iPhone apps, blockchain and the future of food

Smartphones and blockchain are empowering an evolution in food distribution.

Apple, iOS, iPhone, CES, IBM, blockchain, coffee

If you could verify how your food was grown, treated and distributed using an iPhone app, blockchain and a packaging code, would you? IBM thinks you might.

From the cradle to the plate

Everyone knows that food standards aren’t equal. Nowhere is this clearer than in the treatment of chickens destined for your plate. Some are reared in conditions considered cruel by many consumers, people who will vote with their wallets for better treatment if they are informed.

It’s not too different when it comes to vegetables, some of which travel enormous distances before reaching your local store.

Modern consumers are more concerned with the environmental impact of these journeys than ever before and want to be able to check this almost as much as they want to verify the safety of pesticides used during the growth cycle.

You don’t usually get access to such information, and if you do it is quite hard to truly verify that the data you are provided with is correct. That’s where blockchain comes into play – as does your iPhone or other mobile devices.

What IBM is doing

IBM at CES 2020 introduced a new app that uses blockchain to link consumers up with the farmers who grow their coffee beans. The idea is that when you are purchasing coffee, you can use the app on your mobile device to check where it comes from, how it's grown, distributed, shipped, exported, blended and roasted.

The problem with accessing this information across the typical distribution cycle is that different entities are usually responsible for each step of the process. This means that no one group gathers all the data.

Using blockchain

IBM is using blockchain as a permanent and trusted way to track what takes place across the cycle. Each party in the process has an exact copy of the information held on the blockchain, adding their own data during the journey. They don't need to add other people's, as that information is already in the chain.

When it comes to coffee purchasers, they get full insight into the journey. All this data is made available using a QR code, your smartphone and the upcoming Thank my Farmer app.

There’s a video here that shows a little of how this works.

The idea is that the app connects consumers to farmers, traders and others, and uses an interactive map to show you what happened to the coffee you buy.

You can learn more about this in the statement, but one point stands out:

“Coffee drinkers today consume more than half a trillion cups per year, and as many as two-thirds of consumers aged 19-24 surveyed say they prefer to buy coffee that is sustainably grown and responsibly sourced.”

In other words, younger consumers are deeply committed to sustainability and responsible business practices.

The new normal?

I think this app represents what will become normalized thought, as this way of looking at consuming is adopted. Consumers will leanr to expect access to this kind of information.

They will expect to be able to verify the life cycle of products they purchase using an app, even while they are in the mall. 

Raj Rao, General Manager of the IBM Food Trust, puts it this way:

"Blockchain is more than aspirational business tech, it is used today to transform how people can build trust in the goods they consume. For business, it can drive greater transparency and efficiency."

Trust and transparency

IBM supports Farmer Connect, which is part of the partnership behind Thank My Farmer. The organization seeks to use digital technologies to create an ecosystem for small farmers that will drive supply chain efficiency and connect consumers with the people who grow what they eat.

But it’s not just about efficiency. It’s about trust and transparency, and just as blockchain technology enables this in pharmaceuticals, health records, data security and financial affairs, it should also empower consumers with valuable insights that will guide future purchasing decisions in other fields.

It has impact at both ends of the chain, of course: In the case of food supply, making such insights available should benefit small independent concerns who can coalesce their business around the delivery of provably high-quality products.

For example, customers who care might choose to support a small organic farm above a multinational firm that perhaps holds lower standards – particularly when identifying the difference is enabled by a tool you can use just by pointing your iPhone camera at a product label in your local retail store.

Up next

Retailers know consumers already pull out their iPhone to check product prices while they shop. Many now offer to price match if better prices are found online.

IBM’s work places a new string to this bow. Sure, price-conscious buyers will still be led by cost above quality. But blockchain-based cradle-to-plate solutions such as the coffee app mean iPhone users will be better informed on quality, sustainability and environmental responsibility when they shop.

The process closes the circle between growers and consumers, educating all involved with insight into each other, presumably enabling better personalization and enhanced customer satisfaction.

The mobile disruption of every business still continues, 13 years since the introduction of the first iPhone. Perhaps Apple will use similar technologies to answer critics of its own supply chain practices?

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Copyright © 2020 IDG Communications, Inc.

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