I recently went to a Food + Tech Meetup to learn more about the potential impact of blockchain on the food industry. The event did not disappoint.
Let’s start with the elephant in the room. What is blockchain?
Blockchain is a decentralized a way to keep track of—and share—value and information. A blockchain is a growing list of records distributed across multiple participants, and most importantly, the data can’t be modified. Put another way, blockchain fulfills a role once played by brands – it is a guarantee or proof of quality. Blockchain is not just about Bitcoin; it has applications across many industries.
What does this have to do with food?
Blockchain has the potential to breathe new life into some important but over-marketed ideas. The trend toward more natural food options is admirable, but we’re at the point where terms like sustainable, transparent, local, organic, (fill in the blank), are so over-used that they’re beginning to lose their meaning.
With blockchain, companies are able to create a digital food supply chain in which farmers, distributors, warehouses, retailers, etc. can track the provenance and history of food. Consumers can see exactly where their food comes from and how it got there. Local is a term that can be measured. Freshness can be quantified. As one illustration, check out the journey of milk here.
What happens next?
The implications are many; I’ll explore two. Since blockchain is immutable, smaller players have an easier time proving quality and getting their foot in the door with retailers. Think of the number of strawberry brands you see in the supermarket (I’m impressed if you came up with two). Now think of the number of cable channels you have access to. Food (even produce) is moving to the realm of endless choice associated with technology.
The company that inspired me most, though, was Goodr. The founder, Jasmine Crowe, began with a pretty surprising statistic: 1 in 6 people go to bed hungry, yet 27% of landfills are filled with food. She therefore suggested that hunger is not a problem of scarcity, but a matter of logistics. Goodr delivers surplus food from restaurants and other providers to people in need. The company uses a blockchain to help track where the food goes, thus showing immediate impact, and creates a record of each contribution for tax purposes (not as romantic, but certainly incentivizing).
Enter the critics
Is hype for blockchain just replacing hype for buzzwords like local and transparent? Technically, Goodr doesn’t need blockchain to do the great work it does. The problem for most companies looking to digitize food isn't about a database (which blockchain provides), but compliance—getting every player in the supply chain to participate and enter good data into the system.
Still, I think there is potential here, especially with the setting of an objective standard and getting everyone to participate. It’s telling if not surprising that food is one of the last categories to go digital. If blockchain inspires new business models and ways of effecting change in the food industry, that in itself is worth the attention.
Note: In addition to Goodr, the ideas here came from some really interesting companies, including ripe.io, foodshed.io and sweetgreen.