Blockchain will not keep food fresh

by Ryan McGuire via StockSnap
by Ryan McGuire via StockSnap

This type of blockchain article – from Quartz, no less (they usually do better) – is not only annoying (hype, anyone?) but also detrimental to development.

For starters, the headline – “Supermarkets are now using blockchain to keep food fresh” – is misleading. No, supermarkets are not using blockchain to keep food fresh. One supermarket chain (Walmart) has trialled the concept, and a broader group is uniting to explore functionalities of a platform built by IBM.

Also, promising that blockchain technology can keep food fresh is heightening expectations unreasonably. Shippers and supermarkets keep food fresh. This particular project is focused on detecting the origins of food contamination. Not the same thing.

Furthermore, of the founding members of the group, only two are supermarkets (Walmart and Kroger). The others (Golden State Foods, Dole, Unilever, Nestle, Tyson Foods, McLane Company and McCormick) are distributors, meat processors or manufacturers.

And, while the technology exists, claiming that it will be implemented is a stretch. A lot of buy-in will be needed for it to make a difference. Network effects will give an advantage to the first mover, but will not necessarily give it victory over others that emerge. Can there be more than one platform fulfilling the same function? If so, some degree of interoperability will be necessary to avoid silos of information – not a simple task. And if not, is that not the ultimate centralization?

Blockchains make sense if distributed control is an advantage. Why that is assumed to be the case here is unclear. Could a powerful database not do the trick? IBM could maintain the ledger, make sure that only trusted suppliers participated, and assume that its reputation for reliable development will give it room to grow with the network. A decentralized approach would most likely distribute the responsibility for the input data, ensuring it complies with regulations. But which regulations?

Furthermore, blockchains are only as reliable as the data they hold. What does it matter that data can’t be manipulated once input, if the data is faulty to begin with? Supply chains are notorious for shoddy documentation requirements and practices – changing a culture of record-keeping and processes will take a lot more than a new platform.

I’m not saying that the idea is not feasible. It’s just that it is so much more complex than superficial articles like this imply. And telling the public that they can expect contaminated food to be a thing of the past is misleading. Even worse, it sets the scene for major disappointment.

According to Gartner, blockchain applications for supply chains are on the initial upward slope of the hype cycle. Articles like this lead me to believe that they are almost at the peak. When the trough of disillusionment is upon us, critics will point to how the technology has not fulfilled its promise. Development projects will be shelved, failures will be paraded and attention will move elsewhere. No-one will blame the media that helped fuel unrealistic expectations.

 

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