Blockchain sustainability

Two big announcements show corporate interest in blockchain for sustainability

The Bumble Bee Seafood Company and Unilever are both planning to use blockchain technology to preserve resources for future generations

When big food brands embrace blockchain, the usual buzzword is traceability. But as two separate announcements on June 15 show, this technology could prove pivotal in achieving sustainability too.

The Bumble Bee Seafood Company has unveiled plans to invest $40 million in a five-year accelerator fund designed to protect the health of the world’s oceans—tackling key issues such as diminishing tuna stocks and worsening plastic pollution, it said in a June 15 release. On the same day, the consumer goods giant Unilever pledged to achieve net zero carbon emissions across its entire product range by 2039.  

For both firms, blockchain is going to play a starring role in achieving these goals.

Changing their tuna

Bumble Bee first took the plunge into blockchain last year, when it began using the SAP Cloud Platform Blockchain to trace the journey of yellowfin tuna from the Indonesian ocean to the dinner table.

Blockchain sustainability
Bumble Bee president and CEO Jan Tharp has committed $40 million over five years to sustainable oceans (Photo: Bumble Bee)

This particular endeavor was focused on traceability—and in a concept that’s becoming increasingly common across food manufacturing, QR codes were added to packaging to allow consumers to discover the origins of their seafood. Details are provided about freshness, safety standards, the product’s Fairtrade certification, and sustainability.

The project is a significant step in the right direction. Scientists have warned that the current rates of tuna fishing risk driving “populations to unsustainable levels and possible extinction—putting millions of jobs at risk, creating food insecurity, and jeopardizing the ocean’s ecosystem in one fell swoop.

Bumble Bee’s president and CEO Jan Tharp said: “Our sustainability journey started many years ago and we’re proud of our past accomplishments, but now is the time to accelerate our actions. It’s the right thing to do for our planet, for the billions of people who rely on seafood for sustenance and for the long-term success of our business.”

Top priorities for Bumble Bee’s accelerator fund will include monitoring fishing stocks and ensuring they are well-managed, mitigating the impact of fishing on other species, and making its packaging 98% recyclable by 2025.

Blockchain tracking starts well before a fish is packaged. Last January, WWF Australia and BCG Digital Ventures kicked off the OpenSC project by attaching RFID tags to Patagonian toothfish—a species of cod—right on the boat. Combined with GPS, the project’s goal is to confirm that the seafood on your plate was caught in a particular Marine Stewardship Council—or MSC—certified fishery.

Blockchain sustainability
Yes it’s from Bali, Indonesia, but was this tuna sustainably harvested? (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

“Through OpenSC, we will have a whole new level of transparency about whether the food we eat is contributing to environmental degradation of habitats and species,” Dermot O’Gorman, WWF-Australia’s CEO, said at the time.

Blockchain is increasingly being used to track larger and larger amounts of the world’s tuna supply. In 2018, a large-scale initiative was unveiled that would allow 200 million units of tuna caught in eight Pacific Island nations’ waters to be traced and verified as MSC certified through the Ethereum network.

Unileveraging blockchain sustainability

With more than 400 brands ranging from Ben & Jerry’s and Lipton to Dove and Hellmann’s, Unilever’s new drive to fight climate change and preserve resources for future generations is also a significant development.

Among its raft of plans is to use emerging digital technologies, including blockchain, to achieve a deforestation-free supply chain in just three years’ time. Other plans include stepping up efforts to preserve water scarcity, as well as empowering farmers by helping them to secure legal land rights and access financial services.

Blockchain sustainability
Unilever CEO Alan Jope’s multinational will donate $1.1 billion to climate and nature causes over 10 years (Photo: Unilever)

Beyond that, Unilever’s brand will donate a combined $1.1 billion to a new dedicated Climate & Nature Fund over the next decade.  

“While the world is dealing with the devastating effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, and grappling with serious issues of inequality, we can’t let ourselves forget that the climate crisis is still a threat to all of us,” Unilever CEO Alan Jope said. “Climate change, nature degradation, biodiversity decline, water scarcity—all these issues are interconnected, and we must address them all simultaneously.”

This builds upon Unilever’s founding membership in the IBM Food Trust, which allows retailers and manufacturers to build a “permissioned, permanent, and shared record of food system data.”

Other founding members are utilizing that platform extensively. As reported by Modern Consensus back in April, Dole—the world’s biggest fruit and vegetable producer—has set a target of using blockchain to ensure all its products are fully traceable by 2025.  

A new era

It’s interesting to note that both Bumble Bee and Unilever’s announcements go beyond appeasing customers and showing off their eco-friendly credentials. These applications of blockchain technology will likely result in dramatic changes to how their businesses operate—far beyond what shoppers will learn about, or care about knowing.

Nonetheless, blockchain’s ability to reassure the public cannot be understated—and in some markets, it’s rebuilding levels of trust in food producers that has been eroded over the decades because of repeated safety scares. As reported by Modern Consensus last week, a supermarket chain in the Chinese city of Shenzhen is offering instantaneous details about the provenance of premium pork using this technology, after noticing a substantial number of well-heeled consumers were shunning products that had generic pre-packaged labels.

Updated at 10:32 p.m. on June 23, 2020 to correct typo in photo caption.

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Connor Sephton is a journalist with an interest in cryptocurrencies, personal finance, and financial inclusion—as well as the challenges the crypto industry faces in achieving mainstream adoption. He owns cryptocurrencies.