Blockchains and the global food chain

Blockchains are being heralded as ‘the next big thing’ in emerging technology, but what are they, and why do we need to know? The Agrifood Training Partnership finds out more.

What is a blockchain?

Blockchains are effectively ledgers, recording multiple transactions across an industry in a way that can’t be changed. “A blockchain is a continuously growing list of records, called blocks, which are linked and secured using cryptography.” (Wikipedia 2018). Each record, or block, is time stamped so each transaction is recorded in sequence. This means a chain of transactions can be viewed from start to finish – or from the most recent back to the original transaction.

A blockchain ledger is typically managed by multiple companies in a business network or consortium, rather than one central authority. Once recorded, the data in any given block is visible to all parties to that transaction and cannot be altered retroactively without the alteration of all subsequent blocks, which would require the collusion of the network members. This is the real value of a blockchain: data is shared in a secure manner providing transparency across the business process with the assurance that the data the ledger contains is indelible.

Blockchains in the food industry

International players in the food industry are already researching uses for blockchain technology. Walmart is working with IBM in China to develop ‘track-and-trace’ systems to trace each food item it stocks back through the supplier and distributor to the producer. This is vital in the event of a product recall – where it would once take weeks to find the source of a product and trace its journey to a particular store, it now takes seconds.

Every member of the supply chain will be recorded and so will also be alerted to the recall.

To make this work, every individual package of produce must be uniquely identifiable. The global standards body, GS1, is leading the way in serialization efforts, offering unique codes called GTINs that can be applied to products. Then every participant in the supply chain must transfer the custody of these products to each other every step of the way so there is an unbroken record of the product’s journey.

IBM European Blockchain Marketing Leader, Bob Yelland said: “Blockchain will transform business transactions across networks of companies, particularly across international boundaries, and open up new business models and closer co-operation within any supply chain where traceability and provenance are critical”. Bob is due to speak at the 2018 AFTP Conference.

Developing consumer trust

Blockchains won’t just be used to find out where a product has been. They can also be used to tell a consumer how it was made. Also using Internet-of-things (IoT) sensors the storage conditions of a product can be recorded. This is currently very important to consumers in countries like China where there have been frequent food scares, and a real distrust of food that has been produced in-country.

Currently, consumers in China can trace an individual steak in a supermarket back to the farm and specific animal it came from by scanning a code and looking at the results online.

Soon, consumers in the UK will expect similar levels of information to make food purchasing decisions. And it is likely they will use a mobile phone app for in-store scanning. As health warnings have encouraged consumers to look for more information about the food they are eating, many consumers now want to know what each individual ingredient is and where it came from.

This is partly due to social trends including concern for the environment (ie the effects of palm oil production, dwindling fish stocks) and a distrust of large multinationals such as Google and Facebook.

There is growing consumer demand worldwide for more transparency about food production supply chains and increased verification for food marketing claims, including proof of terms like ‘organic’, ‘free range’, ‘fair trade’, or ‘locally produced’.

Existing certifications and facility audit reports could soon be registered on blockchains to prove claims. If consumers know a company’s labelling is backed by a traceable blockchain that can’t be altered, this knowledge is likely to influence consumer behaviour.

However, as a note of caution, a blockchain is only as good as the information in it and the ability to reliably associate a physical product with its digital record. Third-party verification of food chain information will be a growing industry in the very near future.

Benefits for producers

The potential benefits of using blockchains aren’t all a one-way street for consumers.

Block Commodities and the Global Markets Exchange Group International have created a blockchain-based platform for African commodity markets. The platform helps connect farmers in sub-Saharan Africa with buyers and brokers, enabling farmers to get better prices for their crops, as well as reduced-rate loans. The goal is to democratize finance by providing farmers with up-to-date information about loan interest rates and commodities prices, which will be registered and logged on a blockchain.

Dutch coffee company, Moyee Coffee, is a small start up committed to what it calls ‘Fairchain’. Using a bext360 blockchain platform, Moyee gives all stakeholders – farmers, roasters, and consumers – access to data across the entire supply chain.

This provides unprecedented levels of transparency around the origin and quality of the coffee; allowing the coffee drinker to access the blockchain data to see exactly where the coffee came from and even how much the farmer was paid for the beans.

Find out more at the AFTP conference

To find out more about blockchain technology and its implications for the UK agrifood industry, book your place at the 2018 AFTP conference. The conference will be held on 3rd July at Burlington House, London. It offers a timely look at the UK Industrial Strategy and Environment Plan and developments in the agrifood sector.

The conference addresses the strategy’s ‘four grand challenges’ from an agrifood perspective: AI and Data Economy, Future of Mobility, Clean Growth and the Aging Society.

Bob Yelland, IBM Blockchain Marketing Manager will discuss Blockchain and its role in preventing food fraud.

Vegan alternative to steak comes to a supermarket near you

As the barbecue season starts to heat up and the debate continues around the environmental cost of producing intensively reared red meat, two food research companies have recently launched completely vegan alternatives to minced beef and steak.

Dutch company Vivera is distributing 100 per cent plant-based steak through 400 TESCO supermarkets, produced from a combination of wheat and soy. Vivera claims that the smell, taste and bite can ‘hardly be distinguished from real steak’.

The UK launch of the product suggests that there is consumer interest in a plant-based meat alternative. A week after the product launch spokesperson Gert Jan Gombert said: “The first delivery of 40,000 has nearly sold out, with some supermarkets selling out within a day.”

Meanwhile, Silicon Valley-based Impossible Foods has produced a wheat and soy-based beef burger. The beef is flavoured by ‘Heme’ an iron-containing molecule that occurs naturally in animals and plants. Heme found in nitrogen fixing nodules of leguminous plants is called leghemoglobin, and this is apparently what gives the burgers their meaty flavour and texture.

Impossible Foods’ Heme is produced from genetically engineered yeast, which is not permitted to be used in the EU. Genetically engineered foods may be allowed in the UK post-Brexit.

Decades of development

It is the emphasis on taste and texture that sets these products apart. The original plant-based alternative to meat was textured vegetable protein (TVP) or textured soy protein, developed in the 1960s by US agricultural commodities and food processing company Archer Daniels Midland. TVP is a by-product of extracting soya bean oil.

A UK meat alternative, Quorn, is produced from mycoprotein (Fusarium fungus). It was developed in the 1980s and is exported around the world. Although TVP and Quorn products can be cooked as meat substitutes, neither product looks or tastes like meat.

Pressures to find alternatives to meat

Pressures to find alternatives to meat are coming from multiple directions. Many vegetarians and vegans are seeking sources of protein, iron and vitamin B12 from new types of foods rather than supplements. They are creating a demand for products that can be cooked in a variety of ways, including in burgers.

There are also health concerns about meat and the trend for ‘clean eating’. The health risks of consuming red meat have been well documented . Consumers are increasingly looking for ‘clean labelling’ of foods where lists of ingredients are more transparent and chemical additives are reduced.

Issues of sustainability are also being raised. Impossible Foods claims that producing its Impossible Burger uses 95% less land and 74% less water than beef, and creates 87% less greenhouse gas emissions.

Population growth creates a need for alternative foods

As the global population grows, so do the issues involved in global food production and food security. Increased competition for resources will impact on the amount of agricultural land and water available to produce food. Changes in consumer demand including a growing global middle class that can afford to eat beef, increasing numbers of vegetarian, vegan and flexitarian consumers, consumer-driven clean labelling movements, and the arguments for and against genetic modification are all issues that face today’s food scientists.

Current UK food science research

UK food scientists and researchers are studying all aspects of food production from agricultural innovations right through to consumer behaviour in dedicated food laboratories, using the latest technology.

Research into food products that use fewer resources to produce but still taste good is vital.

The Sensory Science Centre at the University of Nottingham is part of the Food Science Division. Some of the current research carried out there includes:

• crossmodal perception – how taste, aroma and texture integrate to elicit flavour perception,
• using functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) to understand flavour and taste signals are processed in the brain,
• investigating individual variation in perception due to genetics, age and our environment
• measuring emotional response to sensory properties of food

Taste, flavour and texture is all in the brain

Rebecca Ford, Associate Professor in Sensory and Consumer Science from the Sensory Science Centre, said: “In order for consumers to accept these alternative sources of protein in their diet, the products must delight their senses. Our research has shown the importance of the congruency in the delivery of taste, aroma and texture from food. Our sensory receptors receive information during consumption (detection) and send these signals to the brain resulting in perception.

“How our brains deal with this complex arrival of sensory information is fascinating. We see a synergistic response in brain activation when we receive sensory signals from products we are used to experiencing.

“Our brains learn what to expect regarding the taste, flavour and texture of products, such as meat, resulting in greater activation when this information is all sent to the brain at the ‘right’ time and at the ‘right’ intensity. When some of this information is missing, e.g. when the texture is ‘not quite right’, our acceptance and associated reward mechanisms are lower.

“This is why companies spend considerable time testing their products with sensory and consumer panels to measure our perception of them, as we’re yet to model how our brains integrate sensory information using instrumental techniques alone. “

The quality of food affects all of us

The Food Research Group at the University of Reading works closely with the food industry across the whole food chain, leading innovative research into sustainable and healthy food products that meet the preferences and needs of a growing population.

With its four research themes:

• food technology and engineering,
• waste valorisation,
• food chemistry,
• and food quality and consumer value

it spans the primary production of the raw materials at one end, and can take new products all the way through from processing to sensory and consumer trials, with a strong food chemistry group providing analysis and fundamental understanding throughout.

Food still has to taste great

Associate Professor Jane Parker, Associate Professor and Manager of Reading University’s Flavour Centre, said: “Food quality is of fundamental interest to us. We want a healthy diet, that is safe, nutritious and delivered with great taste, texture and appearance.

“All too often, as more healthy alternatives are developed, there is a compromise in flavour. One of our roles is to understand how to redress this balance, and to ensure that both taste and aroma are as close (or better) than the original product. No matter how healthy a product, it still has to taste great.

“The Flavour Centre draws on the research within the group and has many years’ experience working with the food industry in consultancy, training, knowledge transfer and technical service.”

Email Dr Parker at the Food Research Group here .

Food science short courses available through the AFTP

Both universities teach full undergraduate and postgraduate degree programmes but there is also a range of short courses available through the AgriFood Training Partnership.