Standardizing the future of food traceability

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As demands for more detailed traceability systems build, many are looking to blockchain technology — systems that securely record data about food at every stage in the value chain — as an ideal technological solution.

Why it matters: Standardized blockchain frameworks could help speed the adoption of rigorous traceability systems, and potentially give Canadian producers a competitive edge in a global market.

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Just as there are different types of precision-agriculture systems and data, however, standardized blockchain systems do not exist. According to Farmers Edge and the Standards Council of Canada, this in itself is a barrier to traceability, as well as a hindrance to Canada’s competitiveness in food and agriculture.

For this reason, both groups (with support from the Protein Industries Supercluster) have partnered to develop a Canadian Technical Specification for blockchain systems.

The purpose, says Wade Barnes, chief executive officer of Farmers Edge, is to provide guidance for agriculture blockchain interoperability across the nation, and eventually, internationally.

The participants said in a release that the use of blockchain in the agriculture sector has lagged due to “data sparsity and inconsistency.”

The role of Farmers Edge in the partnership is to leverage its existing database, network, and digital tools to better understand the capacity for data transfer throughout the supply chain. It goes on to say effective standardization can reduce transaction costs and improve data exchange through a transparent, decentralized, and secure process.

For Barnes, the question is how to design blockchain systems that create value for Canadian farmers and ranchers. He believes this could come in the form of competitive advantages such as allowing purchasers to validate their sustainability requirements much more easily.

“That’s been a big problem with sustainability, with organic. As it becomes more mainstream it goes away,” he says. Establishing a standard framework for such a system would allow the agriculture sector to gain these advantages much more quickly, at scale, and potentially before other parts of the world.

Finding advantages for Canada

“We’re not going to be the lowest-cost producer. Where Canada has to distinguish itself is to be the leading country in terms of food traceability, sustainability and safety,” says Barnes.

“How does Canada compete against Russia in wheat 20 years from now?”

The agriculture sector is producing more data all the time. The issue of data sparsity, according to Barnes, refers to a lack of data useful for the purposes of building blockchain systems from the start to end of a value chain. Chiefly, that comes from a lack of connectivity on the farm.

Some farmers use no digital tools, while others do. Some have new equipment that logs production data automatically, while others run older equipment and input information manually. Some have internet access, while others struggle to maintain connectivity. These and other differences in how farms operate are all factors complicating the establishment of blockchain technology at the point of production.

“It’s the type of data we need we don’t have. In order to make blockchain work we need an electric record that can’t be changed,” says Barnes. “A farmer entering own data in software isn’t good enough. We need validation.”

He also reiterates the natural adoption of digital tools by more and more producers will, over time, allow blockchain to be implemented with greater regularity and effectiveness. This will take a long time, however. Shortening that period from 20 years to five or 10 might require artificial stimulus, such as government cost-share programs.

Examples such as the success of Environmental Farm Plans, Barnes says, illustrate how a little incentive can significantly increase adoption rates of new (in this case precision-application) technologies. The same could be applied to something like crop insurance rates, which currently involve government subsidies. Farmers providing validated digital records, for example, might be less of a risk to the insurer, reducing costs all around.

“As an industry, connectivity will only happen on a mass scale if there is a value proposition,” says Barnes, adding he does not think government fully understands how valuable investments in programs like the Environmental Farm Plan program were.