Can blockchain create more transparency in the food industry?
Thursday 8th March
You've heard the word blockchain circulating your sphere of news, but do you actually know how it is being used? To celebrate International Women’s Day we spoke to one of the most exciting female Food Tech founders of the moment and hardcore blockchain geek, Jessi Baker.
Provenance is an application and digital platform which enables producers, manufacturers, retailers (and ultimately consumers) to trace the journey of the people, places and ingredients behind their products.
As one of the first companies to apply blockchain technology to supply chains in 2013, Provenance is the pioneer of open traceability systems for a circular economy, where they use blockchain and smart tagging technologies to increase supply chain transparency. This enables businesses to significantly reduce the risk of fraud in their supply chain and foster consumer trust. No wonder they were awarded the first prize in our inaugural YFood Tech Impact Award last year.
Although still a small startup, Provenance has big plans to transform the industry. It does not position itself solely as a tech company on a mission to sell its product and expertise, but rather as a solver of the specific problem of supply chain transparency. Its philosophy is deeply rooted in empowering consumers to make better choices and create greater social and environmental impact.
Provenance was founded by Jessi Baker — a self-professed supply chain geek and digital product creator—whilst doing her Ph.D. because she felt that technology was not fulfilling its maximum potential of helping consumers make good choices about what to buy.
Blockchain putting power in the hands of the people
The internet as we know it today runs on centralised applications whereby a singular system administrator controls all data stored online. As a proponent of data transparency, Provenance is part of the new internet movement that seeks to decentralise data by relying on multiple system administrators that enable peer-to-peer (P2P) data sharing, essentially creating a decentralised information source that spreads control across more people. This allows data to be shared in a transparent and trustworthy way and is a hallmark strength of blockchain technology.
How Blockchain can help certification schemes
Provenance works with a range of different businesses and bodies, from multinational FMCG conglomerates to standards certification bodies and smaller artisanal manufacturers. Provenance has a particularly fascinating relationship with certifiers:. while certifications like Fairtrade and Organic have helped differentiate commodities by the quality and integrity of their sources, there is still room for such standards to evolve and adopt technology to make the certification processes more efficient and transparent.
Lots of certification bodies are embracing technology to improve their auditing process. The current standard practice of annually auditing a factory is simply not the optimal way to validate data points. Provenance partners with these bodies to help them certify data sources through new methods such as satellite technology and peer-to-peer data exchange via blockchain.
The challenges of implementing blockchain technology
A couple of critical roadblocks that hinder the implementation of blockchain are under-regulation in a supply market and consistency of data input into the blockchain.
Provenance has been applying blockchain in the fishing industry by tracking fish in Indonesia to provide a traceability solution for fish sources and operate a peer-to-peer resource for fish movement data. The main issue faced is getting an accurate view of every single stage of that supply chain due to lack of regulation.
Essentially a big database, blockchain cannot discern when fish from a reputable source has been adulterated with fish from an unsustainable source – it would be near impossible to track every single fish transaction in the world. What Provenance does is seek out good fisheries with sustainable practices and apply blockchain as a tracking system for fish from those verified sources. Blockchain allows a record to be created for all the fish coming from that good fishery that details proof of origin and authenticity of the fishery – in effect verifying good behaviour.
Since that record cannot be altered once it sits on the blockchain, this has helped drastically reduce fraud from flooding the marketplace with bad fish and fabricated certifications. In under-regulated markets, blockchain may not help weed out bad products, but it can help enforce and verify good products.
However Jessi feels optimistic about the potential for technology to weed out fraudulent activity within supply chains. Using the horse meat scandal as an example, Jessi suggests that a combination of DNA sampling and hyperspectral imaging (a technology that processes information from across the electromagnetic spectrum to identify products) could be used to identify the type and quality of different meats. By linking this information to the blockchain record to then cascade down the chain and be available for spot testing, technology has the potential to prevent such a scandal from happening again.
It’s easy to input data into a blockchain and move it along the supply chain. The complication arises in getting different stakeholders at various positions in the supply chain to do so consistently so that their peers on the supply chain can comprehend that data. This is where open data comes in. Open data is data that can be freely used, re-used and redistributed by anyone and more and more companies are tapping into it, for example Citymapper, which built its London app by accessing Transport for London open data. In the case of supply chains, using open data within the chain makes it easier to validate the input claims and will help users communicate more efficiently with others further down the supply chain.
Another method is standardising data input for interface with the blockchain. By ensuring that data inputted into the blockchain is of a standard format, everyone should be able to comprehend those data sets in the same way. However getting everyone to do this is not a blockchain issue, but one of regulation. While the fundamental tech assets are in place, it is essential that regulators impose a certain level of data standards required of a blockchain.
How the standards industry can learn from open source coding
Many standards certifications are available online as long-form PDFs in a way that is complicated and not user-friendly. Provenance works on helping standards certification agencies translate their long-form material into an entity that is digital and editable. Standards certifications could learn a lot from the open source data movement and if they were treated more like software, it would be much easier for contributors to update them. This constant feedback loop would therefore help to create far more quantifiable and robust standards rather than qualitative ones—which is what most of the current standards are.
Attracting a great team
In light of a recent stat we heard that for every job candidate with blockchain capabilities there are 14 openings available to them, Jessi shared that Provenance’s strategy for recruiting is a little different. Rather than trying to compete for blockchain experts, the company instead looks to take on talented and passionate all-rounded people who believe in the mission and who can then be trained and upskilled with blockchain training from within.
Women in tech who inspire her
In conjunction with International Women’s Day (8th March), we ask Jessi about women in tech who inspire her. Jessi is inspired every day by the women she works with at Provenance. She also lauds Rachel Botsman, a great tech thinker and author of Who Can You Trust. Provenance is fortunate in that many of its investors are female who serve as constant inspiration to Jessi and who have been unrelentlessly raising the bar. Equally inspiring are successful women who help other women by reinvesting in them and pushing them forward together to lead others.
Jessi shared her insights at our YFood Tech Wednesdays in February 2018. YFood Tech Wednesdays is our free monthly meetup held every last Wednesday of the month. We get founders, startups, futurepreneurs and larger brands coming together over their interest and passion for Food Tech, and we're always welcoming fresh and familiar faces. Be sure to join us next time for another exciting installment!
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