College of Engineering News • Iowa State University

ISU researchers to study blockchain technology to improve sustainability in food markets

Food production systems could become more environmentally sustainable and K-12 students could become more educated about it as part of a new research project.

A team of Iowa State University researchers, led by mechanical engineering (ME) associate professor Mark Mba-Wright, recently received a $300,000 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) for a research project titled “CNH2-S:  Sustainable field-to-market supply chains enabled by blockchain networks.” The project will examine the development of blockchain technology to improve traceability and accountability in food markets, according to Mba-Wright.

“Our vision is that blockchain networks will unlock consumers’ ability to incentivize sustainable food production practices,” said Mba-Wright. “To accomplish this vision, we will be studying ways to integrate blockchain networks with field-to-market food supply chains. Blockchain networks will enable food producers, suppliers and consumers to store, track and monetize sustainable practices.”

A blockchain is a system designed to store transactional information in a secure and robust manner. The blockchain network refers to the interconnected computers that store and transmit this information. These networks can be centralized similar to conventional monetary systems. However, a decentralized system allows large number of participants to save, view and verify transactional information which provides important benefits that have not been extensively studied for food markets, according to Mba-Wright.

“In this project, we will investigate the design of blockchain networks that are suitable for farmers and consumers within a U.S. Midwest context,” he said, adding that as a mechanical engineer he will specifically focus on optimizing the system from an energy and resource use perspective. The team will use nitrogen as an agent to link the food production system and the environmental footprint, tracking full-chain nitrogen use efficiency (NUE) from field to consumers.

The research team includes collaborators from a range of different disciplines on campus: Yong Guan (electrical and computer engineering), Chaoqun Lu (ecology, evolution and organismal biology), Lisa Schulte-Moore (natural resource ecology and management), Yu Wang (political science), Nancy Grudens-Schuck (agricultural education and studies) and Alexis Campbell (Science Bound). Additionally, the team hopes to collaborate with Iowa farmers, agricultural cooperatives and food organizations.

Education and outreach is another component of this project. The research team is collaborating with Science Bound, Iowa State’s premier pre-college program to empower Iowa students of color to pursue degrees and careers in STEM fields, to develop curriculum material for the People in Ecosystems Watershed Integration (PEWI) model. This model aims to educate K-12 students and teachers on the potential of blockchain networks to improve the sustainability of the food supply.

“We believe informing the next generation of consumers on strategies to directly support food production practices that are beneficial to the environment could be a key strategy for supporting our farmers,” said Mba-Wright. “Some of our students could also become future farmers who would adopt blockchain technology.”

Research on this project began in August 2019 and funding will continue through January 2022. The project is supported by NSF as well as the Bioeconomy Institute at Iowa State University.