This November, global trade took a leap into the 21st century.
Cargill just teamed with HSBC bank and R3, the blockchain company, in the world’s first all-blockchain trade-finance transaction. The shipment was a load of soybeans traveling from Argentina to Malaysia. And the paperwork took only 24 hours to process.
That may seem slow to consumers used to PayPal and Amazon transactions. But the documents that travel with an international cargo like that normally take three to five days.
Maps of world trade routes make it look simple. Iron ore goes by ship from Brazil to China… bananas meet the boat in Ecuador and head to Italy… diamonds take the plane from Africa to India.
But the documentation that controls those supply chains is a hot mess.
For instance, if the bill of lading says the shipment is soybeans but the cargo is actually soybean meal, everything stops until the records are straightened out. That may involve translating documents into several languages and tracking them through multiple countries.
Every shipment requires export and import licenses, bills of lading, permissions, stamps, certificates of origin, inspection documents, packing lists, proof of insurance, bills of sale, tax stamps, letters of credit and invoices that vary from country to country and cargo to cargo.
Cargill, the food giant that would rank #15 in the Fortune 500 if it were a public company has big hopes that blockchain technology can tame its supply chain management.
Faster, Safer, Cleaner
Blockchain is a data management system that came to public notice alongside cryptocurrencies. For a long time, anyone who wanted to invest in it had little choice but to buy Bitcoin or some other crypto.
But blockchain is to cryptocurrencies like electricity was to the first light bulb. Originally people installed electricity to get lights, but it was always capable of much more. Blockchain began as a way to handle transactions for Bitcoin, but that is turning out to be one of its least important uses. Anything that requires a permanent record or data handling is a potential candidate.
Blockchain is particularly strong where trust is important and the parties are not on a handshake basis. It seems to have been invented for the food industry in particular.
That’s why Walmart was one of the first major companies to pioneer in testing blockchain data systems. Walmart is now one of the world’s largest grocers. When a food-borne illness breaks out, the company wants to be able to find every affected unit, where it came from, which factory processed it, which distributor carried it, where it was sold, and what’s left on the shelf. Immediately. This year, Walmart instituted a new system that will require every supplier of lettuce or spinach to enter data into the company’s blockchain system. That way if an outbreak of e. coli or other problem develops, lettuce can be traced to its source within minutes.
Conscience Follows Data
Like Walmart, the organic and sustainable food movements have a lot to gain from using blockchain programming for their records. As the Financial Times recently observed, blockchain can assure consumers that “the free-range egg they had for breakfast did not originate from a factory farm and that palm oil in their biscuits is not produced by child labour [sic].”
Wyoming ranchers are now registering calves via blockchain so they can prove their beef comes from open-range cattle.
Organic foods may be a health concern, but many consumers also do not want to buy products that relied on slave or child labor, organic or not.
That’s an issue for the electric car industry because of the batteries that contain cobalt. The Democratic Republic of Congo is the world’s largest source of cobalt. And it is notorious for using child labor under horrific conditions.
The diamond industry has a lot to live down as well. But DeBeers is testing digital blockchain tracking to ensure the diamonds it sells are ethically sourced from small miners in Sierra Leone.
Investing in Blockchain Is Still Hard
There is probably no technology that has a bigger blue sky potential than blockchain. R3 would be the obvious choice for investors as it serves big-name financial companies. But it was never public and now there are rumors the startup is running out of money.
Among consulting companies handling large blockchain installations and advice, DeLoitte is the leader. It, too, is not a public company.
That leaves dozens of cryptocurrency firms. But investments in them are actually speculations on their alternative moneys, not truly an investment in blockchain.
Several public companies, however, are very much involved in this new technology, starting with IBM.
And perhaps, for now, ending with IBM.
Several startups have promised to bring blockchain to the stock market where we can all profit. Long Blockchain (Formerly Long Island Ice Tea) went from $4 to 16 cents. BTC from $14 to $1.44. Riot, aptly named, was indeed calamitous as it nosedived from $32 to $1.84.
There’s a lesson in that. Sooner or later there will be a great blockchain investment. But it probably won’t be a penny stock or out-of-nowhere startup. It will be an IT business or even IBM, a company that’s already expertly run with a longtime geek pedigree.