The Internet of Tomatoes on the Blockchain
While much of the legal industry has been overwhelmed by the hype surrounding blockchain, a lot of the attention has focused on cryptocurrencies and initial coin offerings (ICOs). But at Thomson Reuters innovation lab in Boston last week, a farmer and the co-creator of a local food partnership spoke about how the Internet of Things (IoT) and blockchain technology are transforming the food-agriculture ecosystem in New England.
Jim Ward, farmer and cofounder of Ward’s Berry Farm, has been farming fruits and vegetables since 1981 and currently cultivates more than 180 acres of crops varying from sweet corn, pumpkins, berries, and peaches. Tomatoes are Ward’s most profitable crop. Several years ago, he partnered with Francis Gouillart, president and co-founder of Experience Co-Creation Partnership, to change the way he grew, distributed, and marketed his tomatoes.
Together, they conceived a pilot produce distribution program using blockchain principles, where sharing the information from IoT among farmers, distributors, and restaurants on a blockchain (Ripe.IO) provides all parties with much needed data to drive the value of their tomatoes. Traditionally the food system has been quite fragmented and complex for small farmers to navigate, leading to market corruption and an inability for farmers to establish or drive the value of their product.
“We’ve never had an efficient or great system of connecting information together or distributing it across farmers, distributors, and restaurants,” said Gouillart. “But blockchain can be a very cheap and fair way to better serve the food-agriculture ecosystem.”
Essentially, the system of IoT Ward and Gouillart devised utilizes three different types of sensors (analog devices, environmental solar-powered sensors in the field measuring external factors like light and heat, and infrared devices) that measure various aspects ranging from external factors such as light, heat, and humidity to internal factors like levels of sugar, acidity, and salt that can affect taste and flavor.
It is a feed of big data, running every 15 minutes to allow Ward to track which agronomic practices to drive optimal flavor and taste. Additionally, data on the conditions of prize-winning tomatoes is fed back into the system. The result is the ability to utilize this data to establish the specific value and characteristics of these tomatoes from the time they were grown, harvested, transported, and arrive to the end-user.
“Blockchain here hasn’t changed the nature of the food but has authenticated claims of people upstream,” said Gouillart.
As a long-time farmer whose tomatoes have routinely won prizes at New England fairs and contests, Ward wasn’t totally surprised about external factors that drove quality. Between feeding the big data back into the system and combining that with data from the IoT, he learned specific practices he could tweak.
“From these tools I learned that my tomatoes peaked in flavor three days after I harvested,” Gouillart said. “So now I know to pick tomatoes on Wednesday for Saturday use, not on Friday as I would have before.”
Whereas Ward and Gouillart’s process is focused on providing and marketing both the local nature of their tomatoes and the specific factors that result in better flavor than competitors’ products, bigger food chains have publicly come out in support of blockchain technology with an emphasis on food safety and risk reduction. Most big retailers, restaurant chains or distributors tend to rely heavily on imports from other countries or far-flung states, not local farms. Additionally, many of these chains carry foods with numerous processed ingredients in their food.
So as large chains like Wal-Mart and Dole put traceability information on the blockchain and essentially provide transparency around supply chain management, will consumers demand information on the quality of their produce to compare against locally grown tomatoes like Ward’s? It seems unlikely, as most issues that have emerged in the space so far have focused on the benefits for food safety, reduction of food waste, and essentially boosting consumer confidence in the global food system.
Beyond the IoT and blockchain technology, Gouillart and Ward envision a day when smart contracts could be used between farmers and restaurants. Specifically, pricing could automatically trigger based on the quality of a tomato when it leaves a farm, how many hours it travels to the store, etc. Gouillart even wonders if an ICO would allow all parties in the food ecosystem – farmers, distributors, and restaurants – to foster an infrastructure that is primarily local and provides capital, real estate, and investors needed for a shared kitchen incubator, but has watched from the sidelines if that would be useful or create more hurdles around transferability and fungibility, should original players drop out.
This post was written by Sameena Kluck, strategic account executive with Thomson Reuters.