Connecting Food – can the blockchain revolutionise supply-chain traceability?

Traceability, ideally along the entire supply chain, is one of the key ingredients of sustainable palm oil, but it is only possible through transparency. This is where Connecting Food, a Paris-based technology company, comes in. 

What does Connecting Food offer?

Maxine Roper, Co-Founder and Managing Director of Connecting Food (CF) presented her company’s innovation during Breakout Session 3 of the fourth Sustainable Palm Oil Dialogue (SPOD), held in Amsterdam on 20 October 2022.

The topic of the Breakout Session was: ‘Innovative ideas: delivering sustainable palm oil now!’

In a nutshell, CF offers a blockchain-based solution to usher in, as the company says, “a new era of full transparency”. For that, CF has built the world’s first “Food Confidence Platform”. The company’s core principles give a flavour of what its mission is all about:

  • “Food is life: we believe in the complexity, nuance, and purity of food.” The idea is to treat food not just like any other commodity or manufactured product.
  • “No one left behind: everyone should share in the value created by comprehensive data.” The digital solutions Connecting Food works with should lead to ultimate transparency and equity meaning that from farmers and primary producers all the way down the chain the transparency dream can come true.
  • “Data drives us: food brands can no longer depend on storytelling.” Objective fact will regain lost confidence in the global food system.

Explainer: What is the blockchain?

The “blocks” in the chain represent individual data records that are stored one after the other, creating a kind of data-record chain.
In principle, the blockchain is nothing more than a large database that starts with an original block to which new data blocks are chronologically appended after they have been checked and confirmed. It thus maps a history of data records, for example financial transactions.

The distinctive feature of the blockchain is that it is a distributed database. This means that everyone who participates in the blockchain system stores a complete copy of the data history on their computer. This approach significantly increases security because even if one copy is tampered with, there are still many correct versions somewhere else, and the manipulated copy can simply be sorted out.

Even though the blockchain is often used in financial transactions, it is important to understand that it is not limited to one type of information. It can also be useful in supply-chain tracking, for instance.

So, what role does the blockchain play at CF?

The Connecting Food solutions

Before getting more technical, let´s be clear on which problem that CF wants to solve.

According to the article Will technology bring back trust in the food industry?, there are four challenges at the heart of CF´s work:

  1. Consumers lack trust in brands and retailers
  2. Product recalls are costly, leading to food waste, financial and brand damages
  3. Food auditors cannot follow market growth
  4. Farmers and growers, at the heart of food quality, are often left out.

These are issues that are important for the palm oil industry indeed, such as consumer trust.

According to surveys conducted by the “Bureau Européen des Unions de Consommateurs” (BEUC), in European countries like Germany and the Netherlands, less than 20% of consumers trust food labels. In France, 34% of consumers trust organic food labels, versus 26% in the US.

Source: Will technology bring back trust in the food industry?

The reason for this lack of trust can be traced back to several food scandals in Europe over the past ten to 15 years, whether it is fipronil in eggs, contaminated Lactalis baby milk, or horsemeat in beef lasagne.

As a result, the awareness and sensitivity of consumers vis-à-vis what they eat grew. And issues such as concerns over habitat loss affecting the orangutans in the tropical forests of far-away places like Borneo, have become part of the buying decision.

In fact, as this 2019 consumer brand report shows,

  • 81% of consumers say: “I must be able to trust the brand to do what is right”.
  • 70% link their purchases to aspects such as the environmental impact of what they buy.

On top of this, the third challenge, the practical difficulties of tracing the supply chain from farm to fork are only too familiar in the palm oil industry.

According to CF, food certification is the fastest-growing vertical of the TIC industry (Testing, Inspection, Certification). And Europe accounts for the largest share of this industry, followed by North America.

Not enough auditors are available to help sustainable supply chains, in both geographies, comply with the stringent legal requirements. And innovative technology might offer the only solution.

Will Connecting Food deliver?

Connecting Food says that its mission is to build “consumer trust in food by not only tracking but more importantly digitally auditing products in real-time using blockchain technology.”

And with that, the start-up seems to have struck a nerve. Industry players including Mondelez, Herta (Nestlé), and Axereal have already come on board. Recognition has come from other quarters, too. The European Union, for example, has awarded the company its Seal of Excellence.

But what is the impact on the ground so far? Undoubtedly, blockchain and distributed ledger technologies have the potential to revolutionise many sectors beyond cryptocurrencies. They can also reshape supply chains, making them more transparent and possibly even fairer.

However, exactly how CF is planning to go about fulfilling its mission is hard to tell. From the available information, it is not fully possible to identify the concrete tools and steps that are involved in the process.

For instance, the solutions mentioned on the company website range from a “Food Twin Generator” and Live-audit to Live-scan and CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) analyser. But how all this works in practice cannot be discerned from behind a researcher’s desk. Nevertheless, companies active in the palm oil supply chain and interested to find out more can request a demonstration on the website.

While those hoping for more transparency and sustainable palm oil supply chains should wish endeavours such as Connecting Food success, change will not be swift and easy. It must be noted that making the palm oil supply chain transparent is not a purely technical problem.

Stakeholder resistance, grounded in a variety of reasons, must be factored in. Old habits die hard, and setbacks should be expected. But that does not mean that the basic approach of Connecting Food, i.e., to bring blockchain technology to the palm oil supply chain, does not point in the right direction.

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