Pilot project shows that blockchain and agri-food are a fertile combination

28 July 2017 • 4 min reading time

The ‘Blockchain for Agri-food’ project is a TNO and Wageningen University & Research pilot scheme focused on the potential impact of blockchain technology on the agri-food sector, and what is needed in order to apply the technology in agri-food supply chains. With the help of a real-life case involving the importing of grapes from South Africa to the Netherlands, an examination is being made of whether and how blockchain can help improve compliance with foodstuffs certificates.

A feature of agri-food supply chains is the absence of sharing of data between participants which enables food fraud or other failures in the system. “There is a great need to improve transparency and trust in these supply chains. There are a whole range of food certificates that are used, which state for example whether a product is fair trade or organic, or whether the hygiene aspects are as they should be. It is a complex and slow-moving system, which works as follows: A farmer is given - if everything is in order - certificates by a certification authority; if the imported product has the required certificates, a trader can sell it to Dutch supermarkets, for example. In practice, certificates are not checked and their validity is simply a matter of trust, but unfortunately that is often misplaced,” explains Christopher Brewster, senior data science scientist at TNO and scientific coordinator at Techruption.

“Blockchain may make it possible to make transactions permanent that would otherwise be susceptible to manipulation”

Managing certificates using blockchain

The question this project addresses is whether food certificates can be managed from start to finish, from production to the supermarket shelves, with the help of blockchain technology. “Blockchain may make it possible to make transactions permanent that would otherwise be susceptible to manipulation and also allows for distributed access to data. That means it could potentially make it easier to exchange data and reduce opportunities for fraud or falsification,” says Brewster. Given that blockchain technology is still in its infancy and its technical, economic and social impact is still difficult to predict, it makes sense to first carry out pilot projects in order to gain a greater understanding of what that impact could be.

“In order to be able to automate the certification process, we need a good understanding of the production chain”

Pilot project on grapes

The ‘Blockchain for Agri-food’ pilot scheme that TNO and Wageningen University & Research (WUR) are conducting on behalf of the Ministry of Economic Affairs is aimed at the blockchain opportunities in the agri-food sector. The supply chain of imported grapes from South Africa has been chosen as a practical case study because the supply chain experiences difficulties that could be addressed by blockchain technology. Furthermore a good stakeholder network already exists due to earlier research. Apart from TNO and WUR, there are a number of stakeholders taking part in the project (VAA, AgriPlace, OTC Holland, Control Union, GS1, PPM Oost), together with NGOs/non-profit organizations (AgroConnect, BC3, SKAL, Floricode) and policy makers (Ministry of Economic Affairs, Netherlands Enterprise Agency, Netherlands Food and Consumer Product Safety Authority). “We at TNO are responsible for the project coordination and focus on the technical aspects. In order to be able to automate the certification process, we need a good understanding of the production chain. Only then can we make an application that can demonstrate how blockchain can be used in chains of this kind. We have developed a software demo and are satisfied with the results,” explains Brewster. The demo was shown at the recent EFITA conference in France.

Upscaling blockchain

One of the technical challenges, according to Brewster, is the scaling up of the blockchain application so that it is ultimately capable of managing many boxes of grapes. “The technology up to now is relatively slow, with a limited number of transactions per second. Another possible problem is the willingness to invest, which may be low in this sector. As there remains so much to research and develop, we would like to work with more parties in due course on a larger project, perhaps in a Top Consortium for Knowledge and Innovation (TKI) like the Techruption Blockchain programme.”

“As well as safeguarding the accuracy of food certificates, the tracking and tracing of food also offers opportunities”

Future in agri-food

The agri-food sector has much potential for blockchain technology. “As well as safeguarding the accuracy of food certificates, the tracking and tracing of food also offers opportunities. This project is at least helping to convey the potential that blockchain technology has to improve agri-food supply chains. Fortunately, there has already been some commercial interest, also in relation to the field of tracking pharmaceutical goods. In principle, blockchain technology could potentially play a tracking and tracing role in every production supply chain,” expects Brewster. “Organisations interested to explore the use of blockchain for tracking and tracing within their supply chain, should contact us.”

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