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Let’s talk blockchain. How can this new tech really add value to your ranch?

While consumers want to be more connected with their food, conventional tactics don’t do an adequate job. That may soon change.

“The times, they are a’changin.”

If Bob Dylan had only known how prophetic those words would become when he crooned them in 1964. Maybe he did, but it’s likely that nobody in 1964 could envision what’s happening now with technology in the beef business.

If fact, it’s sometimes hard in 2018 to envision what’s happening now with technology in the beef business. So prepare your brains to do a lot of reaching out and wrapping around, because…well, the times, they are ‘achangin.

Take blockchain technology, for example. Not that long ago, it was the purview of a few computer nerds who traded with each other using cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin. Now it’s heralded by some in the beef business as the next technological breakthrough that will add value to cattle and beef.

Isaac Olvera is one such person. He’s a market analyst with Informa Economics IEG in Memphis, Tenn., who has looked at the impact that blockchain technology could have on you and your business.

That impact may well be significant.

First, here’s a brief explanation of what blockchain technology is. “In its simplest form, and at the risk of oversimplification, blockchain technology is a way for users to transfer unique pieces of information across a network of individuals, known as nodes, in such a way that is thought to be secure and transparent to all parties,” he says.

“Additionally, since the transactions are not housed in one single location, each transaction is validated, verified between parties and then combined with other transactions within the ‘chain’ to create a new ‘block’ of data for a ledger that is permanent and unalterable for each good.”

For agriculture, blockchain brings a level of transparency across all segments of the supply chain that makes responsiveness to any food-related issues nearly instantaneous. Walmart provides a perfect example.

Walmart has teamed up with IBM to run some of the most comprehensive pilot projects, tracking mangoes in the U.S. and pork in China through a blockchain ledger,” Olvera says. “Traceback tests on mangoes using current traceability have been reported to take 6 days, 18 hours and 26 minutes to trace fruit to the farm of origin.

“Through blockchain use technology, the traceback reportedly was just 2.2 seconds. This essentially has created a true farm-to-fork, or ranch-to-rail, tracking process that is both timely and trustworthy.”

What it means to consumers…and you

“Consumer studies have shown that, while consumers want to be more connected to their food, conventional tactics do not do an adequate job of keeping them informed,” Olvera says. With 96% of Americans shopping online, but still spending an estimated 65% of their shopping budgets in stores, 37% claim they would pay more for the same good for a better mobile shopping experience. Now consider that 56% of millennials look up products while in the store.

“From here, it’s no wonder why an estimated 94% of consumers say they would be more likely to be loyal to a brand that offers transparency,” Olvera says.

Here’s how it works in the beef business. An Australian company, BeefLedger, Ltd., has pioneered one of the first blockchain-based full beef supply chain platforms. It uses BeefLedger tokens backed by the cryptocurrency Ethereum. The premise is traceability and transparency where everyone from the producer to the consumer can access the entire history of the meat.

According to Olvera, tokens have been issued and smart contracts, which offer streamlined payment between parties and are considered export ready, are in place. The first shipment of Wagyu/Black Angus beef is scheduled for shipment to China sometime if the fourth quarter of 2018.

Then there’s Provence, a UK-bases startup company that has deployed its version of blockchain in the United States. Olvera says Provence is working with three small operations in Arkansas, one of which is a meat company. “Provence offers a scannable QR code that will tell the product’s story from farm to fork.” That not only builds trust in the product, but in the company that produces it.

According to Olvera, the most common form of blockchain agriculture might use is non-public or permissioned blockchain.

“Through a permissioned blockchain, participants must have approved access, with each participant filling a predetermined role that comes with a role-limited implementation,” he says. For example, each segment of the beef business—cow-calf, stocker, feeder, packer, retailer—would have a block in the chain. Each could buy and sell to the others and information could be passed back and forth across the chain.

Blockchain technology is new to the beef business and it’s hard to estimate a timeline on when it will become a prevalent part of the marketing process. But there’s no doubt that it will.

And that may help you get better prices for your cattle.

“From 2011 to 2016, beef consumption in China grew 20%, while pork consumption was up just 8% and broiler consumption declined by 5% over the same timeframe. The overall outlook for beef consumption in China into 2018 and beyond is a near 2% year-over-year increase, which likely will be supported by double-digit growth in beef imports from South American suppliers as well as Australia, with increasing shipments from the U.S. to China not built into Informa Economics IEG forecasts,” Olvera says. 

“With U.S. beef production slated to grow by another 3% into 2018 and an estimated 1% to 2% in 2019 and in 2020, increasing the diversification of export destinations remains critical to supporting overall prices amid larger supplies.”

Will blockchain help U.S. beef producers sell more beef in China? Likely so. The traceability and transparency that blockchain technologies offer have been one of the major hurdles in establishing a more robust market for U.S. beef in China. “Tapping into a growing Chinese middle class market could spur further export growth, thereby supporting the cutout and cattle prices throughout continued herd expansion,” Olvera says.

“Technological innovations such as, but not necessarily, blockchain need to be kept at the forefront of the livestock and meat industry, with appropriate communication throughout the supply chain keeping all parties moving in the same direction,” Olvera says.

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