Where's The Beef? Wyoming Ranchers Bet On Blockchain To Track It

15 hours ago
Originally published on August 15, 2018 9:35 pm

Bonita Carlson grew up on a ranch in Northeast Wyoming. One time her mom was gone and she helped out with the laundry. Along with her clothes she threw in some of her dad's shirts.

"When I opened the washing machines [I] saw all of his records from the whole year of that calf crop ... was destroyed in the washing machines," recalls Carlson.

She had accidentally thrown her dad's record book in with his shirts — all the information on their cattle. For Carlson, this is a perfect example of why it's important to merge the old heritage of the agriculture industry with the emerging technology known as blockchain.

Blockchain "is a global, online ledger, or network of ledgers, listing every single transaction in the world. It's verified immediately by other people using the system, which protects people's privacy, but is transparent enough to allow for oversight from anyone. No one group regulates it, so it's neutral and accessible to anyone with a computer," according to our colleagues over at the All Tech Considered blog.

If Carlson had it back then, it would have meant her father's records would still be intact, but blockchain's potential goes beyond that.

With blockchain, data like what the cattle eats, what type of vaccines it has received, and if it was ever sick will be available for anyone to see. So Wyoming ranchers who are turning to this technology believe they can brand their beef as superior.

"Here in Wyoming, you know, the cattle are out in big open pastures and they eat grass that is available. There's plenty of it and they drink water as it falls from the skies into the reservoirs. We don't have cattle in small lots," says Carlson.

Basically, this means cattle are treated well in Wyoming. But by the time they're being packaged as beef, they've been mixed in with beef from other ranches, where the cattle may not be so lucky.

Beefchain.io is the company that's getting blockchain going on ranches in Wyoming.

"The unique methodology that each ranch uses ... what grass their fed on, that's all lost and consequently ranchers are getting pennies on the dollar," says Beefchain.io CEO Rob Jennings.

Until now it hasn't been worth it to Wyoming ranchers to try to keep their beef apart.

But Carlson and her fiancée Drew Perrson are betting on the new technology. They just tagged 250 steer calves at their ranch with blockchain tags. The cost: $5 per tag. By using these tags and keeping their cattle separate all the way through processing, they hope to increase the value of their cattle by ten to 20 percent.

The idea is that the data from that tag would stay with the beef all the way to the shelf, so a consumer could scan a code and see the information. The international market demands this kind of transparency.

"Traceability is of utmost importance to them [international markets]...food safety and guarding from food fraud, things being packaged that aren't what they say they are," says Jennings.

However, traceability already exists in agriculture and this is where some are wary about a new system. Dylan Yaga, a computer scientist at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, is finalizing a paper exploring when it's appropriate to use blockchain. He said industries need to to be careful about over-investing in new technologies that don't have a proven competitive advantage.

"There is a high level of hype around the use of blockchains, yet the technology is not well understood. It is not magical; it will not solve all problems," Yaga's draft paper says.

For example, someone using the system would need to figure out a way to change data, and agree on what would be a "valid transaction."

"If you got a problem that sounds like it could be solved by blockchain, absolutely look into it, explore the technology," says Yaga. "But there's other technologies out there in existence that's been around much longer that could possibly be employed to solve the same problem."

In the cattle industry, many use RFID tags, attached to calves' ears. RFID tags track similar data points as blockchain does, but the data can later be manipulated. With Beefchain, none of the data points can be deleted or changed. Mistakes have to be noted with a correction.

Ultimately, Beefchain hopes that as soon as next year, consumers will be able to go to a store, scan a QR code and learn about the life their beef led before they buy.

And Carlson and Perrson are betting that their customers will want to do just that.

Copyright 2018 Wyoming Public Radio. To see more, visit Wyoming Public Radio.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

When you hear the word blockchain, you might think of cryptocurrency. The technology acts as a digital ledger which has the potential to transform a number of industries like agriculture. Kamila Kudelska of Wyoming Public Radio explains.

KAMILA KUDELSKA, BYLINE: Bonita Carlson grew up on a ranch in northeast Wyoming. One time, her mom was gone, and she helped out with the laundry. Along with her clothes she threw in some of her dad's shirts.

BONITA CARLSON: When I opened the washing machine and saw all of his records from the whole year of that calf crop was destroyed in the washing machine...

KUDELSKA: She had thrown in her dad's record book, all the information on their cattle. For Carlson, this is a perfect example of why it's important to merge the old heritage of the agriculture industry with new technology. Blockchain acts as a digital ledger that cannot be altered. It would have kept all of her father's records intact. But it goes beyond that. With blockchain, data like what the cattle eats, what type of vaccines it has received and if it was ever sick will be available for anyone to see. So Wyoming ranchers believe they can brand their beef as superior.

CARLSON: Here in Wyoming, you know, the cattle are out in big, open pastures. And they eat grass that's available. And there's plenty of it. And they drink water as it falls from the sky, you know, into the reservoirs. We don't have cattle in small lots.

KUDELSKA: Basically this means cattle are treated well in Wyoming. But by the time they're being packaged as beef, they've been mixed in with beef from other ranches where the cattle may not have roamed free. Rob Jennings is the CEO of BeefChain.io, the company that's getting blockchain going on ranches in Wyoming.

ROB JENNINGS: The unique methodology that each ranch uses - you know, what grass they're fed on - that's all lost. And consequently, you know, the rancher's getting pennies on the dollar.

KUDELSKA: Until now, it hasn't been worth it to Wyoming ranchers to try to keep them apart. But Carlson and her fiance just tagged 250 steer calves at their ranch with blockchain tags. The cost - $5 per tag. By using these tags and keeping their cattle separate all the way through processing, they hope to increase the value of their cattle by 10 to 20 percent. The data from that tag would stay with the beef all the way to the shelf so a consumer could scan a code and see the information. The international market demands this kind of transparency.

JENNINGS: Traceability is of utmost importance to them, food safety and particularly guarding against food fraud in those markets, things being packaged that aren't what they say they are.

KUDELSKA: However, traceability already exists in agriculture. And this is where some are wary. Dylan Yaga is with the National Institute of Standards and Technology. He's working on a paper exploring when it's appropriate to use blockchain. He says industries need to be careful about overinvesting in new technologies that don't have a proven competitive advantage.

DYLAN YAGA: If you've got a problem that sounds like it could be solved by blockchain, absolutely, like, look into it. Explore the technology. But there's other technologies out there in existence that have been around much longer that could possibly be employed to solve the same problem.

KUDELSKA: Currently RFID tags are in use, which track similar data points. But the data can later be manipulated. The difference with blockchain and the perceived strength is none of the data points can be deleted or changed. Mistakes have to be noted with a correction. Ultimately, BeefChain hopes that as soon as next year, you'll be able to go to a store, scan a QR code and learn about the life your steak had before you decide to buy it. For NPR News, I'm Kamila Kudelska in Cody, Wyo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.