability of its food safety blockchain-based platform dubbed IBM Food Trust designed for farms, distributors and retailers.

The system digitally tracks food through the supply chain by tagging each actionable event to an audible historical record. Using the platform greatly increases traceability and accountability and allows specific batches and shipments to be rapidly isolated when foodborne illness or contamination are detected.

To date, most of mainstream agriculture in the Midwest has largely ignored blockchain’s implications, especially at the grower and retail level. Blockchain is viewed as more concept than reality. More hype than practicality. It was and continues to be surrounded with more questions than answers.

Even if production agriculture hasn’t fully jumped on the blockchain bandwagon some big names in the food chain have. The IBM Food Trust network represents the continuation of more than a year of pilot tests with major retailers and food suppliers, including Golden State Foods, McCormick and Co., Nestlé, Tyson Foods and Walmart. This group of companies formed a consortium in collaboration with IBM to use its food safety blockchain in order to protect consumers and enhance trust in the food supply.

The Centers for Disease Control estimates 48 million people get sick, 128,000 are hospitalized and 3,000 die from foodborne illnesses each year in the U.S. To make a dent in those numbers, IBM used its blockchain pilot companies to build a robust network of members along the supply chain working in sync to create end-to-end transparency.

In order for growers and even production agriculture as a whole to achieve such transparency it’s going to have to go digital and fast. One agricultural industry official involved in bringing blockchain to market says if you would look at a clay tablet from the ancient land of Mesopotamia 4,000 years ago you can compare it to current grain contracts in North America. His point is unfortunately grain marketing and even the recording of activities at the farm level are still much closer to the clay tablets of old than to the Amazon’s or eBay’s now the norm in consumer retail.

To avoid being the weak link in the food supply’s blockchain system, producers and their immediate suppliers must adopt a well-thought-out and complete digital strategy starting at the farm level.

There is a vision that the increasing use of sensors and digitization of processes on farms and in the agriculture supply chain, connected via blockchain, will mean less paper, more accuracy and quicker turnaround and traceability from farm to fork. The details of that vision must be better communicated at the grower level. What does a blockchain-ready farm actually look like? What exactly needs to be digitized and how does it get linked back to blockchain? Where does one even start in checking the boxes to make sure your farm is a preferred blockchain supplier?

Those are all relevant and urgent questions that need to be answered. Unfortunately, many suppliers and players higher up in the food supply chain wrongfully assume such a digital infrastructure at the grower level is already in place and there’s a host of data and digital devices just waiting to be connected. Such assumptions and lack of education and dialogue down to the grower level will continue to be a major Achilles’ heel in the implementation of blockchain in agriculture. Growers however cannot continue to ignore the situation and plead ignorance when it comes to blockchain technology.