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John McDonald: We can protect food by helping farmers go high-tech

August 24, 2018

McDonaldI, like so many others, often find myself saying, “It’s 2018—how is this still an issue?”

Often, the issue is something that could be easily solved through the proper application of technology. This is the case with food recalls. We have the technological know-how to eliminate this problem, as well as many others in the food chain, but we are slow to adopt the solutions.

We can trace food from the field where it was grown all the way to your plate. We need to overcome the barriers that keep us from including this most precious resource—our food supply—from joining the “internet of things” ecosystem.

It is impossible to have not heard about blockchain technology, but few understand it. Perhaps most famously developed as part of bitcoin, blockchain is essentially an auditable, public record of all transactions involving a bitcoin (or any cryptocurrency) from when the bitcoin was electronically minted up to this moment. It provides a way for anyone to verify that a bitcoin is authentic and hasn’t been tampered with as it is electronically handed off from owner to owner.

Though this security layer is absolutely necessary for cryptocurrency, it could actually be more useful when applied generally to verifying bits of data from the devices that create them through their journey to the cloud. This accounts for why so many internet of things conversations today include blockchain.

We have the ability to spray biomarkers on plants in the field, or even coat seeds planted in the ground, such that the inception point of a leaf of lettuce could be traced to the field or to the planting row. Were that data registered as the start of a blockchain for that ingredient, each point of transfer or processing could add data to that chain, including tagging bags of crops in the field, to the trucks that transport it, to the factories that process the food, to the warehouses and ultimately grocery shelves.

With that data, chefs and consumers could compare products to see which took the shortest path—thus preserving the most nutrition and containing the fewest processing steps and chemicals—and make purchase decisions based on the blockchain’s unbiased results.

Yet, today’s farmers are hard-pressed to adopt these technologies. Commodity markets by nature don’t allow for the differentiation of one ear of corn from another. Adding these technologies only raises the cost of production without the ability to lift the price.

Even were this challenge overcome by consumers demanding food traceability and willing to pay more for it, we find that farms themselves are light on technological infrastructure. Today, we take aerial pictures of fields before planting, in order to set seeders to adjust what’s dropped in each row based on soil consistency and moisture, and we measure yield at harvest time as the combines roll across the same rows. This data can be used to mitigate soil concerns and set the seeders more effectively next season.

What is needed is a way for farmers to leverage the value of their land toward improving its network connectivity. internet-connected land is more valuable than non-internet-connected land. If a developer of an apartment complex were to build two identical units, one fully wired in every room, and the other without any internet, that developer would be able to charge more for the connected apartments.

We need a method to do the same for farmers, enabling them to put the equity in the value of their land to work in service of improving its connectivity. Low- or tax-free loans for technology infrastructure might do the trick.

All that being said, we as consumers can also demand more from our food chain by demanding better accountability standards for our produce.•

Click here for more Forefront columns.

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McDonald is the CEO of Fishers-based ClearObject and chairman of the Indiana Technology and Innovation Policy Committee. Send comments to ibjedit@ibj.com.

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