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Fish and (micro) chips: How technology is transforming the salmon supply chain

Blog post   •   Jul 27, 2018 08:00 GMT

“Is the salmon fresh?” It’s a question every waiter has heard as a diner ponders the menu. But where once they might have nodded courteously, tomorrow, and with the help of emerging technologies, that same waiter will know not only if the salmon is fresh, but also where it came from, as well as the route and time it took to reach the restaurant. How? Step forward the Internet of Things (IoT) and blockchain.

For starters…
If we know that IoT is a network of devices embedded in ‘things’ (such as vehicles or home appliances), how does that translate to the humble salmon? Surely, a device isn’t attached to a fish.

While each individual fish isn’t tagged with a device, their environment is. This might appear unnecessary until you consider that in 2016, El Nino caused unusually high sea temperatures in Chile, leading to an explosion of algae growth, killing 23 million salmon. Enough to fill 14 Olympic-sized swimming pools, the economic impact was huge, costing the country an estimated US$800m.

This lesson has been well-learned in Norway. In 2014, researchers in Romsdalsfjordand Nord-Trøndelag county mapped ocean currents and temperatures using IoT in an attempt to prevent the spread of disease within and across salmon farms. Using predictive analytics, the researchers were able to model how disease is carried along the coast from one salmon farm to another.

This lead the Norwegian authorities to divide the country’s coast into production zones for farmed salmon and large, designated areas without fish farms. These act as firewalls to prevent the spread of disease across salmon farms.

Photo by Colin Czerwinski on Unsplash

But IoT does not stop at source. As soon as the fish enter the supply chain proper, IoT can also be embedded in containers carrying live fish and ping a range of information back to selected devices in real time. This ensures that the live fish remain in pristine condition, and at a constant temperature, throughout transit.

The main course
Consumers are becoming ever more demanding of traceability and transparency. The discerning foodie wants to know if the salmon on their plate was, indeed, wild and Norwegian. Once, it would have to be taken on trust. But blockchain is changing that.

The system that sits behind the integrity of cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin is an ingeniously simple idea. Put simply, it is the difference between a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet and Google Sheets. Whereas Excel can only be opened and edited by one person, Google Sheets can be opened and edited by multiple people, and all at the same time.

Excel is how high street banks work. When you make a purchase and put your debit card into a payment terminal, it connects to the bank. The bank – a single entity – checks you have the money to pay for your meal, confirms this, then makes the digital transfer to the place of purchase.

With blockchain, that digital ledger is open to anyone to see. This ability to have multiple people view a ledger offers a robustness not seen in the traditional method. There is no single point of failure, nor is it able to be controlled by a single entity. Transparency and accuracy are guaranteed.

In practical use, at the salmon farm, producers are able to add a QR code to a single shipment, embedding information about themselves and the time and date the fish were harvested. This information can then also be fed into the blockchain, which will be updated at every step of the cargo’s journey.

This gives the consumer complete transparency; they can trace a fish’s journey from ocean to plate.

Photo by Casey Lee on Unsplash

This is ever-more important to consumers, not only to gauge freshness but also to ensure that producers reflect the values of the consumer. And with this complete transparency comes loyalty.

Research carried out by Label Insight, an organization established to help consumers understand what is in the products they use and consume, suggested that with complete transparency comes consumer loyalty of 94 percent. Similarly, a study by Response Media said that 99 percent of respondents would be willing to pay more for fresh food if its origins were completely transparent. Further, 37 percent said they would switch brands if another brand shared more detailed product information. If demand drives the market, this is a compelling argument and an indication of the way we are heading.

But the benefits of blockchain don’t end there. As well as increased consumer loyalty (and their willingness to pay more), blockchain also has the capability of increasing efficiencies by reducing food waste. Not only can it avoid disease within salmon farms, but it can also guarantee that the produce was transported in optimal conditions and at the perfect temperature.

Catch of the day
It seems with blockchain, IoT and predictive analytics we have emerging – and merging – technologies that are benefitting everyone. The producer can ensure as good a harvest as possible, the consumer gets the transparency they crave, and the waiter, well, when asked about the freshness of the salmon, they can respond: “Yes, the salmon was caught this morning. In Norway. By a man named Sven. It was kept at a constant, ideal temperature during transport. Would you like to see the blockchain along with the wine menu?”