Interview: Azeem Malik, Business Development – IBM Food Trust, IBM Blockchain

Future Food-Tech New York spoke to Azeem Malik, Business Development of IBM Food Trust, IBM Blockchain about the company’s blockchain strategies, opportunities for food businesses incorporating blockchain into their system and success stories that have impacted the food industry.

You’re speaking on the panel discussion “Transparency & Traceability: Restoring Trust in the Food System” at Future Food-Tech New York. Can you share some insight into IBM as a company and how IBM has become one of the leading market providers of blockchain technology?

Azeem Malik, Business Development – IBM Food Trust, IBM Blockchain

For 107 years and counting, IBM has been at the forefront of innovation in the handling of information.

One of IBM’s latest initiatives is around blockchain technology. IBM is focusing on blockchain for permissioned, trusted business-to-business transactions, providing the attributes of consensus, provenance, immutability and finality. Blockchain-based systems can save time (reducing transaction times from days to seconds), lower overhead costs and intermediaries, reduce the risk of fraud and increase trust through shared transparency and record keeping.

The IBM Blockchain journey began in early 2016 when we contributed tens of thousands of lines of code to Hyperledger Fabric, a project of the Linux Foundation designed for advance blockchain in the enterprise. Since then, we have worked with clients on more than 400 blockchain projects in industries from food safety to global shipping to banking and financial services. The IBM Blockchain Platform, the industry’s first end-to-end platform that allows users to develop, operate and govern a blockchain network, was launched last summer, and there are more than 1500 IBMers working on blockchain globally.

In the food safety realm, IBM has partnered with high-profile experts to address industry-wide challenges, to launch the IBM Food Trust™ solution.

In your opinion, how great is the opportunity for food businesses to make blockchain a central part of their digitalization strategy? What challenges need to be overcome for market wide adoption?

There is demand among participants in the food industry for a trusted and end-to-end view of their supply chains. There is also a need to see the industry as a whole move toward greater transparency. Suppliers, processors, distributors, retailers, logistics providers, and consumers all benefit from the ability to trace their products across a holistic journey to ensure food safety and respond faster to contaminations.

With the IBM Food Trust solution, suppliers and retailers have the capability to quickly and efficiently trace and recall products. The solution provides participants with a permissioned, shared view of food industry information. With blockchain as a central part of the digitalization strategy, the food industry has the opportunity to respond quickly, effectively, and precisely to health risks.

Challenges to overcome for market wide adoption include:
Getting the data onto the network.
Through working with our early adopters we’ve come a long way towards identifying what information needs to go on to the blockchain, in what formats, for what types of food products, etc. We are also working on making it even easier for any organization – a small farmer or producer to a large retailer – to get data onto the blockchain.

A solution for the industry must leverage existing standards in that industry. 
Data must be exchanged between parties on a blockchain network using standard formats to ensure effective data sharing between partners. The IBM Food Trust solution uses GS1 standards, which is used by the industry, so that companies can talk to each other in a language everyone understands.

How is IBM leveraging its position in the market as a trusted brand? How have early adopters impacted the development and growing success of this technology?

IBM aspires to be seen as a trusted brand in this market given our position as a neutral technology vendor that is helping companies use blockchain to enable transparency and traceability across their own networks. This is truly a solution for the entire food ecosystem, rather than just a handful of companies. We are already seeing organizations that never before would have interacted or shared data with one another, see the benefits of doing so with blockchain technology and begin to collaborate.

IBM announced a broad collaboration with several of the industry’s leading retailers, suppliers, and distributors in 2017. Early adopters include Dole, Driscoll’s, Golden State Foods, Kroger, McCormick, McLane, Nestlé, Tyson, Unilever and Walmart. This community of innovators and influencers has enabled IBM to better understand how to effectively provide value for the food industry with IBM Food Trust.

When it comes to blockchain technology, what is the most common question you are asked? 

Q: What is the difference between Bitcoin and Blockchain?
Bitcoin is a payments application on top of a blockchain network. Blockchain is the technology behind bitcoin. Think of the blockchain network as a train track and the application on top of the network as the railcar. Bitcoin is a railcar (application) on the blockchain train track (network). There are several different tracks out there, or blockchain networks, designed to solve different problems and engage different types of users. The IBM Blockchain Platform is an example of a blockchain network that developers can build applications on top of.

Q: When it comes to blockchain technology, what is the most common question you are asked? 
This is a question that gets asked a lot, as it focuses on how the current blockchain technology is different than before. We are focusing on a permissioned blockchain, which is a distributed ledger in which access to the ledger is dependent on a verified identity. On the contrary, a distributed database is a database in which storage devices are not all attached to a common processor. You can reference the Venn diagram below to compare permissioned blockchain vs. distributed database.

The graphic below is courtesy of IBM CourseWorks

Where have you seen the greatest success in how blockchain has impacted the food industry so far? Are there any case study examples you can share?

Blockchain has empowered industry leaders to imagine new possibilities when it comes to the way they run their businesses and operate their supply chains. It has also brought competitors to the same table to agree to collaborate along the same networks and work together to move the industry forward towards transparency and greater information flow.

One of the first use cases that IBM and Walmart piloted was tracing back a pack of sliced mangoes from a Walmart store shelf to its source. Using their existing traceability solutions, it took Walmart’s food safety team 6 days, 18 hours, and 26 minutes to get back to source information. The same use case on IBM blockchain technology took 2.2 seconds.

What is your vision for the future of blockchain and how it could impact the food industry? Beyond food safety, what other industries is IBM looking at to introduce blockchain technology?

The impact of blockchain in the food industry will be seen in the reduction of time it takes to identify the source of contaminations, in how it makes recalls more efficient, reduced fraud in food, more transparent supply chains, greater collaboration among industry participants, fewer food borne illnesses, and more.

Blockchain can be applied to any use case where participants across a network need to transact with greater trust and where there is no one trusted source that exists. Aside from IBM Food Trust, IBM has launched a number of other blockchain initiatives, including a global trade digitization for global supply chains and a cross-border payments solution running on Stellar.

Azeem Malik will be speaking at Future Food-Tech New York on Transparency & Traceability: Restoring Trust in the Food System at 4.30pm on Tuesday June 19.

To learn more about IBM Food Trust, visit