By Sarah Pridgeon
Imagine yourself a city slicker, shopping in the supermarket. You’ve read about the growing trend of organic, natural ingredients “from farm to table” but you’ve also heard the fuss about food fraud, so you’re curious what you’ll actually be eating at the dinner table tonight.
You’d love to look at the package of beef in your hand and be sure it started out as a contented cow roaming the hills, but how can you be sure? There’s no local rancher to buy from and, in short, this beef could have come from anywhere.
But then you spot a QR code on a sticker and, out of curiosity, scan it with your phone. Up pops a detailed description of the cow that provided the beef, information about its life going right back to its early days as a calf in the meadows of Crook County. Ah, you think to yourself, this is premium Wyoming beef, and the package goes straight into your shopping basket.
It’s early days yet, but that’s the dream of BeefChain: to make Wyoming’s meat a premium product in the eyes of the world. Representative Tyler Lindholm believes the wide-open spaces of this state, best known for its ranchers and energy industry, could one day house the next Silicon Valley.
The blockchain legislation he pushed through this year was intended to make Wyoming a blockchain-friendly place, while BeefChain is a demonstration of what this emerging technology is capable of.
“I’m definitely gambling on it. It’s still, without a doubt, a side project – I’m working on the ranch full time and amongst many other things, the Legislature and what-have-you, it’s one of those fun side projects,” Lindholm smiles.
Crook County’s Representative firmly believes Wyoming ranchers are already doing all the things consumers are looking for when it comes to ethically raised, well-treated animals. We “treat a cow like a cow”, he says, and deserve to be commended for what we do.
“It coincides with what you see in a lot of the movement towards more of a natural beef product and what people are interested in seeing out of their meat. They want to know where it comes from and they want to know that it was treated ethically,” he says.
“Wyoming ranchers don’t have to do anything or change their operation to prove that they treat their animals ethically. They already meet all those standards.”
Six months ago, Lindholm came up with an idea that would marry one of the state’s biggest industries with the tech he would like to tie to Wyoming.
“We were looking at the different aspects of blockchain and how it can be used, and how it is being used, throughout the world,” he says.
At that time, food traceability was on the radar of some of the bigger companies, but mostly in terms of proving that vegetables on the supermarket shelves are as organically grown as the label claims.
“I think once you dig into it you’ll find that food fraud happens to be one of the largest hoaxes in the world. It’s fascinating, in a bad way,” he says.
Lindholm explains this applies to the meat industry too. A consumer can look at a package and see a label that it’s “all natural” or “organic”, but this doesn’t necessarily mean what they think it means.
“The USDA doesn’t actually have a definition of what natural or organic is. Who defines it is whatever company is doing the traceability, so that might not coincide with what the consumer thinks,” he says.
“Natural for one company might be a 100-yard by 100-yard pen, and I think most ranchers in the State of Wyoming would agree that’s not very natural compared to how they raise their cattle.”
The problem is clear, but how does the blockchain fit in? What attracts developers to this technology is that uploaded data cannot be changed in any way and, at present, is said to be unhackable.
“What does that mean in the lifecycle of a cow before it becomes your steak on your dinner table? Well, we can prove where that animal was raised, we can prove how that animal was treated – we can prove all sorts of aspects, but the most important is that we can’t go in and change that data,” Lindholm says.
The means of gathering this data, he explains, include scanning and uploading data from the ID tags already worn by Wyoming cattle. Really the only additional requirement for a rancher, above and beyond what is usually necessary, is an audit from BeefChain to check their claims.
“Because it’s a USDA-verified program, it’s just another notch that a rancher gets to put in their belt saying that they have completed these steps. It’s recognized by all the buyers out there,” he says.
“The only time that would be a little out of ordinary is just putting up with someone from BeefChain scheduling a visit some time during the summer, swinging out to their place and it probably takes a half hour. It’s simple, and that’s because Wyoming ranchers are already doing all the good things that the rest of the world wants.”
Right now, BeefChain’s pilot program includes 1500 head of cattle. It’s a new company, Lindholm says, but notable because it has already proven its idea possible.
“BeefChain got invited to go to Washington, D.C. to a panel put on by the USDA talking about newer technology, blockchain and how it can be used in agriculture. We were sitting next to Walmart and IBM and all these other organizations with millions and millions of dollars and they were talking about how they could possibly do this,” he says.
“It was really cool that we got to stand up and say: we can do this, we have done this.”
BeefChain uploads its data into Etherium’s blockchain, Lindholm says, and has formed a partnership with a Laramie meat lab that utilizes QR codes, the black-and-white squares that appear on labels and can be scanned by a person’s phone to bring up information.
“We can link cuts of meat all the way back to the ranch they originated from,” he says.
“We’ve got a pretty cool group of people involved. We’ve got Ogden Driskill, the Persson Ranch, a tech kid who’s about to graduate this year from the University of Wyoming who has really been a hand for us. We specifically recruited this guy because of his knowledge and ability with blockchain technology – UW for several years now has taught a blockchain class and this has been one of their star pupils.”
Lindholm says that interest from places such as China, Taiwan and South Korea in Wyoming beef came quickly. “We’ve got a product that people want,” he says.
Part of this interest, he continues, comes from the possibility of identifying food contamination more easily. Instead of sweeping the shelves, he believes the data stored in the BeefChain will make it possible for a wholesale company to know where a contaminated product came from and where to find the rest of the batch.
“It’s a huge cost-savings for them also,” he says.
As a company, BeefChain of course needs to make a profit for itself. This is easily achieved, he says.
“We’re getting USDA certified, so BeefChain itself will be a USDA-certified company with its own Point of Verification number. We’re verifying all the claims, such as age and source, for the rancher. The rancher, in order to have those claims verified, has to pay so much per tag,” Lindholm explains.
Many of the steps BeefChain hopes to take to promote Wyoming’s meat could arguably be achieved without the need for the blockchain. Though Lindholm acknowledges that plenty is being achieved through older tech, he says the blockchain brings the advantage of preventing fraud.
“Being one of the owners of BeefChain and having access to the data, I can’t even change it. I can just add another block to the chain, thereby showing my change to the data set, and that can be traced back to me – people would be able to see that immediately,” he says.
“It keeps everybody honest in the food supply chain, which is something that is definitely needed.”
The fuss over cryptocurrencies may be beginning to die down as the value of Bitcoin and its peers settles out, but attention is now turning to the blockchain technology that made them possible. That’s why Wyoming needs to focus on the blockchain, Lindholm says – Bitcoin’s creator used it to make the currency possible and “it happens to be the best part of his currency”.
“Our goal for the near future is kind of lofty, but I would like to see 50,000 Wyoming cattle hashed into a blockchain. The primary reason for that, whether it’s through our company or somebody else’s, and why it’s important that blockchain technology is utilized, is that a lot of these Asian markets and Asian governments have mandated that it be brought into their agriculture system too,” he says.
What else could be done to combing this new tech with one of the world’s oldest industries? Lindholm says he’s heard from several agricultural businesses who might be interested in finding out, such as a producer in Jackson who would like to use it to prove their custom-roasted coffee beans are organic.
“I will note that the BeefChain has not taken advantage of any of the bills that I passed last go-around – not one of them. I’ve purposely helped steer this company away from doing that because I don’t want there to be any conflict,” he says.
“Blockchain technology has always been legal and I imagine always will be and we’re using blockchain just to hash in cattle. We’re not using it to create our own token sale or raise capital.”
By Sarah Pridgeon