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Using Blockchain to Create Demand for Nutritious Foods through Social Networks in Low- and Middle-Income Countries

Globally, there are more than 2 billion people who are deficient in micronutrients essential for growth and development; however, low-income households in low and middle-income countries (LMICs) suffer disproportionately [1]. One of the leading causes of nutritional deficiencies is a heavy reliance on calorie-dense but nutrient-deficient staple crops in the diet, such as rice or cassava. Another contributing factor is the nutrition transition, where an increasing proportion of individuals are incorporating ultra-processed foods into their diet. Generally speaking, there is little demand for nutrient-dense foods that could reverse micronutrient deficiencies among low-income households; however, there are emerging technologies, such as blockchain, that could overcome some of the challenges characteristic of agri-food value chains in LMICs to increase demand for such foods.

In many LMICs, there is an insufficient flow of information through agri-food value chains from producer through to consumer. This is problematic for creating and sustaining demand for nutritious foods that can contribute to improved nutritional status. Nutrient-dense foods such as orange flesh sweet potato or fortified cereals, are typically push products. This requires the seller to communicate to the benefits (i.e. micronutrient content, food safety) of the product to persuade the consumer to make purchases. Since micronutrients are a credence characteristic, meaning that micronutrient content cannot be readily identified at the time of purchase, sellers face high marketing costs that are unlikely to be covered by the amount low-income consumers are willing to pay [2]. Low-income households also face a wide range of other health-related challenges that may keep them from noticing the positive nutritional effects of nutrient-dense foods. This decreases the likelihood of repeat purchases and again increases the cost to the seller.

In the absence of visibility into value chains and nutritional claims of nutrient-dense foods, consumers tend to rely heavily on relationships with sellers or community and family members when making food purchases. In 2018, Dr. Ralph Hall and I submitted a grant proposal to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Grand Challenges Explorations to investigate how blockchain technology (BCT) could be used to disseminate information about nutrient-dense foods and to promote the consumption of nutritious foods by leveraging the consumer’s social network.

BCT has numerous applications for increasing the transparency of agri-food value chains, improving product quality, food integrity and safety, and information transfer, and reducing fraud, logistic challenges, and environmental impacts [3],[4]. A proof of concept conducted by Wageningen University demonstrated that food product certification and supply chain information can be stored on a blockchain and queried by permissioned users such as consumers [5]. A number of enterprises have started to use BCT to reduce food waste in the US (www.zestlabs.com), create farmer co-operatives in Africa (www.agunity.com), or provide information to consumers regarding the supply chain of durable goods in the UK (www.provenance.com). However, there are limited, if any, consumer-based applications that are being used to address issues of malnutrition in LMICs.

The project developed for the Grand Challenges Explorations proposed to work with businesses, consumers, and actors along the value chain for a select number of nutritious foods (i.e. fortified infant cereals, milk, chicken) to identify the types of information that consumers would value having access to. This information would be placed on the blockchain that could be queried by consumers using mobile phones when making food purchases. The project also proposed to develop a social certification program by engaging community leaders, consumers, and businesses that would allow social influencers to endorse products as nutritious for children and other household members. The purpose of using blockchain is to increase the trust that exists in the food system between sellers and buyers to promote the consumption of nutrient-dense foods. AgUnity has found evidence that even a small amount of training on the functionality of blockchain increases trust and transparency between actors in agri-food value chains. While this grant was not funded by the Gates Foundation, it was eventually passed on to the Danone Foundation Impact Investing Group. There is clear interest in whether blockchain is a viable digital solution in food systems, particularly in LMICs. Anyone interested in exploring this in the future should reach out to myself or Ralph Hall.

 

[1]. von Grebmer K, Saltzman A, Birol E, et al. 2014 Global Hunger Index: The Challenge of Hidden Hunger. Washington DC: IFPRI;2014.

[2]. Agnew J, Henson S. Business-Based Strategies for Improved Nutrition: The Case of Grameen Danone Foods. IDS Bulletin. 2018;49(1):39-56.

[3]. Ge L, Brewster C. Informational institutions in the agrifood sector: meta-information and meta-governance of environmental sustainability. Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability. 2016;18:73-81.

[4]. Trienekens JH, Wognum PM, Beulens AJM, van der Vorst JGAJ. Transparency in complex dynamic food supply chains. Advanced Engineering Informatics. 2012;26(1):55-65.

[5]. Ge L, Brewster C, Spek J, Smeenk A, Top J. Blockchain for Agriculture and Food. Wageningen Economic Research;2017.