Blockchain is often described as a solution in search of a problem to fix – but the Irish Cattle Breeding Federation (ICBF) thinks it has found one.
Speaking with diginomica at this week’s Oracle OpenWorld event in San Francisco, ICBF integration manager Karl O’Connell explained how the organization has worked with consulting company Version 1 to build a proof-of-concept (POC) blockchain that brings together information from shoppers, retailers and farmers, in order to explore how farmers can best produce the steaks that shoppers want to buy and eat.
Some of the data required will come from ICBF’s own massive data stores, which are hosted on Oracle Exadata systems in its own data centres in Bandon, some 25km outside Cork. The organization manages one of the world’s largest integrated animal databases, containing data on animal ancestry and DNA, birth details, performance records and laboratory results. The aim is to use that data to help Irish farmers breed dairy and beef cattle for greater efficiency and sustainability.
Combining that data on a blockchain with data from third parties, including supermarkets and other retailers, along tasting data crowdsourced from the buying public, could hold valuable clues to which beef sells best, and why. As Karl O’Connell, integration manager at ICBF, explains it:
When you buy a steak from the supermarket, it may be good or it may not – but you, as the consumer, are the only person who can tell us that. And since there’s a strong genetic component to juiciness and tenderness and tastiness, if we can find a way to get more information from retailers and consumers to build that dataset, that’s information that the farmers who use our data need to know.
Professional food tasters could play that feedback role, and the ICBF does use them on some projects, he says, but their skills don’t come cheap and asking the public directly is easier, less expensive and, arguably, leads to more authentic feedback.
Scan your product now
Underpinning this blockchain POC is a QR code on packs of steak. Consumers would scan it with their mobiles, opening an app that gives them information on the meat’s provenance and sustainability credentials and in return, requesting their feedback on how it tasted, O’Connell explains. By combining that information with ICBF data, especially its genetic data, that can in turn inform farmers’ breeding strategies.
For Version 1, the project was led by John Bolger, the company’s innovation lead. He says:
Where we see the value of this is that ICBF has all this data and the industry can use it, but the consumer doesn’t have that visibility to see where their meat came from, how sustainably it was farmed and so on. Blockchain, we decided, could provide that ‘farm to fork’ visibility.”
The problem I have with blockchain is that people talk about it in very abstract ways. This pilot has given us a concrete example of what it might look like, how it might work, and what the business benefits might be.
Using a blockchain would mean that the supply chain partners like retailers, who host nodes that collect information from consumers and share their own information on sales and buying trends, for example, have the opportunity to share only that data that is relevant and without having to export that data to the ICBF, neatly sidestepping issues of data ownership and without ICBF having to be the custodian of other organizations’ data.
Early days, tough challenges ahead
It’s still early days for the POC. According to O’Connell, ICBF has modelled the pilot using its own internal staff as ‘customers’, eating beef raised by the ICBF itself. The feedback they gave, he says, tallied closely with what they’d expect to see from professional tasters. If rolled out as a full deployment, the blockchain could equally apply to milk for the dairy industry, as well as lamb meat (the ICBF also collects and provides data on sheep).
But with Brexit looming, it could also be a key weapon for the Irish beef industry in exploring new markets. The UK, after all, is currently Ireland’s number one export market, followed by the US. If the UK market collapses, or at least becomes more difficult and tariff-laden, Irish beef farmers will need to be ready to step up their efforts in meeting different consumer tastes in different countries, particularly the big growth markets for beef of Singapore, China, South Korea and the United Arab Emirates. Crowdsourcing that preference data and collecting it using blockchain could be the way to do that, if (and it’s still a big if) consumer and retailer participation can be achieved.