The future of cryptocurrencies such as the bitcoin might be unclear but the technology behind it is solid. Blockchain is the digital ledger where bitcoin transactions are kept. It’s transparent, secure and open for all to see.
The origin of blockchain is mysterious. Some person, or group, with the anonymous name Satoshi Nakamoto is credited with inventing blockchain. Who this person is remains obscure.
Blockchain’s usefulness goes beyond cryptocurrencies. Its property of transparency could improve food security. Sylvain Charlebois, professor in food policy and distribution at Dalhousie University explains:
“Blockchain technology allows for users to look at all transactions simultaneously and in real time. In food, for example, a retailer would know with whom his supplier has dealt. Additionally, since transactions are not stored in any single location, the information is almost impossible to hack (Globe and Mail, December 13, 2017).”
If you are buying pork chops in a grocery store, for example, and wanted to know the complete history the animal before you buy, you could scan the QR code on the label and within seconds know the date of the animal’s birth, use of antibiotics, vaccinations, and where the animal lived. (QR codes are a type of bar code in the shape of a square.)
The Public Health Agency of Canada reported earlier this month that 21 people became sick after eating romaine lettuce. While PAHC knew what caused the illness (E. Coli 0157) they didn’t know where the lettuce came from. Tracing contaminants can be a matter of life and death.
“Every year, more than four million Canadians get food poisoning. In recent years 474 cases of [the deadly disease caused by E. Coli 0157] have been reported annually,” says foodqualitynews.com.
Big Food is considering blockchain as way of tracing contaminates. Wal-Mart sells 20 per cent of all food in the U.S. and tested blockchain compared to standard methods of tracing food. They traced the source of mangoes in one of their stores using the standard method and it took six days, 18 hours, and 26 minutes to trace the fruit back to its original farm. Using blockchain technology, it would take 2.2 seconds for anyone –consumers and suppliers alike- to find out anything they want. And it would prevent good food from being thrown out.
“During an outbreak of a food-related health scare, six days is an eternity,” says Prof Charlebois, “A company can save lives by acting quickly. Blockchain also allows specific products to be traced at any given time, which would help in the reduction of food waste. For instance, contaminated products can be traced easily and quickly, while safe foods would remain on the shelves and not in landfills.”
Blockchain won’t be implemented without the involvement with everyone along the food chain. The record will only be as good as the data entered. Giants like Wal-Mart can force supplier participation.
Governments could also force compliance. With the health of consumers at stake, regulated participation would make the records complete and useful.
Cryptocurrencies may be a fleeting gimmick to have investors part with their money but let’s not throw the blockchain out with the bitcoin.