Agri-food chains improved with blockchain technology

Published on
November 2, 2017

Blockchain technology (BCT) is a collection of existing technologies, such as cryptography and database and network management, for the distribution of data. The idea is that you move from a centralised database network to a transparent decentralised network without needing an intermediary. Lan Gé, Senior Scientist in Innovation, Risk and Information Management at Wageningen Economic Research, has identified the benefits of BCT for agri-food chains. Together with TNO, she has launched a pilot project for the application of BCT in agri-food chains.

The most famous application of this technology is the Bitcoin system for payments. According to Lan Gé, BCT can be used for all forms of human transactions. It can be compared to the registration of a property transaction without using notaries. But instead of intermediaries, you use things such as algorithms and cryptography. BCT could be used in certification processes for food products and tracking logistical processes, for example.

Because it creates a single shared layer of truth, the integrity of the information is secured. Each player in the food chain, including producers, suppliers, processors, distributors, retailers, regulators and consumers, has access to information about the origin and quality of the product. The blockchain network can also ensure that the source of any contaminated products is traced more quickly. Working without the trusted third party makes this type of system more efficient and less vulnerable.

Uses for blockchains

Lan Gé has broad data and software knowledge and understands the advantages and disadvantages of different technologies. Wageningen Economic Research advises clients about blockchain applications and helps them to better understand this technology. "Because we are a knowledge institute, we are well-informed about developments."

"We can share our expertise and experiences with government institutes," says Gé. "We help them with their processes, policies and interactions with the business community. All the various chain processes and partnerships currently make use of an intermediary. BCT will make these types of processes more transparent and less vulnerable."

From contract to code

BCT makes compliance with deals and contracts more simple and more reliable by translating them into computer code and algorithms. If consensus has been reached between various parties about the algorithms used, a standard is created. "It's about people agreeing when bits of information can be added to an information chain and that this information cannot be changed once it has been added."

"The code of the algorithm is open or shared within the consortium, so that everyone can read it. You could compare it to the information shared on Wikipedia." Currently these are rules that need to be adhered to by people, but eventually that will be computer codes.

Unique position

When Lan Gé discovered this technology she immediately recognised its potential and that Wageningen Economic Research had to make use of it. "I'm not saying that this is the ultimate solution, but this technology does have the ability to solve many issues around the integrity of information. I can also see that people are unsure and while there are people promoting this technology as the best possible solution, there are many people who have no clue what it actually is."

"BCT has both technical and organisational components and that is what makes the position of Wageningen Economic Research unique, as we can advise on both elements."

Encrypted data

Open source does not mean that all data is visible, but rather that the protocols and software are public. "I'm not just handing over data, I am providing you with a code that only you can use and which has encrypted all the data. This means that only you can open that data."

The technology is also used for tracing products. "Each bit of information is time-stamped, so that you can trace the entire history of a product throughout the entire chain in just a few seconds. This is called provenance. Currently, provenance is mainly about tracing the certification of a product, about how information went from ‘a’ to ‘b’ to ‘c’."

"If you use BCT for this, you no longer need paperwork but you have a complete digital chain in addition to the physical chain."

Working together on new applications

Wageningen Economic Research, together with TNO and various innovative companies, has set up a BCT pilot project within the agri-food sector. ‘TNO was one of the first organisations to use this technology, but since then there are many start-ups that want to and can use BCT within their own networks. I do not see them as competitors, instead I consider them to be partners.’ This partnership has resulted in the first proof of concept for the agri-food sector.