Blockchainizing Food Law: Implications for Food Safety, Traceability, and Sustainability
Conference on Food Law and Policy: Food Safety and Technology Governance, Taipei, May 10-11, 2019.
27 Pages Posted: 14 Jun 2019 Last revised: 16 Jun 2019
Date Written: May 10, 2019
In 2017, IBM announced a collaboration with a few major food producers and retailers, including inter alia Dole, Nestlé, Tyson Foods, Kroger, Unilever, and Walmart, to leverage disruptive technologies such as distributed ledger technologies (DLTs, colloquially known as “blockchain”) to address imminent governance challenges along the global food supply chain. Walmart has further required its upstream suppliers of leafy greens to use the cloud- and blockchain-based “IBM Food Trust” platform by September 2019. Similarly, the World Food Programme (WFP) of the United Nations launched the “Building Block” program since 2017. Using iris-scanning technologies and blockchains, this program helped Syrian refugees verify their identities and directly deduct what they spend from the amount of aid they receive from the WFP. Initiatives as such have the potential to help retailers and consumers to pinpoint sources of contamination at times of outbreaks or provide production details and quality certifications (e.g. product origin, farm history, processing and shipping information, and fair trade or safety/sustainability standards). Blockchains can also be combined with smart contract systems or other AI techniques to increase efficiency, simplify transactions, ensure compliance and security, and promote trade facilitation across borders.
While the far-reaching ramifications of blockchain technologies in the financial area (such as fintech and cryptocurrency issues) have been documented in media, literature, and political arenas in recent years, the opportunities as well as challenges posed by blockchain to food safety, traceability, and sustainable development have not been fully examined. The benefit of applying blockchain technologies in the global food supply chain seems salient: transforming paper-based documents into blockchain-enabled identity can, generating a high level of transparency and data integrity, enabling smaller farmers to bypass middlemen in crops trading and cash transfers, and providing efficient and cost-effective way to manage the production system. However, blockchainizing the food supply chain may pose legal and policy challenges to both developed and developing (especially underdeveloped) countries in different ways, which may in turn undermine the overall legitimacy and accountability of such techno-regulatory mechanism.
This paper therefore aims to explore the potential of blockchain technologies in revolutionizing the global food supply chain in terms of food safety, traceability, and sustainable development. More specifically, this paper will examine concrete cases in which blockchains have effectively transformed how we conventionally think about food safety, certification, and traceability (which has by and large been manual and paper-based, and therefore a labor-intense and time-consuming). At the same time, when all participants in the global supply chain are being connected and required to upload their data to the cloud-based system and generate a transparent, traceable, immutable, and shared record of production details, quality specifications and origin facts, sustainability and fair trade certifications, and storage, import/export, and logistics information, the forms and substances of conventional food law (as well as data protection law, anti-trust law, and trade law) may need to be re-conceptualized. In this light, this paper will also endeavor to locate the possible barriers and challenges to “blockchainizing” food law at national and international levels, and offer recommendations for leveraging such technology in an effective, efficient, and responsible manner.
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