Blockchain technology can be a great tool. Only do not assume the application will be good, or ‘trustable’, just because it’s Blockchain.

The world’s largest food and beverage conglomerate Nestlé and retail giant Carrefour are partners of IBM’s Food Trust, a fresh produce traceability platform based on blockchain-inspired technology (see previous post). In the course of 2019 they have released a number of sample applications, like Walmart did the year before.

When considering, for example, the purchase of Mousline instantly mashed potatoes, the consumer can, in the words of Carrefour, use the QR code on the packaging to «access information on the production supply chain, including the varieties of potato used, the dates and places of manufacture, information on quality control, and places and dates of storage before the product reaches the shelves».

If I were the buyer, it would bother me to be entrusted with such a verification task. If I trust Nestlé, to the point that I am used to purchase their products, why should I inspect the product’s history with my smartphone? Aren’t inspections and careful quality controls, essential parts of what Nestlé should do for me?

There’s a catch

Besides, the situation is not even the one described by Carrefour above, and which made it to most press releases and advertising campaigns.

Let’s read Nestlé’s more accurate depiction (the italics are mine): by scanning a QR code on the Mousline packaging, «consumers can follow the journey of the product from the Nestlé factory in the north of France to Carrefour stores. They can see the production date, quality control parameters, storage times and the location of warehouses. In addition to the blockchain data, consumers will also find information on the farmers who supply the potatoes for Mousline and how the puree is made».

In other words, the consumer will know nothing of the fate of raw materials prior to reaching the Nestlé factory, other than what is narrated by Nestlé suppliers in video clips offered “in addition to the blockchain data”. Nestlé and Carrefour essentially decline responsibility for what happens upstream.

I know this is unintentional: it is not easy to coopt all participant suppliers to using the application. The end result, however, is that I, the consumer, will be wasting my time watching stories that can be heard in ads every day and are probably printed on the product packaging anyway.

But there is more.

In Blockchain We Trust

Unlike Bitcoins or contracts typed-in (digitized) before the agreement is signed, potatoes and eggs do not entirely belong in a digital space. Therefore «this lot of potatoes are from France» or «these 6 eggs are organic» are not facts that a blochchain can attest as true. They will be keyed in by humans. If a human lies, the blochchain won’t know.

The fact that a chain of transaction blocks is immutable, unmodifiable, is in no way guarantee that the information it contains is true: if one user creates a block containing a false claim, this will be forever immutable… and false.

Even when all actors – including upstream suppliers –  participate in the Nestlé blockchain, there will still be no proof, to the eyes of the heroic consumer watching the smartphone screen, that the raw materials and the final product were all built to specification.

The potential remains big

The IBM Food Trust platform is first and foremost a great tool for food vendors and retailers, and it can benefit consumers only indirectly.

E.g., when the need arises to trace a lot of produce due to contamination or other crises, the application will allow to act in minutes instead of days or weeks, and this is a leapfrog although, again, it requires that the vast majority of participants in the value chain/network be also participants in the blockchain.

When everyone will be in the blockchain app, many years from now, it may even become easier to isolate fraudsters, like suppliers lying about the produce geographical provenance or pretending that it is organic when it is not.

This will be thanks to the fine grain of the network, not the credibility of the blockchain content.

So What?

According to some reports, Blockchain technology has turned out a good fit in only about 50% the projects undertaken so far, so the extra financial and organizational cost should be weighted against the feasibility with more readily available and mature technologies.

Ecosystemic contexts made of networked agents, like food traceability, seem good candidates. The presence of a development platform prepackaged by a major IT vendor may be a further indication of viability.

One consideration to be firmly born in mind is that the properties of a blockchain, which is a digital context, do not all monotonically and automatically apply to the world of the physical objects which often constitutes the space of our intended application.