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5+ Startups Using Blockchain To Transform Our Food Chain

Bar chart showing blockchain investment by industry according to a 2017 survey by PwC

The complexity of today’s food chains has resulted in problems such as food fraud (which is estimated to cost US$ 30 – US$ 40 billion a year according to PwC), food waste (which is estimated to cost US$ 750 billion annually to local food producers according to the United Nations), and food safety problems such as food contamination (which is estimated to result in an estimated 600 million people falling ill and 420,000 deaths every year, resulting in the loss of 33 million healthy life years according to the World Health Organization).

Blockchain, the underlying technology behind Bitcoin is increasingly being considered as a solution to address the above food chain problems. Although the technology is still at its infancy and has several challenges to overcome such as high computing and energy needs, major food corporations such as to name a few, Walmart (NYSE:WMT), Chinese e-commerce giants Alibaba (NYSE:BABA) and JD.com (NASDAQ:JD), French retailer Carrefour (EPA:CA) and UK retailer Sainsbury’s (LON:SBRY) are all testing or have incorporated blockchain technology into their supply chains.

According to a 2017 survey conducted by global consulting firm PwC, just about 1% of companies in the retail and consumer sector are making substantial investments in blockchain today. However, in three years’ time, the number of companies in the sector making substantial investments in blockchain technology rises to 6%.

Bar chart showing blockchain investment by industry according to a 2017 survey by PwC

Food safety concerns and increasing demand for food supply chain transparency are key growth drivers in the food traceability market which uses technologies such as RFID tags, sensors and blockchain to track food products from farm to fork. Market research firm MarketsandMarkets projects the global food traceability market to grow to US$ 14 billion by 2019 and Research and Markets expects the market to reach US$ 16 billion by 2021.

Tech giants including Microsoft, Accenture and notably IBM (NYSE:IBM) have rolled out blockchain solutions. IBM has formed a blockchain collaboration with food companies including Walmart, Dole, Driscoll’s, Golden State Foods, Kroger (NYSE:KR), McCormick and Company, McLane Company, Nestle (NESN:VTX), Tyson Foods (NYSE:TSN), and Unilever (NYSE:UN) (LON:ULVR).

IBM has also partnered with Walmart, China’s Tsinghua University and Chinese e-commerce giant JD.com to form the Blockchain Food Safety Alliance which aims to use blockchain technology to achieve greater food safety, tracking and traceability in China

A Blockchain Enterprise Survey conducted last year by Juniper Research revealed that IBM had the strongest blockchain credentials, while Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) came in second and Accenture (NYSE:ACN) was placed third; amongst enterprises either actively considering, or in the process of deploying blockchain technology, nearly half (43%) ranked IBM first while 20% selected Microsoft (20%).

While major tech companies grab headlines with their blockchain solutions, a number of startups are also vying for a share of the food blockchain market. Here is a list of noteworthy startups to watch.

 

bext360

Colorado-based startup bext360 is on a mission to re-invent today’s coffee supply chain using technology such as artificial intelligence, the Internet of Things (IoT) and blockchain to introduce greater transparency, improve coffee quality and better compensate coffee farmers.

bext360 has partnered with Great Lakes Coffee (a Uganda-based coffee sourcing, milling and exporting company) and Coda Coffee (a Denver-based to conduct a pilot program using bext360’s “bextmachine”, a mobile kiosk that uses machine learning and artificial intelligence to evaluate coffee cherries and beans from farmers, and grade them based on quality. Coffee farmers can view the grading results using a mobile app, accept payment offers and receive payment electronically immediately. This a revolutionary change from the current status quo in which coffee farmers would deliver their coffee crop to buyers that would manually inspect and grade the beans, and pay farmers days or sometimes months later.

The system then follows the coffee’s journey to the end consumer, tracking relevant data along the way. The bext360 platform uses blockchain to store an immutable record of transactions in real time, which all actors in the supply chain such as coffee farmers, coffee roasters and consumers can view.

bext360 has also partnered with Moyee Coffee, the world’s first FairChain coffee brand to launch a full-scale revenue generating program to trace coffee from Ethiopia to Amsterdam as well as payments made to coffee farmers in Ethiopia using the startup’s bext-to-brew platform which is built on Stellar.org’s blockchain technology.

The partnership makes Moyee Coffee Europe’s first blockchain-traceable coffee brand. Moyee Coffee fans will gain an unprecedented level of transparency, gaining access to verified data such as the origin of the coffee, while Moyee Coffee gains by being able to reduce overheads as the bext360 system eliminates the requirement for time-consuming, error-prone documentation etc.

The opportunity is substantial. The global coffee market is worth US$ 81 billion and growing. However, while global coffee revenues jumped from US$ 30 billion in 1991 to US$ 81 billion in 2016, small-scale coffee farmers who make up the majority of the world’s coffee producers, saw their incomes drop from 40% to under 10% during the same period, according to Fairtrade International. Most of the farmers’ families live on less than US$ 2 a day.

The winds are changing. Millenials and other coffee drinkers are increasingly seeking greater transparency fueling growth in the fair trade coffee market. According to the Tropical Commodity Coalition, ethically certified coffees accounted for 6% of worldwide coffee production in 2008, up from just 1% in 2002. And retail sales of Fairtrade coffee beans have soared 250% in the decade from 2004 to 2014.

 

Ripe.io

Californian startup Ripe.io says it is building the “Blockchain of Food”, a food supply chain solution that uses the Internet of Things (IoT) and blockchain to provide real time monitoring and collection of crop data such as location, environmental conditions and quality factors such as ripeness and taste.

The solution aims to solve food supply chain problems such as transparency, wastage and food quality by providing food supply chain participants a historical record of validated crop data which could be used for analytical purposes; farmers for instance could use the data to decide when a plant is ready to be harvested and once the plant has been harvested based when it reached optimal ripeness, this information can be communicated to participants along the supply chain.

The startup conducted a pilot project with Ward’s Berry Farm in Massachusetts, placing tomatoes on the blockchain to track their ripeness, color, PH levels, sugar content which is used to assess the quality of the tomatoes in an effort to reduce spoilage and deliver verified higher quality and more flavorful produce for the farm’s customers such as fast-casual salad chain Sweetgreen which participated in the pilot program.

 

ZhongAn Technology

Innovative Chinese startup ZhongAn Technology, which is the technology unit of Alibaba-and-Tencent-backed Chinese insurtech giant ZhongAn Online Property & Casualty Insurance (HKG: 6060), which made headlines as the world’s first insurtech IPO when it filed for a listing in Hong Kong last year, has developed a blockchain-based technology to track chickens, recording important information such as the age of the individual bird, its location, the food it eats and how much exercise it gets daily. Each chicken wears an anklet since the day of its birth which connects wirelessly to a blockhain-based network that records and stores data on a blockchain ledger in real time about the chicken. Customers can download a smartphone app that enables them to track the chicken’s journey along the supply chain.

Known as Gogochicken, the technology offers a solution for customers to validate chicken producers’ claims such as “hormone free chicken”, “free-range chicken” and “cage-free chicken”. For chicken farmers, the technology allows them to sell free-range, hormone free chicken at higher prices which consumers are able to pay a premium for but are hesitant due to a general lack of trust in locally produced food and the inability to validate claims on product labels.

As of September last year, ZhongAn has worked with 200 farms. By 2020, the company expects to increase the number over ten-fold to 2,500. The startup believes its technology could be expanded to pigs, cows and other livestock. The opportunity for the startup’s solution is substantial. Food safety is a key concern for consumers in China which is the world’s second largest poultry market, and the world’s largest pork consumer, importer and producer.

 

Advanced Research Cryptography Ltd (Arc-net)

Founded in 2014, Northern Irish startup Advanced Research Cryptography Ltd (Arc-net) offers a cloud-based traceability solution through its arc-net platform which uses blockchain technology to enable food corporations to validate the authenticity and provenance of food products as it moves along the supply chain thereby empowering the food industry to tackle food fraud.

The startup has teamed up with Scottish distillery Adelphi Ardnamurchan Distillery to place their new Ardnamurchan 2017AD spirit on Arc-net’s platform which would securely store information on the product’s production process from seed to bottle thereby allowing the brand as well as the brand’s customers to trace the product’s journey across the food chain; each bottle of limited edition Ardnamurchan Spirit 2017 AD features a unique QR code which, using blockchain technology, links to a digital, validated record of the bottle’s history, providing information such as the origin of the barley used to produce the spirit, the bottler and when the contents were bottled. This would help the distillery prevent or at least mitigate counterfeit products from stealing sales and diluting the brand’s reputation.

The tie-up could be just the tip of the iceberg for Arc-net. Counterfeit alcohol is a serious global problem; according to a news report by Interpol, in a joint Interpol-Europol operation conducted between 1 December 2016 and 31 March 2017 targeting counterfeit food and drink around the world, counterfeit alcohol was the most seized product, followed by meat and seafood.

Arc-net has also been selected as a technology partner in a £10 million pound EU-China food safety program. As part of the program, Arc-net is working with UK food producer Cranswick PLC (LON:SWK) to track pigs being exported to China. This could be a major revenue stream for the startup given that China is the world’s largest pork importer. The country’s pork imports are expected to grow 6% this year, according to Rabobank’s Pork Quarterly Q1 Report, and with China considering a 25% tariff on US pork imports, imports of European pork could potentially increase. In 2017, America exported US$ 1.1 billion of pork products to China and Hong Kong, making it the third biggest market by value. Arc-net has also partnered with global consulting firm PwC to help fight food fraud.

 

EZ Lab

Italian startup EZ Lab has partnered with management consulting firm EY to create a “Wine Blockchain”, a blockchain-based traceability system for Italy’s wine supply chain. Data on the entire wine making process such as the location of the vineyards and cultivation of the grapes, the process of producing wine and its distribution, and information related to the final product such as organoleptic characteristics are recorded on the system which can be viewed by all actors along the supply chain from the wine producer to the customer. Using their smartphones, customers scan a QR code on the wine bottle to retrieve the data.

The first wine to be tracked using “Wine Blockchain” is Falanghina Wine, which is produced by Cantina Volpone.

The solution is timely for Italy’s wine industry; according to a 2016 report by the European Union Intellectual Property Office (EUIPO) Italy’s wine and spirits manufacturers lose an estimated €162 million annually (equal to approximately 2.7% of the Italian wine and spirits market) as a result of counterfeiting and an additional €18 million is lost each year in excise duties.

Most of Italy’s prized culinary specialties such as Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, traditional Italian balsamic vinegar, and Italian wine are certified by the Italian government for authenticity and quality. In the case of wines, certifications such as “D.O.C.G.” – Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita (controlled and guaranteed designation of origin) and “D.O.C.” – Denominazione di Origine Controllata (controlled designation of origin) are awarded by Italian government-licensed committees and these wines tend to command extremely high prices. However, their high prices make them an attractive target for counterfeiters. EZ Lab’s “Wine Blockchain” solution is expected to help Italian wine producers (particularly those with such certifications), protect their brands and fight counterfeit products. 

The solution is also a boon for Italy’s wine connoisseurs; reportedly nine out of 10 consumers said they would like to have more information about Italian wine, their certification criteria and origin and more than 70% are willing to pay a premium for a guarantee of certification and origin. 

Italy is the world’s leading wine producer and with the country’s wine industry on an upward trend, EZ Lab looks positioned to ride on this growth too with its “Wine Blockchain” solution. Italian wine exports have increased 74% between 2006 and 2016 and the momentum shows no sign of slowing down; Italian wine exports grew by 7% in 2017, reaching a record high of around €6 billion, according to Italian agricultural organization Coldiretti. 

 

Everledger

London-based blockchain technology startup Everledger rose to prominence with its blockchain solution which tracks the provenance of diamonds to fight counterfeits in the diamond industry. Since 2015, Everledger has placed more than 1.6 million diamonds on its blockchain solution and the company is adding other luxury goods to its platform such as fine art and fine wine.

The startup has partnered with renowned wine expert Maureen Downey to jointly create Chai Wine Vault, a blockchain-based solution that uses Maureen Downey’s TCM (The Chai Method) wine authentication method to track the authenticity and provenance of fine wines. Downey’s method of wine authentication involves collecting more than 90 data points on a bottle in addition to high-resolution photographs and records of the bottle’s ownership and storage which are permanently and securely recorded in Everledger’s blockchain platform to create a permanent, verified digital record of the wine bottle which can be accessed throughout the bottle’s lifetime to verify its legitimacy, thereby securing the investment value of the wine asset for centuries. The first bottle to be certified on the Chai Wine Vault is a bottle of 2001 Margaux. 

The solution is aimed at combating counterfeit wine which Downey estimates accounts for much as 20% of wine sold globally.

FoodLogiQ

American food traceability startup FoodLogiQ offers a Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) solution which uses blockchain to provide services such as food traceability, food safety, and supply chain transparency solutions on a single platform to participants in the food industry such as food distributors, food importers, growers, restaurant operators, grocers and food retailers.

The startup is reportedly among the leading vendors of food safety, traceability, and supply chain transparency software, having racked up an enviable customer list which includes names such as Amazon.com Inc, Whole Foods, Buffalo Wild Wings, Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc, CKE Restaurants, Jac Vandenberg and Nature’s Finest to name a few, and the company has launched a blockhain pilot program in partnership with AgBiome Innovations, Subway/Independent Purchasing Cooperative, Tyson Foods, and Testo (the last two of which are also investors in FoodLogiQ) to conduct a pilot program FoodLogiQ operates in a market that is ripe for disruption; consumers are increasingly demanding greater transparency and visibility into the origin and processing of their food and FDA regulations are becoming increasingly stringent, compelling players in the food supply chain to seek and  invest in technologies that facilitate compliance and satisfy consumer demand while protecting their bottom lines.

An effective traceability system could help reduce liability costs, reduce product waste, improve food recall efficiencies, and improve consumer confidence.

According to forecasts from BIS Research, the global food traceability market is expected to grow from US$ 11.63 billion in 2016 to reach US$ 16.09 billion by 2022, representing a CAGR of 5.56% from 2016 and 2022 driven by increasing concern about food safety and quality, thereby triggering greater demand for food traceability solutions.

IndustryARC projects the global food traceability market to grow at 8.1% CAGR between 2017-2023, reaching US$ 17.05 billion by 2023. Although Asia-Pacific is expected to be the fastest growing market, North America is expected to remain as the biggest market for food traceability solutions. While barcodes are the dominant technology in the global food traceability market, blockchain-based solutions such as those offered by FoodLogicQ could emerge as an alternative option given its merits such as its ability to produce and store a chain of immutable records.

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Organic Food Market Could Be A Delicious Investment Play

Bar and line graph showing the increase in world organic farmland in millions of hectares between 1999-2015 and the percentage share of organic farmland worldwide.

The global organic food market is growing at a rapid clip and offers significant potential for growth. Currently valued at around US$90 billion according to London-based consultancy firm Ecovia Intelligence (formerly Organic Monitor) the market is poised to expand to over US$ 200 billion by 2020 (representing a CAGR of 15.7% between 2015 and 2020) according to projections by Market Research Globe.

The forecast figures are similar to those from a report by market research firm Technavio which projects the global organic food and beverage market to grow at a rate of 14% from 2017 until 2021.

Organic is the fastest growing sector of the U.S. food industry. Organic food sales in the United States, the world’s largest organic food market, jumped 8.4% in 2016 to reach US$ 43 billion according to the Organic Trade Association.  That compares with a 0.6% increase in overall food market sales in the United States. Much of the demand for organic food is driven by millenials generating about half of U.S. organic food sales.

In Germany which is the world’s second -largest organic food market, organic food sales grew by nearly 10% in 2016, according to the German Federation of the Organic Food Industry (BÖLW).

France’s organic food market grew a whopping 20% in 2016 according to Agence Bio, and Spain’s organic food market grew 12.5% in 2016 (compared to 0.7% growth in conventional food) according to data from Spain’s Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries, Food and Environment. UK organic food sales expanded by 7% in 2016 according to Soil Association a UK-based organic food and farming charity and certification body.

There is ample potential for the stellar growth numbers to maintain momentum going forward. In the United States, the world’s largest organic food market, organic food sales account for just 5.3% of U.S. food sales.

The situation is the same in Germany, the world’s second biggest organic food market after the United States (the United States, Germany and France together account for about 70% of global organic sales value as of 2017); organic food sales make up just about 5% of Germany’s total food sales.

In Britain, organic food sales make up about 1.5% of the country’s total food sales. In Spain, organic food sales make up just 1.7% of the country’s total food market. This compares with Sweden and Denmark where organic food sales comprise about 8.7% and 10% of the country’s total food sales respectively.

In Asia, organic food sales account for less than 1% of total food sales across Asia offering ample scope for growth. The organic food sector is poised to grow in leaps in bounds in the region, particularly in China and India, two countries which market research firm Ecovia Intelligence reveals are two of the fastest growing Asian markets for organic food products, driven by an expanding and educated middle class who are increasingly willing to pay a premium for organic products which are perceived to be healthier and safer than conventional food products.

In China, Asia’s largest organic food market and the world’s fourth largest, 72% of consumers worry about the safety of their food according to a 2016 survey by McKinsey. This presents an opportunity for the country’s organic food sector which, similar to the United States, is largely driven by a growing number of increasingly health-conscious millenials.

Meanwhile in India which created its first organic state, Sikkim, in 2016 (in Sikkim farmers are 100% organic), market research firm TechSci projects the country’s organic food market to grow at a CAGR of 25% between 2016-2021.

On a country level, Denmark and Bhutan have ambitious plans to be 100% organic by 2020, a positive trend for the global organic food market.

The underlying driving force behind the global organic food revolution is the millennial generation (those born between 1980 to 2000). In the United States, for instance, the world’s biggest organic food market, over 52% of organic food shoppers are millenials according to a survey by the Organic Trade Association. An estimated 25% of American millenials are parents and this figure is expected to increase to 80% over the next 10-15 years. As the percentage of millenials with children grows in the coming years, organic food sales are projected to rise as well.

To meet rising organic food demand, the number of organic food producers and the amount of organic acreage continue to increase globally.

Worldwide, the number of organic food producers increased twelve-fold in sixteen years from 200,000 producers in 1999 to 2.4 million producers in 2015 according to a report by the Research Institute of Organic Agriculture (Forschungsinstitut für biologischen Landbau or FiBL). During the same period, land used for organic farming expanded fivefold from 11 million hectares in 1999 to 50.9 million hectares in 2015. Despite this increase, organic farmland represented just 1.1% of the world’s farmland in 2015 indicating ample room for expansion.

Bar graphic showing the increase in world organic farmland in millions of hectares between 1999-2015 and the percentage share of organic farmland worldwide.

Nearly 45% of the world’s organic farmland is located in Australia, where with 22.7 million hectares makes it the country with the world’s largest area of organic agricultural land by hectare in 2015, way ahead of second-placed Argentina which has just 3.07 million hectares of organic acreage. In third-placed United States which is the world’s biggest organic food market, just 2.03 hectares of land is used for organic farming.

Bar graph shows the top 10 countries in the world with the largest organic farmland in millions of hectares, as of 2015. Pie chart showing percentage distribution of organic farmland around the world.

The global organic food trend has been a boon for Australian food producers. Despite having the largest area of certified organic land in the world, organic food sales account for just 1% of Australia’s total food and beverage sales. Part of this may be due to the fact that most of Australia’s organic farmland is used for cattle farming (which explains why organic beef is Australia’s top organic food export by tonnage) and hence the country’s overall organic food output is relatively low.

However, it may also be due to a growing hunger for Australian organic products from export markets such as the East Asia (which accounted for 38% of Australian organic food exports by tonnage in 2017), North America (29%) and Europe (12%).

China, in particular is a major growth opportunity. Australian organic food exports by tonnage to China jumped 55% between 2016 and 2017 and China’s share of Australian organic food exports by tonnage nearly doubled from 9% in 2016 to 15% in 2017 according to data from the 2018 Australian Organic Market Report.

Much of growth in China’s organic food demand stems from the baby food category, particularly organic infant formula. China is the biggest export market for Australian organic baby food and formulas and Australian organic dairy products.

Bar chart showing the top export markets (by % of tonnage) for selected Australian organic food sectors 2017. The biggest market for organic Australian eggs is Hong Kong (accounting for 100% of Australia’s organic egg exports by tonnage). The United States is the biggest market for Australian organic lamb/sheep meat (accounting for 91% of exports), Australian organic beef (accounting for 90% of exports) and Australian organic fruits and vegetables (accounting for 46% of exports). South Korea is the biggest market for Australian organic soya products (accounting for 90% of exports) and bread and bakery product (accounting for 58% of exports). China is the biggest market for Australian organic baby foods and formula (accounting for 81% of exports) and dairy (accounting for 57% of exports). Netherlands is the biggest market for Australian organic nuts (accounting for 80% of exports). Sweden is the biggest market for Australian organic wine (accounting for 49% of exports).

In China which is the largest market in the world for organic infant formula, it is estimated that 75% of mothers feed their babies with organic infant formula according to London-based market research firm Mintel. Younger mothers i.e., those aged 25-34 are the major driving force with 79% of them using organic infant formula. The abolition of China’s ‘one-child policy’ potentially opens opportunities for expansion in this sector.

Bubs Australia (ASX:BUB) and Bellamy’s Australia (ASX:BAL) are two Australian organic baby food and organic infant formula producers both of which have operations in China and are poised to capitalize on the opportunity. Bellamy’s Australia has seen its share price jump by over 900% since August 2014 while Bubs Australia’s share price has soared over 400% since January 2013.

With Australia boasting nearly half of the world’s certified organic farmland and enjoying strong export demand for its organic food products, Australian producers are well placed to take a big bite out of the world’s growing organic food pie going forward.

A number of organic food companies elsewhere around the world have also benefited from the trend and good prospects have attracted investment into the sector. Organic food grocer Whole Foods (NASDAQ:WFM) was acquired by Amazon (NASDAQ:AMZN) in June last year at a 27% premium to Whole Foods’ stock closing price the day the deal was announced.

French food company Danone (EPA:BN) acquired American organic food company Whitewave Foods Co (NYSE:WWAV) in April last year.

Consumer goods company Unilever (NYSE:UL) acquired UK-based organic herbal tea company Pukka Herbs and Brazilian organic food business Mae Terra last year.

American grocery company Albertsons reported that its line of private-label organic items, O Organics, saw sales grow 15% last year, reaching US$ 1 billion.

Albertsons plans on introducing 500 or more new products to the line which already encompasses a wide array of organic food items including fresh fruits and vegetables, eggs, milk, yogurt, ice cream, meats, bread, coffee, snacks, pasta sauce, and baby food.

Over in Europe, Dutch organic food company Koninklijke Wessanen NV (AMS:WES) which recently acquired Spanish organic food company Biogran, has benefited handsomely from the growing organic food market with its share price appreciating by over 600% from five years ago (in 2013). During the same period,

In Asia, Japanese organic vegetable producer Ariake Japan Co Ltd (TYO:2815) has seen its share price jump over 500% since 2013.

The organic food trend has also been a positive for e-commerce behemoth Amazon which is a relatively new entrant to the US grocery market. A report by data analytics firm Click Retail found that in 2017, organic products fared very well accounting for nearly 25% of all Amazon Fresh sales.

Nestle (VTX:NESN) has been actively re-orienting its business as it struggles with weak sales as a result of changing consumer preferences toward organic, natural food and away from prepared, mass-produced meals which make up bulk of the company’s product portfolio. Last year, Nestle acquired Chameleon Cold Brew – America’s oldest and largest purveyor of organic coffee. This year, Nestle sold its US candy business to Italian confectionery company Ferrero SpA.