Vine to Table: Blockchain in the Food Chain

Farmer Victor Edmundo Moller is a fourth-generation blueberry grower from near Santiago, Chile. He gushes with pride as he shares his father’s slogan: “From genetics to harvest, we give blueberries to the world!”

Today’s harvest may get shipped to your local grocery store or warehouse store. And soon, thanks to a new tech innovation implemented by Naturipe, a farmers’ co-op and fruit distributer, you may know for sure if that’s the case.

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When I recently visited Moller’s farms in Chile, I admit I was tempted and struggling to restrain myself amid the bushes, bursting with succulent blueberries. So when Moller invited me to pick some of these juicy gems straight from the bush and eat them? Well, I was in a state of berry bliss.

The harvesters in Moller’s fields stick QR codes on crates of berries they’ve picked. While in the field, their crates are weighed and scanned, then sent to cold storage. The berries will end up on a ship, go through customs inspections, then to a giant, refrigerated distribution warehouse where they are packed specifically for Naturipe’s global customers. That QR code stays on those berries all the way to the store.

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This is where we come in as hungry shoppers. Soon, by simply scanning the QR code with our smartphones, we’ll be able to see proof of where the berries were grown, learn about the farm’s sustainability practices, and be assured that the harvesters are well treated under fair labor laws. Blockchain will be behind it all.

There is no shortage of experts extolling the benefits of blockchain’s real-time, shared ledger, which shines a light of transparency into supply chains. Banking on blockchain’s promises of cryptographic security married with data legitimacy, IT Director Carol McMillan actively works with SAP to solve two main problems for Naturipe: traceability and timeliness.

“Traceability is needed to validate the exact farm-to-grocery store produce supply chain. This is important because new certification requirements mandate that Naturipe must prove origin and food safety,” McMillan explains. “Timeliness is needed to get the fresh fruit through border patrol points and other supply chain bottlenecks to customers. Currently, there is a lot of paperwork that brokers are required to handle. The lengthy process delays shipments of fruit, which already have a very short shelf-life of days. Live, on-the-fly reporting is needed.”

In a recent article on the pros and cons of blockchain, Nathalie Toulon from the AgroTIC Digital Agriculture Chain in France explains how data stored in blockchain “cannot be tampered with, allowing one to retrace the steps of the source of any problem more quickly. As the blockchain is linked with the connected objects, it also facilitates real-time alerts (failure to respect a designated temperature, for example).”

In Naturipe’s giant refrigerated warehouse in Miami, Florida, warehouse staff ensure the fruit is stored at the correct temperatures. Garbed in white smocks and green hair nets, a warehouse manager takes McMillan on a tour of the customized re-pack room, which is constantly kept cold enough to chill your breath.

When it leaves the warehouse by truck, temperature recorders and GPS trackers make it possible to track and follow the produce as it travels to the customer.

“Using the recorder, you can ensure the quality of a product by knowing exactly what the temperature was during the entire logistics chain,” the warehouse manager explains. “It has to be in 33 degrees (Fahrenheit) all the time.”

Soon, the temperatures in the trucks will be automatically uploaded into blockchain in the cloud, so berry buyers can also view the logs.

However, some in the agriculture industry are calling for the food industry to first solve healthy and safety concerns before considering blockchain implementation.

“It’s not the (blockchain) tool that’s the problem,” crop scientist Sarah Taber is quoted as saying. “It’s the people.” In a recent Forbes article, Taber argues that the agriculture industry should first hire quality workers in fields and train them to meet higher food safety standards.

Some risk management experts note that if, or when, a food-borne illness outbreak happens, blockchain can trace the source in seconds rather than weeks. Advocates argue that blockchain also enables retailers to demonstrate compliance with regulations aimed at eliminating slavery and human trafficking from supply chains, and allows merchants to unequivocally assure customers that products are ethically or sustainably sourced.

Entrepreneur and thought leader Monica Eaton-Cardone believes that “blockchain has the capacity to completely reshape the retail landscape within the next five years,” with 13 times as many businesses coming onboard.

Back home from Chile in the U.S., I make my usual breakfast, which includes a topping of blueberries. Today, it’s Greek yogurt with walnuts. I look at the label: Yes, these are Naturipe berries! I wonder if they’re from the very field in Chile that I just visited?


Tricia Manning-Smith is a senior global on-air correspondent for SAP TV.