Blockheaded?

This Foodie Friday we’re going to have a think about blockchain. If you’re thinking that “food” and “blockchain” don’t relate as well as, say, peanut butter and jelly, apparently you’re underinformed.

If you’re unfamiliar with blockchain, you probably ought to do something to learn about it since it’s weaving its way into everything these days. Basically, it’s a list of records called blocks which are linked to one another cryptographically in a publicly available ledger. It makes tracking things easy and it’s an extremely secure method for doing so.

Applying blockchain to food is happening. Think about a chicken you find at the market. What if you could scan the package and know everything about the contents? When the bird was born and where, what its diet was, if it’s GMO-free, etc., when and where it was processed, packed and shipped, ad infinitum. Cool, right? It’s also possible with food that routinely gets mislabeled as something else: fish. It makes everything traceable, which is a big help with respect to food safety.

I see two issues. One is the cost. Think about what’s happened in digital advertising. We’ve layered on technology to buy and sell ads and at the same time, we’ve added a huge layer of cost. Blockchain in the food area won’t be cheap, I’m sure. We’ve also made the entire industry less transparent, and while blockchain is just arriving in the ad world, it points to the fact that there are a lot of bad actors out there.

This points to the bigger issue which is an old, familiar one: GIGO. Garbage In, Garbage Out. Who is to say that the information in the system is accurate? The data may say one thing while the truth might be quite different. Criminals will learn how to cheat the blockchain just as they have learned how to game the ad business out of billions of dollars every year. While we will be able to trace food we won’t be able to tell if it’s been adulterated without a robust system of inspection.

Do I think this technology belongs in the food business? Probably – the benefits of things such as pinpointing shelf-life or finding the sources of bacterial outbreaks quickly are huge. I guess I wonder about the cost – at what price will this all happen? Will the benefits only accrue to those who can afford to pay for the food that’s blockchain certified? What do you think?

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