Corona has the world firmly in its merciless grip. As of right now [3/28/2020, 6 p.m.], there are nearly 650,000 confirmed cases worldwide, according to the John Hopkins University (1). 30,000 people have lost their lives, about ⅔ of them in Europe. The world, Europe and Germany were not prepared for such a catastrophe. But we were warned. One of the brightest minds of our species, may you think what you will of him as a person, already pointed out the danger to us urgently four years ago. If you haven’t seen it yet, I would like to urge you to watch Bill Gates’ Ted Talk: “The Next Outbreak? We Are Not Ready” (2).
The summary: We knew what should have been done in the last years and what was and is at stake.
But it is not in our nature to react to vague and distant threats. Our ancestors are those homo sapiens who fled in panic at the sight of a saber-toothed tiger and then later copulated with each other. Those who remained sitting by the campfire, deep in thought about the sustainability of their wood consumption, became cat food and then obviously had no more opportunities to spread their genes. But we have long since ceased to let our evolutionary predestinations determine everything. I, as a more or less typical homo sapiens male, for example, do not feel too much sperm competition with my competitors anymore. This manifests itself, among other things, in that I don’t try to copulate with all the homo sapiens females I see, and I don’t try to gain exclusive sexual access to my non-existent female pack members (probably wouldn’t be so promising anyway, given my stature). If we as a species, at least most of us, have made it this far, then we will probably also manage to think more actively about the great invisible dangers that threaten our existence.
Food & the spread of pathogens
So why am I writing this text right now? I am involved with the blockchain tech start-up OURZ (3) as a sustainability strategist and have been an absolute blockchain fanatic since 2017. OURZ has made it its mission to make the history of food transparent and thus traceable from the field to the plate in an unalterable way. However, my article is not meant to be a tribute to OURZ. We at OURZ do not want to use the Corona disaster to make a name for ourselves. Nevertheless, we would of course like to share our unique insights from several years of experience with blockchain technology in the food industry for the common good. We hope to do no more and no less than help protect human lives. My article will therefore discuss to what extent the technology with which OURZ manages to make food traceable can make its contribution to preventing or at least mitigating situations like the current one.
What does food have to do with pandemics, epidemics and endemics? Unfortunately quite a lot, as I had to find out during the last days by intensive research! Mainly a publication(4) by the Robert Koch Institute (RKI) from the year 2009 caused me to write this article. It shows that food and our consumption of it contribute to the potential spread of disease in two ways. In the process, the second also fuels the first. But slowly, let’s start from the beginning.
The RKI has stated in its publication that the danger from pathogens in Germany comes in particular from rodents, ticks and precisely food. So the first way food contributes to disease spread is directly. Foodborne infections, such as salmonella, are among the most common infectious diseases, according to the RKI. Current and, more importantly, reliable figures on those who have fallen ill or died from foodborne infectious diseases are difficult to find. The first and, on a global scale, the only truly reliable information to date comes from the World Health Organization. Based on a study from 2010(5) to date(6), the organization estimates that about 600,000,000 people per year fall ill from contaminated food and that about 420,000 of them die each year. Especially the young and old among us. About 23,000,000 of these cases, with about 5,000 deaths, occur annually in Europe(5).
And it is getting worse. The German Federal Ministry of Education and Research believes that infectious diseases from food pose a growing threat(7). The RKI(4) also suspects that the numbers of infectious diseases in the world, just as in Germany, will increase, fueled by climate change. Warmer temperatures and extreme weather events help pathogens in food to develop, multiply and spread. This brings me to the second way food, or our consumption of it, contributes to the spread of disease. Indeed, according to the German Federal Environment Agency(8), after mobility, our food is the second largest area of consumption in terms of our greenhouse gas emissions. Worldwide, the area of nutrition even causes about ⅓ of our emissions.
However, we like to eat beef, pork and whatever else has two or more or sometimes fewer legs. However, because animal products have an extremely poor energy efficiency, our consumption of them accounts for about ⅔ of our food-related greenhouse gas footprint(9). But then what to use for the morning sandwich if not salami? N****la hazelnut cream, of course! No, wait a minute. It’s full of palm oil. To make room for plantations, rainforests, the lungs of our planet, are being cleared around the world(10). Exactly the same applies to soy, by the way, the stuff we feed to our salamis and vegans. Then consume only regional? Will be difficult! After all, our salami from the village next door just keeps eating soy from Brazil. Plus, if there were only products without palm oil in the supermarket, we would only smile tiredly about the few empty shelves due to the hoarding purchases that currently exist(11). Moreover, regional does not necessarily have to be sustainable. Production in particular, but also storage, processing and packaging can contribute to climate change. In the case of production, for example, the land and the fertilizer that are used are criticized(12).
Blockchain will help
Let’s move on to the blockchain and how it will help. I don’t want to spend too much of your reading time at this point explaining blockchain technology in all its subtleties. If you realized at this point that you had read just one tenth of my text, you probably wouldn’t read another tenth. I’d rather use your attention to show you how blockchain technology can acutely help us. If you want to learn more about blockchain technology itself, start with Don Tapscott’s Ted Talk on it (13).
But maybe this much: A blockchain is really just a database on which ones and zeros are stored. Like a USB stick, for example. But while you can delete and change data on your USB stick as wildly as you like without anyone noticing or being able to trace it, this is not possible on a blockchain. This is essentially due to two of its properties.
First, it is a back-to-end database. All data that is stored on a blockchain remains on it forever. Data that is newly added must not contradict the previous ones in order to be stored. So you can still lie on the blockchain if this is not prevented by other additional technologies, but then you can no longer contradict yourself. The increasing complexity of our world therefore makes it very difficult to cheat or lie.
Second, it is a distributed ledger technology. Data is no longer stored centrally in one place, but everyone now has copies of the data. Not only does new data have to match the previous data, but a majority of those using the blockchain have to agree to the new data being added. Only then will the new data be immortalized on the Blockchain. And even if they try to cheat you, you will definitely notice it, since you have your own copy of the data. This creates, according to the blockchain visionary Tapscott just mentioned, “trust through clever code”.
But back to the actual topic! Why do we need to push blockchain technology in the food industry now in the face of the Corona pandemic? After all, I’ve already explained the two ways food is related to the spread of pathogens. There’s a common thread in both problems: transparency is the big issue. But transparency, especially trust-based transparency, is exactly what you can provide with the help of blockchain technology. Let me explain both ways that food supports the creation and spread of pathogens, the direct and indirect, and how blockchain can help.
Let’s start with the direct way. As described earlier, already about 420,000 people die each year from pathogens in food. The bad thing is that even if food is already known to be contaminated, it can take forever to get it out of circulation. Often, no one knows where which goods were delivered, in which products they were processed and, above all, who bought the final product. Do you remember the Wilke incident? At the time, I wasn’t particularly shocked by the conditions at Wilke. What shocked me was that even after the scandal became public, Wilke’s products continued to be used and consumers were not warned.
A major food producer recently told us that he happened to hear on the radio on the highway that parts of his products were contaminated and dangerous to his customers. At the time, he was literally furious with Wilke and the German control system. However, if Wilke’s goods had been backed up on a blockchain, as so-called digital twins, all producers would have known exactly which of their products were affected the second a contamination was detected. Consumers who had bought affected products would also have been informed in the same second. Economic damage could have been kept to a minimum, suffering could have been avoided and, above all, lives could have been saved. The more complex, global and fast-moving our economy becomes, the less sufficient classical controls for food safety, for our safety, become. Due to climate change, there will be more and perhaps more dangerous such food contaminants in our future. Not only in meat but also in tea, spices, chocolates and all sorts of other foods. The application of blockchain to prevent, or at least target and quickly contain, such disasters, is absolutely implementable with the state of the art we have today.
The increase in pathogens due to climate change, the indirect way food contributes to the spread of disease, leads me to the second and somewhat complicated aspect of how blockchain can protect us from pathogens. Our way of living, specifically our way of consuming, is causing climate change. Many of us understand that by now. The ingenius of our market economy: where there is demand, there is supply. The problem with our market economy is that it is based on trust – trust of which there is currently very little. What do I mean by that? More and more people, especially younger people, are willing to pay more for more sustainable products (14). The potential of the sustainable food market is taking on sizes that no one could have imagined just a few years ago. But the problem is that sustainability is an invisible product attribute. When we are in the supermarket, we see product attributes such as size, color, and most importantly, price. But not sustainability. We have to trust sustainability. But 90% of Germans don’t trust food manufacturers(15) and 80% don’t trust the information on food packaging either(16). If there is no trust in sustainability, the only thing left to do is to pay a slightly higher price. Not a good motivation for more sustainable consumption, if you ask me. Sustainability fanatics buy anyway, of course, but sustainable consumption doesn’t really get out of the niche that way.
So there needs to be more trust for more sustainable consumption in the food industry to limit climate change and with it more and more endemics, epidemics and pandemics. Certificates have been a good tool for this. They collect hard-to-generate and complex data and compress it into a symbol that you and I can then see on the product. But now there are over 1000 of them in Germany alone, you could say we are “Lost in Label”(17). Many companies simply certify their products themselves. And also the certificates, which actually have structures that are promising, are in the public eye because of deficiencies(18). The more products a certifier has to check and the more complex their production, the more classical controls reach their limits and the more trust is lost.
In short, we need blockchain! There is no complexity limitation here. Quite the opposite. The more and the more complex the data, the more secure and informative it becomes. The consumer who still just wants a little symbol oil to guide her purchasing decisions can have it generated based on the data on a blockchain. But for those consumers who want more information, there are now literally no limits.
In between, my blockchain enthusiasm got the better of me again. If you’ve made it this far anyway, I’d like to conclude with a summary and a little plea.
Food, be it bats, cattle or sprouts, is often the source of deadly pathogens. When diseases break out, we need to get the products they come from out of circulation quickly and effectively. Blockchain can do that! But we don’t just need to use Blockchain reactively. It can also play a significant role proactively to prevent waves of disease by fueling the sustainability movement in the food industry and beyond. We can use it to provide us with trustworthy information that drives us to more sustainable consumption with gentle elbow pokes to the ribs. More sustainable and traceable food saves lives!
People are already dying from contaminated food. In Europe, too, including Germany. According to all forecasts, the numbers will increase due to climate change. Who knows if we would be in a pandemic right now if we had tackled climate change earlier and more energetically. Everyone always says we need new and innovative technologies to address climate change and environmental destruction. Blockchain technology is such a new and innovative technology. And it is ready for the market. Outgrown from its infancy, it is now in the final stages of its puberty. It may need some tweaking in some places, but overall it is ready to contribute to a better society. Now it just needs to be given the opportunity to do so.
- Johns Hopkins University (2020): Coronavirus COVID-19 Global Cases by the Center for Systems Science and Engineering (CSSE).
- Bill Gates (2015): The next outbreak? We are not read, Ted Talks.
- OURZ Website.
- Robert Koch Institut (2009): Die Auswirkungen des Klimawandels: Welche neuen Infektionskrankheiten und gesundheitlichen Probleme sind zu erwarten?, in: Bundesgesundheitsblatt 2009, Berlin: Robert Koch-Institut.
- WHO (2015): WHO Estimates of the Global Burden of Foodborne Diseases.
- World Health Organization (2019): Food Safety.
- Bundesamt für Bildung und Forschung (2019): Schutz vor biologischen Gefahrenlagen und Pandemien.
- Umweltbundesamt (2020): Treibhausgasausstoß pro Kopf in Deutschland nach Konsumbereich 2017.
- WWF (o.J.): Vom Klimawandel und dem Tellerrand.
- OroVerde (2018): Palmöl — der kontroverse Rohstoff aus dem Regenwald.
- Bundeszentrum für Ernährung (o.J.): Palmöl.
- GreenPeace (2020): Landwirtschaft und Klima.
- Don Tapscott (2016): How the Blockchain Technology is Changing Money and Business.
- First Insight (2020): The State of Consumer Spending: Gen Z Shoppers Demand Sustainable Retail.
- Georg August Universität Göttingen (2017): Zutatenhinweise auf Lebensmittelverpackungen.
- The European Consumer Organization (2018): Tricks of the Trade.
- Utopia (2019): Lost in Label?
- Deutsche Stiftung Meeresschutz (2018): Greenwashing Skandal: MSC-Fischlabel; Welt-Sichten (2018): FSC — Ein Siegel, das den Wald kaum schützt; NDR (2016): Schummel mit “fair” gehandelten Lebensmitteln.