January 28, 2021

Data building blocks: Blockchains provide advantages for storing, utilizing massive amounts of information

ST. LOUIS — Transparency, efficiency, traceability and security are just a few reasons for groups or companies to utilize a blockchain.

“A blockchain is a collection of blocks of data and the blocks of data contain information the user wants stored,” said Karen Watts DiCicco, digital and IT innovation manager at the University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service.

“The blocks are spread across different computers called nodes, and the data on the chain can be verified by checking the transactions on the chain,” DiCicco said during a presentation at the InfoAg Conference hosted by The Fertilizer Institute.

“The advantages of a blockchain over a database are it provides a proof of ownership, data can’t be deleted from the chain and this is what creates a transparent record,” she said during the virtual conference. “Blockchain has been around since 2009, and the last few years the adoption is growing.”

A mathematical process applied to the digital data creates a hash.

“The hash function turns the transaction and user data into encrypted hashes that make up the blockchain,” DiCicco said. “Hashes can turn massive amounts of data into much smaller entries by being unique and offering security.”

Users of blockchains can set up smart contracts to determine when a transaction can take place.

For example, when shipping poultry it needs to be stored at a certain temperature on the truck.

“In the smart contract, you can say if the temperature goes above a certain point, you can cancel the contract based on sensors that are used for tracking,” DiCicco said. “If everything was met from point A to point B, then the smart contract can trigger the payment to the company.”

Food safety is an area where blockchains can have an impact.

“In 2018, there were at least 18 reported outbreaks of foodborne illnesses in the U.S.,” DiCicco said. “Every year, one-third of food is wasted globally, which calls for the need to estimate and manage actual supply and demand for food products.”

In addition, blockchains could reduce the cases of shipping fraud.

“The United Nations reveals that food frauds cost the global economy $40 billion per year,” DiCicco said.

DiCicco discussed some of the emerging applications for blockchains.

“People know IBM Food Trust from Walmart, and other companies have signed on, including Nestlé and Albertsons,” she said. “It benefits all the network participants with a safer, smarter and more sustainable food ecosystem.”

The digitalization of transactions and data provides a more efficient way of working across the supply chain that includes growers, processors, shippers, retailers, regulators and consumers.

“Their solution provides an authorized user with immediate access to the food supply chain and data from farm to store and, ultimately, the consumer,” DiCicco said. “The complete history and current location of a food item as well as information like certificates and temperature data are readily available in seconds on the blockchain.”

Provenance is a blockchain that allows businesses to easily gather and present information and stories about their products, DiCicco said.

“It is all about giving the story to the consumer and also including verified data to support it,” she said.

The blockchain ripe.io is for food producers, distributors, restaurants and food retailers.

“They’re building trust and confidence in the food supply chain through a platform where anyone can access transparent and reliable information on the origin, journey and quality of food,” DiCicco said. “Partners can track and trace their food with a mobile app.”

At the University of Arkansas, researchers are evaluating several aspects of blockchains, including food traceability, crop storage and delivery, pesticide application records, voting and cyber security, with the objective to identify blockchain platforms.

“We researched use cases to choose the best agricultural use cases,” DiCicco said.

Currently, the project is in Phase 2 with a food traceability blockchain study.

“We are doing a nationwide survey of consumers to find out what consumers what to know about their food and where they shop,” DiCicco said. “Once we have the results, we want to tie consumers into the research and producers to benefit both.”

For the pilot phase, the researchers plan to work with three to five producers who will use RFID label tags.

“After the pilot, we will be surveying producers and consumers to see of they got value from it,” DiCicco said.

“Our overall goal for food safety is to be able to scan a QR code, and it will instantly tell me if the item has been recalled,” she said.

The university researchers are focused on developing an internet application since data will be coming in from equipment, sensors and producers.

“There is not going to be only one blockchain ecosystem,” DiCicco said. “There’s going to be multiple, so we want to build a solution to be able to connect to other applications.”

Martha Blum

Field Editor