Between June 2017 and August 2018, HarvestPlus conducted interviews with nearly 100 businesses and 250 individuals along the food value chain to discuss their views and experiences of biofortified crops and foods. The interviewees included farmers, seed sellers, processors, and marketers. We covered every phase of production from farm gate sales to products sold in retail markets by global brands.

The research uncovered several barriers to scale, and one issue came up repeatedly: the need to be able to securely trace and authenticate the journey of biofortified products from the seed to the shelf. Manufacturers, retailers, and consumers want reassurance that they are buying and selling the real product, since in most cases, a biofortified item is indistinguishable from its non-biofortified alternative. It’s a real issue because the increasing popularity of biofortified products has led to incidents of products being sold as biofortified when they are not.

This is a food issue that goes well beyond biofortified products. Mintel, a global market research company, identified traceability—the ability to see where food comes from, what they are made with, and by whom—as one of the five most important food and drink trends. According to Mintel, the trend is fueled by “widespread distrust” in how our food is made, the “need for reassurance about the safety and trustworthiness” of food, and the increasing use of natural, ethical, and environmental claims on packaging. Other consumer research points out that over half of consumer purchases are driven by health, safety, social impact, and experience—all of which require transparency and traceability.

Enter distributed ledger technology (DLT), commonly referred to as blockchain. It is a decentralized, distributed, and public digital ledger technology used to record transactions in information “blocks” simultaneously across multiple computers in a peer-to-peer network. Everyone has access to the information, and thus it is very difficult for someone to alter the information. It also provides all participants access in seconds to information about where an item has originated and when transactions have taken place. It has the potential to be more secure, trustworthy, reliable, and faster than current tracking systems based on paper, spreadsheet databases, and other existing tracking software.

Nigeria: A Biofortification Test Case

HarvestPlus is partnering with The Fork to conduct initial research on the feasibility and desirability of applying blockchain technology to a biofortification value chain—in this case, for vitamin A-biofortified orange maize in Nigeria. The Fork is a Netherlands-based consulting group that specializes in blockchain training and implementation in the agrifood sector.

HarvestPlus is part of the CGIAR agricultural research network, which has a platform for researching big data issues and applications in agriculture. The big data team have been monitoring developments in blockchain technology and they were looking for a good test case. They agreed to cover the costs of initial research for the project in Nigeria, though more resources will be required to design and implement the project with the HarvestPlus Nigeria country team. The Fork also has a presence in Nigeria, which means we would have a head start in terms of knowing the lay of the land.  

Paul Ilona, HarvestPlus country manager in Nigeria, is always looking for innovative ways to support the biofortification value chain. Ilona and his team have developed dozens of food partnerships and have worked to get biofortified ingredients in hundreds of food products. “This project and partnership with The Fork are most appreciated,” he said.

The ability to use modern and innovative supply chain traceability systems can help with several other issues such as food safety and contamination, accurate quantification of volumes of biofortified crops. HarvestPlus also hopes to be able to leverage understanding of blockchain techniques to provide leadership in effective ways to commercialize biofortified foods. Assuming this project reaches the implementation stage, access to the blockchain would be through mobile phones.

Below are some relevant links to information about food and blockchain: