By Chris Adams

The blockchain is one trendiest and highest of high-tech platforms promising – or threatening – to change modern commerce.

So how might be deployed to make sense out of one the oldest kinds of transactions known to humankind: growing food and selling it at market.

In a session with National Press Foundation fellows studying the future of food and agriculture, Keith Harris explained how that could happen – but also why people need to wary of all the hype in about blockchain.

“If you believe the latest hype about technology, you’d think that blockchain technology is going to transform every business by next Tuesday,” Harris told fellows. “Of course, that’s not the case. But the agrifood system seems custom-designed for the technology.”

After millennia in which food was a purely local and seasonal endeavor, food from all over the world now is ubiquitous. “Now we get our food where we want it, when we want it and how we want it,” Harris said.

A professor at Kansas State University, Harris studies food supply issues and previously had a career at private sector companies such as General Mills Inc., Sara Lee Corp. and Farmland Foods Inc. He first described the basics of the blockchain – a ledger system devised to support digital currencies such as Bitcoin. Few people understand how it actually works. (Do you? Don’t be ashamed – instead click here.)

Harris then explained how it could be deployed in the food sector.

Right now, the food supply chain is fragmented. By recording into a blockchain ledger each of the steps taken when, say, grain harvested from a farm in Kansas makes it into your loaf of honey wheat bread, producers and consumers could better monitor how and where something was grown.

A blockchain for that load of grain would be created as each farmer, shipper, processor, distributor or market records transactions related to it. Blockchain is designed to be decentralized and distributed across a large network of computers, reducing the ability for data tampering.

Some of the data that could be recorded: Were the grains produced in a sustainable way? In what kind of soil did the plants grow? What type of fertilizer was applied? What were the labor conditions on the farm?

There are several ag-related blockchain pilot programs being tested, Harris said. He also laid out some of the challenges with the use of the technology, including the sheer amount of data that would need to be collected and the number and types of people that would need to participate to make it reliable.