Trust is a bedrock attribute when it comes to the food supply. Consumers want to know that the provenance and safety of their food can be assured, which has opened the door in the agricultural world to the heralded, 21st-century technology of blockchain. Initially created to enable cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin, this distributed ledger software technology has been embraced by the financial services industry as well as in other safety-conscious arenas such as healthcare, insurance and more.
A high-level understanding of blockchain makes clear its appeal to the agriculture sector. Blockchain is a distributed database that maintains an always-growing list of records that are protected from tampering and can’t be revised. Each valid block is made of time-stamped transactions and linked to a previous block, with the whole forming a secure chain.
With blockchain, credentials for storage, transport, provenance and export can all be integrated and linked back to farm-level data, providing further transparency throughout the process. It makes possible efficient, less-wasteful product recalls, creates an immutable barrier to tampering, fraud or threat and brings farmers and consumers together.
Like other highly touted technologies such as AI and Internet of Things, pursuing blockchain applications for the ag-tech market is vastly appealing but puts demands on U.S. companies such as finding qualified personnel, attracting funding and collaborative partners as well as identifying optimal locales where food production and technology overlap. For these reasons, many American companies have been using Ireland as a resource in their pursuit of blockchain solutions for their sector.
Agriculture and tech in Ireland
Ireland’s confluence of food production with its rapidly growing technology community has set the stage for a budding environment for creating blockchain applications in agriculture there. Observing the landscape, in which agriculture and technology are joined with an active research milieu and strong government support of entrepreneurship, provides a roadmap of how blockchain in ag-tech can thrive.
According to Dr. John Breslin, a senior lecturer and leader of innovation programs at the National University of Ireland, Galway, who also plays a key role in a major R&D program called VistaMilk covering the dairy industry, “Many agrifood and technology companies are developing solutions to leverage blockchain for improved traceability.” Examples include “animal drug traceability — to reduce drug usage and dependency — or for protecting farm infrastructure. I’ve recently been working with a student on tracing farm machinery and their service/sale records using blockchain,” he explained.
According to Dr. Breslin, a number of American companies such as ConsenSys, IBM and Fidelity are working on various blockchain projects in Ireland while Deloitte has established a regional blockchain innovation lab there. IBM Ireland Research is conducting a blockchain project on food traceability from point of origin to consumers.
Given the importance of cattle to Ireland’s economy — beef dominates its large output of meat and the nation is a sizeable milk producer — there are many blockchain projects underway in this area.
“We are working to modernize supply chain assurance for beef and dairy farmers,” said Dr. Breslin. He also mentioned efforts involving livestock selection by tracking breeding and artificial insemination. “Blockchain can enable the monitoring of genetic trait performance, animal health and welfare, right through to the food-processing stage.”
Multiple blockchain activities
Drawing on its expansive international technology sector — eight of the world’s top 10 tech companies have facilities in Ireland — it is becoming a laboratory for innovative ag-tech projects using blockchain. The Irish operation of Moyee Coffee is running a pilot project to provide supply chain transparency while making real-time payments to Ethiopian farmers for their coffee beans. Irish craft beer producer Downstream Beer is using blockchain to inform consumers about anything they want to know about beer ingredients and brewing methods.
New company Clárú is demonstrating the provenance of Irish food products using blockchain “from farm to fork“ to make it easily accessible to consumers. Another young company, Origin Chain, offers a digital trust platform that provides environmental and sustainability credentials of food and other products.
One of these promising operations is Farmeye, whose technology offers a secure, blockchain-enabled digital chain of custody for agricultural soil samples with environmental laboratories as the customer. However, what’s also notable about Farmeye is the fact it was spun out from Ireland’s active university research sector and received funding from one of the new incubators there that is supporting ag-tech startups.
One of the major attractants for U.S. technology companies establishing operations in Ireland is the nation’s reputation for an unusual degree of collaboration between government, industry and academia. For example, Blockchain Ireland is a government and IDA-funded initiative with broad participation by companies — IBM and Fidelity included — as well as Ireland’s sizeable university and research sectors. This organization is working with many international companies to move blockchain technology forward.
The Irish government has also funded the CeADAR (National Center for Applied Data Analytics and AI) center located at University College Dublin. According to Center Director Dr. Edward McDonnell, the center has collaborated on blockchain projects with US firms such as Accenture, State Street, Fidelity and Liberty.” We have also worked in agritech, where we have done several commercially confidential blockchain projects,” he said. Like other research operations in Ireland, CeADAR has tapped into EU funding to collaboratively develop promising new blockchain applications.
Producing trained workers
In addition to its community of high-tech incubators, Ireland has two ag-tech accelerators where blockchain is one of the exciting technologies. The Pearse Lyons Accelerator is supported by agriculture giant, U.S.-headquartered Alltech, and Yield Lab Galway is the European office of Yield Lab in St. Louis. These incubators can draw on Ireland’s large, well-educated technology workforce but efforts are underway to produce more professionals savvy about the cryptography and advanced algorithm development used in blockchain.
For example, the National University of Ireland Galway has graduate programs in agrifood that also train students in entrepreneurship while affiliated organization such as TechInnovate train professionals, identify promising technologies and spin out companies whose products can be used internationally. Another training source is the government-funded Skillnet program, which works with companies to design focused curriculum that will produce graduates for companies located in Ireland. In fact, IBM Research is working with Skillnet on a training program to develop the software skills needed in blockchain.
Ireland’s collaborative environment, flourishing technology sector and appealing levels of funding are seen in increasing ag-tech research as well as entrepreneurship that is being exploited by U.S. companies hoping to use blockchain in their future solutions.
Edited by Ken Briodagh