Editorial 12 October 2018Cecille de Jesus
The missing piece in decentralizing agriculture—and many other industries
It seems the missing piece in fully blockchainizing and decentralizing food supply is the same hindrance for decentralizing most industries: quality control.
In many countries, fastfood, although unhealthy, is the cheapest option. For those who are on the go and on a budget, they seem to be the go-to solution. But in the Philippines, there’s a micro-economy that offers healthier food at cheaper prices than fastfood—home-cooked meals from small eateries. Some of them even prepare meals in big batches and pack them in individual portions to be peddled to office buildings where employees happily choose them to save money. These meals would cost somewhere around $1.
Micro businesses like these, although seemingly insignificant, actually play a big role in the survival of a large portion of the population and in alleviating poverty overall. If the world follows a more “decentralized” food supply source, like those of homecooked meal peddlers in the Philippines, individuals can cut down on daily expenses, while at the same time helping local small entrepreneurs thrive.
Vertical and urban farming have been gaining mainstream attention, too. Many are looking for cleaner, organic food supply sources but do not have direct access to farmers markets.
I reached out to Clifton Hartsuff, the founder of a startup project called Plant3r, to help assess the feasibility and challenges to decentralizing food supply. Plant3r is an application that would help farmers, particularly those starting out, to “quickly plant, monitor, and diagnose their garden with perfect accuracy.” The project aims to broaden farming by assisting would-be farmers and maximize food production.
“Once this is possible, our addressable market suddenly opens up from traditional agricultural companies to include backyard enthusiasts and small to medium sized farming businesses. Eventually, we can eliminate wasted or underutilized food production resources globally and make them productive in a way that was never thought possible before. And that’s a vision we believe is worth fighting for,” Plant3r explains.
It’s promising: I need a kilo of carrots, a supplier living a few houses away has it. A peer-to-peer food supply trade— it’s cheaper, faster, simpler. At least, that’s what one would initially think.
Promising, but with a snag
The potential implications are promising. If we move back away from sourcing supplies from centralized providers, we can cut down on health, monetary, and environmental costs of long distance shipments. Maybe produce will also require less plastic packaging since the food doesn’t have to survive longer distances of travel. Most importantly, a blockchain solution can improve business for farmers themselves, according to Hartsuff.
“Farmers can benefit from blockchain technology in two ways: accountability and hyper-local nutritional branding. A major problem for subsistence farmers who are attempting to compete in the global market is a lack of scale, consistency, and quality products,” he says.
Another benefit is in minimizing food waste by redirecting them to those in need. In developed countries, at retail level, large quantities of food are wasted due to quality standards that over-emphasize appearance. Although this “ugly” food nonsense may have more to do with consumer attitude. But using a blockchain platform, unwanted food can be redirected to a charity organization or some feeding programs.
But there’s one big problem, as Hartsuff points out, “consistency and quality.” When it comes to food, safety is a primary concern. Food poisoning and disease aren’t fun after all. What if the supplier isn’t very sanitary? What if they secretly use dangerous pesticides, or dead children as fertilizer? That’s a stretch, of course, but you get the point. If you get food poisoning or catch some sort of disease, you would be spending far more than you saved buying from individual suppliers. And if you unwittingly distribute tainted food to mass populations through feeding programs, it would be disastrous.
“There is no way to track good or bad products which enter the global supply chain at the moment. Outbreaks of salmonella are regularly investigated without finding a source for the problem in the USA, for example,” he says.
The missing piece to blockchainizing the food supply
Say what you will about centralized sources, but they have brought entire industries thus far. They have departments dedicated to quality control and safety checks. If something goes wrong, they can be held legally liable so long as you can prove error or negligence from their part.
You can, of course, sue individual suppliers just like you would a corporation. And individual suppliers can also be verified, and they can build reputations on a blockchain platform as transparency and identity is one of blockchain’s biggest selling points (hallelujah!). But the existence of reactive measures aren’t exactly comforting when lives are at stake—being able to sue someone for the death of a family member isn’t much of a consolation prize.
Hartsuff goes on about how these issues can possibly be mitigated, and arrives at a very good idea for a product, but one that would require a lot of research and testing (as well as funding, obviously).
“A global blockchain with nutrient reading devices (not developed as of this time but might be the next hot consumer app with a simple add-on to the smart phone) can provide accountability for all products and also give the buyer a sense of how much good or bad stuff might be in a given product. It also allows consumers to identify nutrient dense local products from new regions of the world which are more beneficial to eat than low nutrient density industrial farmed products presently on the market in developed countries. But this will definitely require a new type of regulatory or maybe even consumer driven monitoring regime.”
Can we create an “uber” for food supplies—where food supplies can be ordered on-demand, on a daily basis? How will urban farming play out with blockchain technology as the infrastructure under it, I asked Hartsuff.
“In a sense, we already have an ‘uber’-like food supply, globally speaking. The key difference between now and after using a blockchain is the problems I’ve outlined above. However, the current system lacks transparency at the consumer level about the true contents of the agricultural products being bought and sold around the world,” he explains.
“Chemicals and adulterants are a persistent problem for which there is no regulatory regime capable of handling the problem at the scale required. Even basic information such as how nutrient dense the food you might see for sale on the shelves at your local produce stand is unavailable to consumers. The availability of devices to make this information available to everyone is a key component of a working ‘agri-chain.’”
Transparency and quality control: can we get there?
Issues with quality control was the same problem expressed by Paolo Velcich in a previous interview I conducted about 3D printing on demand and decentralizing supply chains. Velcich is the CEO of Steezycam, and has worked largely on advanced autonomous drones. It’s a different industry altogether, yet it’s becoming apparent that the missing piece in fully blockchainizing industries and decentralizing supply has a commonality—quality control.
In fact, one thing that we still don’t see as much in the blockchain space—despite thousands of cryptocurrency projects currently in existence (and more popping up seemingly by the minute), are supporting services focused on monitoring and quality checks.
One of my friends in the local blockchain space, James Florentino—the CEO of Philippine-based blockchain development firm MergeCommit, earlier posted on Facebook: “Contemplating of adding smart contract auditing as part of the company’s services,” he wrote. “Too many smart contact developers nowadays, but not many QA smart contract auditors.” I applauded his plan.
Hartsuff points out that the food safety and transparency issue is one that still plagues the food industry now. It’s not just a decentralization problem—even the centralized food sources we “trust” in the market today are not transparent.
“The present global food system actually contains way more food safety risks than people are presently aware. Non-soluble heavy metals persist in much of the world’s fish stocks and chemicals do as well in plant life. Consumers have no idea how clean/not clean these products are at the point of purchase. The best way to mitigate these risks is a new generation of monitoring devices which can provide a detailed analysis of nutrient density and product quality,” he explains.
“The development of these new food analysis devices and production at a global scale is really the critical missing element behind a global agricultural blockchain. Food production went global and allowed for globalization to take off when the British empire moved grains from Punjab back to England in order to convince their farmers to move into factories in the cities. There has never been a global regulatory regime created to keep up with it. We’re really stuck in the 16th century with self-regulation and every nation-state fending for themselves. Even developed countries lack the resources to assure proper food safety so I don’t see how it’s possible for the developing world to do so without a new generation of very cheap monitoring devices that allows global citizens to police the food supply.”
A quick Google search led me to a few new devices promising to do exactly this, such as nanosensors. But none of them (at least, none in the few seconds I looked) are blockchain-integrated. Startup idea alert.
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