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Transparency in the Agricultural Supply Chain

How blockchain technology shows promise in the field of agri-food traceability

In the increasingly complex and enhancing web of global food production and distribution, consumers are seeking information about the origins, quality, and sustainable nature of the products they consume. This demand for transparency has transformed the way the world thinks about food and has led to the introduction of many new technologies in hopes of providing clarity about the process- at the forefront of which is blockchain technology. 

Blockchain technology is essentially a safe, decentralized way of recording transactions and records digitally. It allows for information to be shared transparently within a business network. The decentralized nature of it ensures that the data stored within the network cannot be altered after the fact without consensus among the network participants. It also allows for the data to be verified by relevant authorities or third-party organizations. This allows its application in supply chains to have the potential benefits of promoting accountability, enhancing consumer awareness and addressing the climate impact of farming practices by ensuring the authenticity and effectiveness of sustainable practices. Additionally, blockchain technology aims to provide a transparent process to allow insight into the product’s journey from the farm to the consumer’s table. Blockchain technology as a concept is not an entirely new idea. It was introduced with the invention of Bitcoin in the early 2000s. Its potential applications however expanded further than the field of cryptocurrency, with various blockchain platforms and applications across a range of industries, including supply chain management, finance and banking, healthcare, cybersecurity and more.

Over the last few decades as demand for agricultural products has skyrocketed with the growing population, the effects of modern farming practices have been exposed as one of the biggest contributors to the current climate crisis. Land clearing, pollution, biodiversity loss and dead zones are just a few of the consequences currently faced as a result of modern farming. The industry needs to navigate these consequences and adapt, as well as satisfy consumers’ changing tastes and expectations, all whilst still meeting the demand for more food and at a higher quality. In most countries this has led to a shift in societal view from “enough food” to “good food” as consumers highlight the desperate need for a global transition to a more sustainable way of food production. The concept of “sustainable agriculture” therefore emerges as the key to ethical and resilient farming. Looking beyond its immediate benefits of reducing environmental impact and preserving biodiversity, sustainable agriculture is playing a pivotal role in fostering economic stability for farmers and promoting global long-term food security. By emphasizing soil health, promoting the minimization of chemical inputs, and optimizing water use, these sustainable practices contribute to the overall resilience of agricultural systems, especially in regards to climate change. 

In the context of transparency enabled by blockchain technology, the importance of sustainable agriculture extends to consumer empowerment. It aligns with the consumers’ growing demand for ethically sourced and environmentally conscious products, allowing consumers to make more informed choices that align with their values. This is because this technology enables each product to have a unique digital identity that is recorded on the blockchain. By scanning a QR code on the product, consumers and stakeholders can gain access to the digital ledger providing information on the product’s origin, processing and distribution. 

Although not fully institutionalized yet, more and more companies are adopting blockchain technology. The Dutch chocolate company Tony’s Chocolonely, for example, ran a pilot test in 2016 in which they tried to incorporate blockchain technology in addition to their existing tracking system “Beantracker”. Their goal was to utilize this technology to trace the journey of their cocoa beans from the farmers to the consumers. This would allow consumers to have access to information about the cocoa beans used in their chocolate bars by scanning a QR code on the chocolate’s packaging. This QR code would link them to a platform where they could see details about the farmers, the beans used and the journey of the beans through the supply chain. This initiative would allow consumers to understand and appreciate the efforts made in creating an ethically sourced product. Although the technology is not yet implemented outside of the pilot project, the company acknowledges the potential benefits the technology has and are working together with IT companies to integrate it into their existing software. 

Implementing blockchain technology in agri-food traceability holds immense potential but comes with a few challenges. While the potential for enhanced transparency and trust in the food supply chain is evident, the integration of blockchain with existing systems can be challenging and often requires significant investments and technological adaptations. Additionally there is the problem of standardization across countries and industries. Addressing the issue of standardization will require creating industry-wide standards and practices that will facilitate smoother integration, data sharing, and compatibility- which will of course take time and cooperation. There are also legal constraints to the technology. The legal requirements to move locally and international goods are strict in the EU in particular, meaning that the blockchain data is visible within the supply chain but not always visible to the end consumer. Access to the information on the digital ledger is still highly beneficial to the stakeholders at various phases of the supply chain. 

The integration of blockchain technology into sustainable agriculture not only allows for product traceability that’s available to consumers but also exemplifies a global stride towards a food supply chain that is not only transparent but also environmentally and socially responsible.

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Hannah Keevers
Hannah Keevers
Hi! I'm a first-year Human Geography and Planning bachelor student and joined Girugten in 2023. My areas of interest are sustainability, transportation, and pretty much anything to do with urban living.
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