Blockchain Gets a Boost in the Ag Supply Chain

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As the fog of hype that accompanied the early days of blockchain begins to lift, the technology is beginning to yield tangible results in a variety of industries, most notably worldwide agribusiness.

That industry’s adoption of blockchain recently took a big step forward with introduction of the TraceHarvest Network. Launched by blockchain platform provider BlockApps in partnership with Bayer AG, the initiative claims to be the first use of blockchain to track and trace the full lifecycle of agricultural products, all the way back to the seed source.

Working with Bayer’s Crop Science Division, the network preserves a full record of provenance as products are planted, harvested, processed, sold and exchanged. The distributed ledger of transactions is accessible by farmers, manufacturers, distributors and processors, who can draw on the single platform to share and review data.

TraceHarvest runs on BlockApps’ Strato platform, based on the Ethereum protocol. It provides users with one network for adding business processes, use cases and technology integrations, according to Kieren James-Lubin, BlockApps president and chief executive officer.

TraceHarvest has been in development for several years, and in production for two growing seasons, says James-Lubin. It reached full-scale operations with the acquisition of Bayer as its first named anchor customer.

James-Lubin believes agriculture is especially well-suited to blockchain technology. “Growers are looking to have guaranteed revenues, and often experience better margins from premium rather than commodity products,” he explains. A secure ledger in the form of a blockchain can validate specialty varieties and trace them back to the source.

“It’s becoming increasingly important to Bayer and other input manufacturers that their providers know exactly where their products are,” James-Lubin says.

The blockchain ledger can also store information about carbon emissions, as well as serve as a resource for managing recalls in the event of product contamination.

Identifying specific products at the source can be tricky, given the impossibility of tagging each individual seed. Instead, growers pick a minimum unit — whether bag, batch or case — then track it throughout the supply chain. Bayer uses the application called FieldView, developed by its subsidiary The Climate Corporation, to collect, store and analyze data in real time from the moment of planting.

For agricultural producers, blockchain eliminates the need to reconcile data from different sources and I.T. systems, James-Lubin says. The alternative would be the use of a clearinghouse that risks making proprietary information available to unauthorized users. “It allows overall industry-wide visibility, without being under the control of a company that then has tremendous knowledge of that data.” you can’t 

Blockchain technology ensures the accuracy of data by storing it on multiple computers and nodes, which can number in the millions in the case of transactions involving cryptocurrencies. TraceHarvest relies on significantly fewer participants than that, given its design as a private blockchain accessible only to parties directly involved in the relevant activities.

“Transactional data in the system is shared on a need-to-know basis, as opposed to [displaying]exactly the same data for everyone,” says James-Lubin. “The parties involved in the transaction are the ones sharing the data.”

Blockchain proponents claim that the technology is secured against tampering, given the storage of shared data across multiple computers. But concerns over the security of blockchain aren’t entirely unjustified. Networks created for cryptocurrency transactions have been repeatedly breached by thieves, who have stolen billions of dollars’ worth of digital coins over the past few years.

For an industry like agriculture, concerns over the security of a blockchain are more about the improper disclosure of private data, James-Lubin says, and TraceHarvest takes careful steps to prevent that from occurring. “First thing we do is make sure that only the right people have access to the network. If you don’t have a reason to be there, you can’t go beyond that to the next level. Moreover, since there’s no currency in it, it’s less irreversible — if something goes wrong, you can correct it.”

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Beyond Bayer, BlockApps isn’t disclosing other early users of the TraceHarvest Network, although James-Lubin claims they include a number of traditional industry players and technology companies, especially those providing applications in the crowd.

While Strato wasn’t designed solely for agribusiness — other industries deploying the platform include energy, finance and travel — James-Lubin sees the potential for significant user growth in that sector.

“It’s been a quiet couple of years because we took the time to test it,” he says. “But it was designed from the beginning to be industry-scalable.”

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