Digital transformation is disrupting consumer habits and redefining the working methods of both retailers and producers. New technologies are emerging, including blockchain, which seems to meet the criteria of transparency, traceability and quality. Will it become a standard in the food industry?
According to a study conducted in October 2020 by Mérieux NutriSciences and bioMérieux, only 69% of French people have confidence in the food they eat and 49% believe they are still poorly informed on the subject. Indeed, the digital transformation has changed consumer habits: we can see this, for example, with the Yuka application, where consumers will motivate their purchasing intentions based on the ratings given to products.
The French are concerned about the quality of products, but also about their environmental impact. Product composition, production practices, origin, carbon footprint... these are all transparency criteria that food industry players must now meet.
The blockchain trend makes it possible to meet these challenges, while ensuring the confidence of users/consumers by securing this database managed by the various players in the chain.
What is the main blockchain principle?
Blockchain is an information storage technology that has the advantage of being able to be shared in the form of a platform between several users. The blockchain principle was first popularised in 2008 by Satoshi Nakamoto, when Bitcoin was born, with the aim of exchanging money on the Internet, without intermediaries, via a free cryptographic protocol.
There are three main types of blockchains: public, private and hybrid. Public blockchains, which are completely decentralised, include the cryptocurrencies mentioned above. In other sectors, such as the agri-food industry, it is more a question of hybrid blockchains (quasi-centralised by a consortium of entities) or even essentially private (centralised by a single entity).
The blockchain is indeed very useful in the food industry, as it enables all the information relating to a product to be recorded throughout its life cycle (production/processing/distribution). The actors concerned must, at the various stages of the process, enter the data relating to the product into the blockchain. This includes breeders/farmers, veterinarians, manufacturers, transporters, distributors, etc.
When an actor has validated his block, it is time-stamped and added to the blockchain for the corresponding product. From that moment on, the block can no longer be modified or deleted, and the other players in the chain will be able to access the information entered.
In the future, blockchain could potentially eliminate the need for third parties such as certification bodies, auditors or even banks/insurance companies. For example, in an area such as food processing, significant savings could be made by reducing the costs of certification and auditing activities.
From the point of view of international trade, blockchain can be very useful for facilitating certain transactions, particularly with suppliers of raw materials. The technology could simplify payment methods while limiting the costs associated with administrative processing.
Which food sector parties are involved?
Mass retailing, one of the pioneers in this field
Since January 2018, a major retailer has deployed blockchain to its chicken chain. By simply scanning the QR code printed on the product label, consumers can access all the details about the product's origin. Other foodstuffs now involved include tomatoes, eggs, salmon, milk, rocamadour, oranges and poularde.
In addition to the food chains, this brand has deployed the technology on its organic textile ranges. By scanning the garment, the consumer knows where the cotton used comes from, where it was spun, whether it was grown without synthetic pesticides, etc. The brand has set itself a goal: that 100% of the natural materials used in this range should be sustainable and traceable by 2030.
Collaborative platforms in full expansion
In October 2018, a project for a collaborative food traceability platform was born under the impetus of many brands and retailers. The project named "IBM Food Trust" aims to standardise practices in this area and have a standard to limit individual initiatives and end up with a whole bunch of different blockchains.
Also in France, startups specialising in blockchain have emerged in recent years, offering complete traceability solutions for food industry players. At the 2019 edition of the Paris Blockchain Conference, the government and the Directorate General for Enterprise announced the launch of a national blockchain strategy. Several areas of work have been established through the "deep tech" project to develop the blockchain principle in France.
What is the advantage of digitising your traceability system?
Although blockchain initiatives in the agri-food sector are flourishing, only a common standard would make it possible to globalise this approach. A common blockchain project would make it possible to gain in efficiency by pooling the data produced by the various players, while optimising the coordination costs which would obviously be increased by individual initiatives. In the meantime, it is possible to digitise one's entire traceability system, regardless of one's activity.
Indeed, tracking product information ensures data transparency, guarantees food safety and fights against possible fraud. With a centralised digital solution, it is possible to do away with paper documents and exchanges of Excel files, which are sources of errors and waste of time.
Via a dedicated tool, you can, with a single click, access all the information concerning the product: manufacturing diagram, allocated production line, supplier requirements, list of associated customers, etc. It is thus possible to carry out upward traceability (information relating to the various components of the product, the origin of the product), or downward traceability (information relating to the location of the product, its distribution).
The advantage of centralising all the information on the same platform is that you can easily retrieve the data in the event of a product withdrawal/recall or non-conformity. You also have access to all the consultation and modification histories for the process in question.
Combined with other technologies such as connected objects (sensors, probes, augmented reality glasses...), blockchain may prove to be a promising concept for the years to come. Initiatives in the agri-food sector are increasingly developing, but it is important to note that these blockchain models are still in the experimental stage.
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