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Q&A: Nigel Gopie, IBM

While Nigel Gopie says the benefits seen by each participant in the food supply chain may be unique, blockchain technology enables everyone to receive value. As a leader for IBM’s Food Trust blockchain solution, he shares how the company is working to create a better understanding of this technology’s potential in agriculture.

SF: How can agriculture benefit from blockchain?

NG: As food travels from farm to fork, there are many different points of contact throughout the agrifood system. There is currently limited knowledge of the path of ingredients, what they touched, how they were changed, and more. Blockchain provides the visibility of what is in our food, how it was processed, and where it has been. It also enables trust due to the immutable nature of the technology, because data entered into the blockchain is not able to be changed and is secure. 

Trusted data of where food came from and where it went provides the benefit of confidently tracing backward and forward. This addresses the consumer demand on the industry to provide traceability and transparency. It also better equips producers with information about where they are sending their products. 

Producers would not just be able to prove their products were safe during a recall, but they would also be able to use insights further downstream in the supply chain to make better business decisions (e.g., modify production practices based on knowledge of their carcass efficiency). For ag, there are countless advantages to filling knowledge gaps and embracing a fully visible, digital supply chain. 

SF: Why should farmers pay attention to blockchain?

NG: During recalls, all items of a particular product are called into question. Even noncontaminated produce will be considered unsafe to eat, pulled off shelves, and go to waste. Although romaine lettuce is safe to eat again, the effects of the E. coli outbreak earlier this year are still having an impact. As of early June, lettuce prices had dropped by more than half, and growers were leaving acres of romaine to rot. Despite tainted lettuce being off the market, the inability to pinpoint the source of contamination and only recall impacted products is hindering the entire lettuce supply chain. The result is an extreme economic loss in addition to the negative effects on society. 

Blockchain gives producers provenance so their fresh, good greens are left on shelves, while only contaminated products are recalled. Consumers will feel confident and assured their food is coming from a trusted farm, and producers will know their produce is not going to waste. 

The U.S. produce industry is already moving in the direction of adopting traceability technology by investing in projects like the Produce Traceability Initiative (PTI). It is a voluntary initiative created by growers, packers, shippers, and buyers to implement a more effective whole supply chain traceability process. Formed in reaction to the spinach outbreak in 2006, there has also been a lot of demand for the FDA to create and implement more traceability protocols. 

Working synergistically with blockchain technology, these initiatives can achieve their vision way above and beyond industry standards to build the most secure system possible. It’s essential for producers; it’s essential for us as a business.

SF: Why should farmers trust this technology?

NG: With IBM Food Trust, farmers can trust that their data will be theirs. Users can control permissions and decide who to share data with. Moreover, producers will know their data is secure. IBM Food Trust provides the highest level of commercially available, tamper-resistant protection for food transaction data, employing the security benefits of the underlying IBM Blockchain Platform and Hyperledger Fabric.

Producers can also depend on a reliable and tested solution. Our team has already piloted this technology and is in production. We’re working with large industry players and their suppliers to digitize hundreds of their SKUs, and we’re representing millions of transactions and growing!

We are building relationships with key stakeholders in different regions of the world, who can bring ecosystem partners together to build and expand upon our network to ensure that we realize the vision of improving trust and transparency from seed to farm to fork.

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