Blockchain as the holy grail: TITAN featured in Vork magazine

A recent article published in the Dutch online magazine Vork, featured TITAN’s project as they focused on the impact of blockchain and how this innovative technology can help make food chains more sustainable and transparent. You can read our translated summary of the original text to learn more about this technology.

The article introduces the already known issue within food chains: the lack of transparency. How is TITAN going to help in increasing transparency in the food chain? Blockchain.

Blockchain, as explained by Katja Zweerus, is a secure and immutable digital ledger used to manage and secure data. Because this technology stores data transparently and securely, Blockchain could be used to increase food chain transparency and traceability.

In this article, writer Katja Zweerus also consulted Krijn Soeteman, a science journalist, who specializes on blockchain. Krijn went more in depth on how blockchain works and what failed in previous pilots that also focused on blockchain, and the obstacles we still need to overcome.

“In everything, it seems logical to use a blockchain system in a supply chain. All the blocks are figuratively in the right place: a chain of blocks in which transaction data is stored so that it cannot be tampered with later. The chain is also clearly visible to other companies, institutions and people without them being able to tamper with the data.”

Beautiful! Suddenly you can know for sure where the cocoa beans for your chocolate bar were grown, where the fish was caught and where the olives hung on the tree. That’s all the low hanging fruit. A step more difficult is combining different products that are incorporated into an end product. Where does the grain of the flour from which the bread is baked come from? Where do the sunflower seeds come from? Where do the preservatives come from?, etc.”

You can read the entire article (in Dutch) on Vorks website

Translation:

Opacity, large ecological footprints, food waste and inefficiencies in production and distribution – these are just a few of the issues of great concern within food chains. TITAN is a four-year project funded by the European Union’s Horizon Europe research and innovation program, with the aim of making the food chain more transparent and sustainable. They want to use blockchain for this, among other things, but does that work in the food chain?

An important and common problem within food chains is the lack of transparency. Consumers often do not have sufficient insight into the origin, quality and safety of the products they put in their basket. In addition, food contamination and other outbreaks of food-borne diseases continue to play a role on a global scale, putting food safety at risk. Another important topic in the food industry is the impact on the environment. To tackle these problems, among other things, TITAN has set itself the goal of increasing transparency in the food chain.

TITAN strives to achieve these goals by using innovative, especially digital, technologies. Blockchain is one of the technologies with which TITAN wants to achieve more transparency in the food chain. It is a secure and immutable digital ledger. This technology is used to manage and secure data, storing data transparently and securely in a chain of blocks that cannot be changed without network consensus. Blockchain could therefore be used in the food chain for, among other things, increased traceability for consumers, food safety and sustainability. Blockchain as the holy grail. But is it really that simple? We asked Krijn Soeteman, science journalist specialized in blockchain.

Krijn Soeteman about blockchain in the food chain: “In everything, it seems logical to use a blockchain system in a supply chain. All the blocks are figuratively in the right place: a chain of blocks in which transaction data is stored so that it cannot be tampered with later. The chain is also clearly visible to other companies, institutions and people without them being able to tamper with the data.

Beautiful! Suddenly you can know for sure where the cocoa beans for your chocolate bar were grown, where the fish was caught and where the olives hung on the tree. That’s all the low hanging fruit. A step more difficult is combining different products that are incorporated into an end product. Where does the grain of the flour from which the bread is baked come from? Where do the sunflower seeds come from? Where do the preservatives come from? So on and on.

However, things have not been going so smoothly with those blockchains for years. There have been quite a few pilots, often announced with much fanfare, and now you don’t hear anything about them anymore. Or small projects that tried something with a very small group of farmers and transporters. Exactly the projects where such a system of truth is hardly necessary: the participants in the chain already trusted each other, so a spreadsheet is enough to keep track of everything.

Because that is what it is, a digital chain in which the truth cannot change. Did you put fifty kilograms of coffee beans in it? Then there must be fifty kilos of it at the end. Or it must have been indicated somewhere at a transfer point that some of it was skimmed off.

Where did these types of projects fail? Especially the lack of one of the most important advantages of blockchains: you do not have to manage them yourself, the system manages them. The system administers. If a large company sets up a blockchain system, but does not actually allow competitors to work together, then it no longer works. Such a system must be used by everyone in the chain. This means a different way of working.

The bottom line is: a blockchain system should have no owner. By looking at how public blockchains function, such as well-known blockchains such as Bitcoin or Ethereum, you can clearly see what works and what doesn’t. Purists will say: a blockchain only works if everything is digital, in other words: if everything you do remains on the relevant blockchain. If you transfer a bitcoin to someone, that bitcoin moves within that blockchain.

In a food chain you suddenly have to deal with input from outside. A farmer enters that 50 kilos of coffee beans have been delivered to the carrier. Even though you can add checks & balances to this, a human does the input. This is also called the ‘oracle problem’ in the blockchain world. It is not possible for a blockchain system to communicate with external data sources. External data sources feed information about quantities or weights, for example, to the blockchain, but making sure that the data is one hundred percent correct remains a challenge.

In the blockchain world, this is also called ‘bananas on the blockchain’, or: why would you do it if you don’t have one hundred percent certainty? There is a simple answer to that: it is still many times more precise than not using a blockchain system. Tampering with data in the system is not possible, so that is already a big advantage.

Things such as calibrated equipment for weighing, for example, will be important. This needs to be checked occasionally, but you know much better where to check. This can be an advantage for quality marks: is the fish really caught sustainably? How often does someone check things there? Correct: little or perhaps never. And yet we benefit from that quality mark. Blockchains may offer a really sensible solution there, but it is not easy.”

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