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Blockchain technology and cryptocurrencies have reached the levels of mythical buzzwords in recent times, courtesy of billion dollar company valuations and miraculous overnight millionaires. Few companies have leveraged either disruption into real-world applications, but those who have, have displayed the benefits of what distributed computing might offer in a futurist economy.
Forerunning blockchain application in existing frameworks is American technology giant IBM, which has shifted its peripheral business activities to big data technologies like IoT, distributed ledger technology (DLT), A.I., and machine learning, after a slump in its core computing business.
The company was among the first major businesses to launch public blockchains for dedicated use in the enterprise sector, achieved with supporting the launch of Hyperlegder Fabric in 2013. Now, it is leveraging much of its blockchain expertise to build infrastructure in the fields of computing, finance, and most successfully, food supply.
Called the IBM Food Trust platform, the enterprise-grade blockchain is a cloud computing system that allows for transparency in the supply chain process of grocery retailers. The ultimate goal of Food Trust is to provide traceability, transparency, and efficiency.
The platform aims to reduce the time involved to trace the origin of contaminated food, which can take days or weeks with currently-used systems. But using the blockchain can help bring this period down to mere seconds, potentially reducing the impact of people, protecting against spoilage losses, and maximizing shelf life.
Last month, the project tied with retail giant Walmart to track leafy vegetables from the farm to store shelves – as the type of vegetation brims with the highest risk of contamination and bacteria among all farm goods.
The project ensures all data from farms uploaded to the blockchain and updated at each step of the supply chain. Hence, in case a few customers happen to fall ill after eating vegetables sourced from Walmart, store clerks can pinpoint the exact source of the batch of suspected vegetable, taking preventive and corrective action as required.
Walmart intends to expand the requirements of using blockchain-based tracking systems to other suppliers over the next year. With Walmart being the leading grocery seller in the U.S., that news was a massive win for IBM’s blockchain efforts.
On Oct.8, IBM announced the general availability of its Food Trust and the addition of a handful of other partners. Carrefour, the French multinational retailer with more than 12,000 stores, with the most notable addition, and will use the IBM-developed platform for private-label products as a test before expanding to all suppliers by 2022.
Another noteworthy addition is of Topco Associates, a cooperative spanning 49 members, 15,000 stores, and 65 million weekly customers. Other non-food businesses getting involved in the Food Trust are 3M and Emerson, which are working towards food-safety diagnostic equipment to communicate with the blockchain platform and providing temperature-related information for the supply chain respectively.
Interestingly, the IBM platform could spur off widespread blockchain adoption if Walmart, Carrefour, and other brands require suppliers to update an enterprise blockchain mandatorily. The move could result in a network effect of suppliers, producers, retailers, suppliers, and other companies to adopt a blockchain platform and gain an edge over others.
But, a possible tradeoff for adoption is the increase in the use of privately-controlled blockchains. Unlike blockchain networks like Ethereum and Bitcoin, which are fully decentralized and free-to-use, IBM charges $100 for the smallest customer, and the figure runs into tens of thousands per month of usage. Critics also argue that a large corporation like IBM propagating blockchain is against the technology’s ethos, as the firm is simply banking off a popular buzzword and establishing an authority while it can.
It remains to be seen how IBM influences the growth of blockchains with its myriad of applications. Will blockchain technology truly decentralize the world or be relegated to a decentralized tech governed by centralized marketplaces remains a major question to be answered.