Covid-19 blew open vulnerabilities in the global food supply chain, and super-charged efforts from agrifoodtech innovators to fix them.
But given how many different actors are involved in getting food from seed to plate, the key to a more efficient and resilient food supply chain may well be something the hyper-competitive and proprietary agrifood sector has long been loathe to try: collaboration.
A new open-source software platform from Cargill is aiming to make collaboration the new industry norm. The “blockchain-like” platform, called Splinter, is designed to enable any organization involved in moving agrifood items from one point to another to coordinate logistics and resolve disputes.
“Covid-19 has really highlighted the fact that there are a lot of inefficiencies in the food supply chain, in part because it’s all very point to point,” Cargill’s digital business lead Eric Parkin tells AFN.
“What’s needed is a multi-party, end-to-end solution.”
Cargill has been working in partnership with a number of other large agrifood corporations to build Splinter. While they’re all reluctant to share sensitive or proprietary data with their competitors, there is recognition that new solutions are needed to solve supply chain inefficiency and waste.
“A really important aspect in how we develop this is thinking about what supply chain transparency looks like in the future,” Parkin says.
“Splinter allows us to rewrite that next generation of architecture with a focus on privacy and distribution of data.”
How it works
In today’s supply chain, when a buyer discovers that a pallet of produce is damaged, it can take a couple of months to resolve the issue. “That’s because nobody’s systems talk to each other,” Parkin says.
Cargill has a system that it uses to communicate with its farmer partners at one end of the chain, and with its logistics and warehouse partners at the other end. Retailers have their own systems for communicating with Cargill and other suppliers, as well as their logistics partners.
“Everyone along the supply chain has to relay emails and play phone tag,” Parkin explains.
The time and resources spent settling any disputes quickly adds up to many millions of dollars, he adds.
Splinter aims to resolve these tracking and communication inefficiencies by enabling all parties in the agrifood supply chain to work off of the same system, while still maintaining privacy when and where needed.
Technically speaking, Splinter is the infrastructure – the bottom layer of the ‘stack’ on which anyone can build and share private, distributed applications, for agrifood or any other sector.
“Think of it like the plumbing and the pipes,” explains Cargill’s senior director of engineering David Cecchi.
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Splinter comes with its own user experience framework to make it easier for users to build and launch new applications. Because Splinter is an open-source platform, it can host applications for, well, pretty much anything – though Cargill’s focus is accelerating new applications for the agrifood supply chain.
The next layer up the stack is the ‘grid’ where applications for inventory management, dispute resolution, and other business solutions are developed and hosted. The open-source platform used here is called Hyperledger Grid.
“The grid is about providing reusable components, frameworks, data models, and smart contracts to solve and enable supply chain use cases,” Cecchi tells AFN.
It integrates open industry standards — such as barcodes, for example — to encourage broader adoption of those standards and to ensure users don’t have to reinvent the wheel.
Cargill’s vision is for Splinter to help agrifood players automate manual supply chain processes and “integrate our processes much more sincerely,” Cecchi adds.
Though terms like ‘distributed’ and ‘smart contracts’ have a certain blockchain ring to them, Splinter isn’t quite that – though it was “blockchain inspired,” according to Cecchi.
There were a number of reasons Cargill chose not to build a fully blockchain-based system. Ultimately it has tried to take the best of what blockchain has to offer in terms of transparency and integrity, while still maintaining privacy as needed.
Before getting into what Splinter isn’t, let’s revisit what blockchain is. For the unfamiliar (or vaguely familiar), blockchains are decentralized, distributed, and immutable ledgers – databases that are shared openly, either by multiple private parties or publicly, within which every new piece of information added is recorded chronologically and cannot be deleted or edited after the fact.
What would a fully blockchain-based application for supply chain dispute resolution look like, then? Going back to that damaged pallet of goods, the buyer — for example, a retailer called Acme — would easily be able to link back through the chain of steps and actors responsible for delivering that pallet.
If the goods came from Cargill, then Acme could trace back through the chain all the way to Cargill, if need be. If the goods came from another supplier, it could trace back to them. But because blockchains are built around shared networks, Cargill and the other suppliers would all have access to the same information Acme has.
“That’s impractical and inappropriate,” Cecchi argues.
It’s also illegal, in some cases. In line with antitrust rules, “[Cargill] can’t have an application showing things like prices and quantities across all of our trading partners and competitors,” Parkin says.
Splinter overcomes this by enabling information sharing across small private circuits of just a few parties. Those ‘micro-chains’ can then be replicated with different parties as needed.
Returning to our example scenario above, Acme could have private circuits for each of its suppliers and their intermediaries. Then Acme can see everything happening across its own supplier network – but sensitive information between it and Cargill isn’t shared with its other suppliers, many of whom might be Cargill’s competitors.
“It has all of the goodness of blockchain, and distributed applications generally, with the ability to build private, peer-to-peer circuits in an agile and efficient way,” Cecchi says.
Parkin adds that the intent is to get information flowing across the supply chain more fluidly than if everyone in the agrifood sector continued building and using their own separate databases. “We see it as a way to start creating a network effect,” he says.
Collaboration is crucial
In light of the Covid-19 pandemic and its unprecedented impact on the movement of people and goods, supply chain tech is all the rage. innumerable solutions seem to be in development or hitting the market. Many of them are innovative and promising, Cecchi concedes; but for they most part, they’re also limited in scope, he says.
“What we’re aiming for is a coherent and integrated set of supply chain capabilities that can be deployed flexibly and agilely across different trading relationships,” he adds.
“With Splinter, you can deploy these capabilities for purchasing and inventory and dispute resolution in micro-slices, and also in big, heavy, rich ways where all of these pieces are working together.”
Cargill’s vision to get the entire agrifood industry aligned around shared supply chain tools is why it built Splinter as an open-source system.
“Companies often build software solutions to problems they are facing and then open-source them and give them away. There are countless examples of open-source software that came out of LinkedIn or Facebook that traditional enterprises like ours now use,” Cecchi says.
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Parkin says there is a sizable consortium of agrifood companies supporting Splinter and its two active pilots. He declines to name these partners, but says the pilot schemes are designed to bring multiple parties — including retailers, distributors, food manufacturers, and others — together around a specific supply chain pain point. Participants can then collaboratively explore open models and standards relevant to the problem, before application design work begins.
“We try to break open those cases to understand: What are the real underlying issues, and where are the opportunities to leverage stack technology to create more harmony and efficiency from a commercial perspective?” says Borre Moolenaar, Cargill’s digital product line leader, who is supporting the Splinter pilots.
Parkin stresses that enhanced collaboration has to be the future of agrifood industry, with Covid-19 having made that clear.
“Technology: that’s the easy part,” he says. “The challenge is understanding how the complex food supply chain works today, and then rethinking how we in the industry are going to work together to reshape it for the future.”