IBM and a group of leading food companies are taking a major step towards making food supply chains more transparent with blockchain technology.

The consortium, which includes Dole, Driscoll, Golden State Foods, Kroger, McCormick and Company, Nestlé, Tyson Foods and Walmart, has announced a collaboration with IBM to test the tech giant’s blockchain solution “to identify and prioritise new areas where blockchain can benefit food ecosystems”, according to a statement released today.

The collaboration will build on a successful pilot that IBM carried out with Walmart earlier this year. During the pilot, Walmart discovered that it took six days, 18 hours and 26 minutes to trace a package of mangoes back to the farm in the US where they were grown, whereas with blockchain this was possible in just a couple of seconds. In that time, the blockchain revealed not only the farm from which the mangoes originated – but the exact path they followed on the way to the retail shelves.

“What we demonstrated working with Walmart is that the technology works: blockchain is an effective way to address some of the issues around traceability and transparency that we see in the global food ecosystem,” Brigid McDermott, vice-president of blockchain business development at IBM Research, tells GTR.

The next step, she says, is securing mass adoption and engagement from across the supply chain, which is exactly what the parties are now attempting with this collaboration. “The next part is equally important: to ensure that the offered value proposition is compelling to all of the players – not just the retailers, but the buyers, the distributors, the growers, everyone – and that they get engaged, so that we have both the solution and the ecosystem.”

As reported in GTR’s recent cover story, blockchain is ideally suited for tracking and tracing the physical supply chain. The technology ensures that records cannot be duplicated, manipulated or faked, and because it allows data to be entered, shared and viewed across the supply chain, the goods’ journey from farm to plate is immediately visible and transparent to all parties.

Some fascinating developments are already underway, including projects that use blockchain technology to trace diamonds, wine, coffee beans, cotton, avocados and fish.

The specific focus of IBM and Walmart’s pilot was on how the blockchain can solve food safety problems (by allowing parties to easily trace a contaminated product to its source and ensure safe removal from store shelves), but transparent supply chains are vital for many other reasons, including meeting sustainability standards and combatting fraud and trade-based money laundering.

McDermott explains that the food sector, and food safety in particular, was a good place to start because the various players have a shared goal and are thus willing to work together to improve the system for everyone.

“The collaboration that we need to drive critical mass is really strong here. Nobody is happy when their competitors have food safety problems, because it raises questions about the food ecosystem as a whole. So everybody has the desire to solve the problem,” she says.

The food companies will now be testing out the IBM blockchain solution, but exactly how it will be implemented is still being decided, she adds.

In a statement, Walmart’s vice-president of food safety Frank Yiannas says the company is looking forward to expanding its initial work. “Blockchain technology enables a new era of end-to-end transparency in the global food system,” he says, summarising it as “equivalent to shining a light on food ecosystem participants that will further promote responsible actions and behaviours”.

In addition to food safety, IBM is involved in a range of other blockchain supply chain initiatives, including one with Maersk that aims to help manage and track the paper trail of millions of shipping containers across the world.

IBM was also recently chosen to develop Digital Trade Chain, a blockchain trade finance platform for SMEs, powered by Hyperledger Fabric 1.0.