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Blockchain, the Internet of Things and meat: How a summer road trip led to a fellowship

Three USC undergrads — and sustainability fellowship recipients — believe emerging technologies like crypto could play a vital role in reinforcing the meat supply chain.

USC students sustainability fellowship meat supply chain
Simon Callaghan, Thomas Mercer and Matias Mansilla were all recipients of the Undergraduate Sustainability Challenge Fellowship. (Photos/Courtesy of Simon Callaghan, Thomas Mercer and Matias Mansilla)

When envisioning where and how someone comes up with an academic proposal worthy of a fellowship, driving through Wyoming in a Mazda is probably not high on anyone’s list of scenarios. And surely, upon hearing the terms “blockchain” and “Internet of Things,” the first word that comes to mind probably isn’t “meat.”

However, two business students and an environmental engineering major would say it all fits perfectly, and could also make a huge impact on how people buy their meat. Which is why it earned the trio the Undergraduate Sustainability Challenge Fellowship from the USC Center for Sustainability Solutions.

“I frame it as we’re solving the trust issue in the meat supply chain,” said sophomore Simon Callaghan.

For the project, since Blockchain is essentially a growing list of records — called blocks — that are linked together, the thought is to use that to trace where meat comes from and protect the trust between farmers and consumers.

The Internet of Things will be used to automate the process by checking off when certain requirements have been met.

“Ideally, you’d have a QR code on a sticker to put on the meat at the end, and then people at the grocery store will be able to scan that and see exactly where it went through,” said sophomore TJ Mercer. “If a GPS location was attached the whole time, then you could trace that to a farm. You’d create a linear system where people could click on any point and see where it spent time.”

The transparency of the secure information guarantees the consumer receives a sustainably sourced product and farmers are fairly compensated for higher quality goods — in other words, it can help prevent “beef fraud.”

“In the meat supply chain, we see a lot of shady tactics,” Callaghan said. “The unique aspect about blockchain is that it’s immutable and verifiable by everybody, so once you put something in, you can’t change it — and if you try to change it, everyone knows that you tried to change it.”

Tracking the meat supply chain has sustainable benefits

An organization known as BeefChain has applied the same concept to cattle ranches in Mercer’s home state of Wyoming. As a senior in high school, Mercer listened to a presentation from the organization and has been following them ever since. So when it came time to develop a proposal for this fellowship, they looked to BeefChain for inspiration.

“What really makes beef unsustainable is the way that we do it in a lot of America … for example, feedlots are a large part of the problem,” Mercer said. “Pasture-raised beef is fine, however, the process of getting all of that to market, or the middleman, is very complicated.”

As Callaghan and Mansilla work on the technical side of the project abroad, at home, Mercer will be working with several Southern California farms to test carbon levels in the soil, which would indicate whether the beef was pasture-raised or came from a feedlot. Since cows produce carbon the more open pasture and soil a farm has, the more carbon it can capture.

Though this is only in the beginning stages currently, the goal is for this process to be used by the government to automatically distribute taxes and subsidies to keep beef farmers in accordance with sustainability standards.

“We’re not creating anything new,” Mansilla said. “We’re just taking parts of different things that already exist, like blockchain and the Internet of Things, and basically combining it all together and applying the solution into the supply chain.”

Since it is a project built around sustainability, the trio also must ensure that their own process is done sustainably. Instead of the traditional proof-of-work blockchain, the group plans to use proof-of-stake, which Callaghan said is a more emerging format that uses 95% to 98% less energy.

“The type of blockchain you use actually matters a lot,” Callaghan said.

Fellowship-earning USC students believe in the power of blockchain

The group earned one of four fellowships given out by the center. The program, which is open to undergraduate students in all USC majors, supports multidisciplinary research projects focused on sustainability. Fellowships are awarded for a one-year duration, renewable for up to three years.

In addition to understanding the project, it’s important to understand the group members. Callaghan and Mansilla, both in the USC Marshall School of Business, bonded over a mutual interest in blockchain and all things crypto.

If there’s anything the last few years have proved, it’s that you can do anything from anywhere in the world.

Simon Callaghan

Callaghan, a Burbank, Calif., native, and Mansilla, from Santiago, Chile, decide to take a summer road trip this year across the western United States. The two friends — who are currently studying in Hong Kong for a year through the World Bachelor in Business program — made their way to Jackson Hole, Wyo., where they met up and stayed with Mercer, a student in the USC Viterbi School of Engineering.

Between majoring in environmental engineering and growing up on a farm, Mercer developed an interest in sustainable agriculture, which is where the other two felt their interest in blockchain could be of assistance.

For those outside of these specializations, the project might seem complicated. And even for those who understand the intricacies of blockchain and the beef industry, the logistics of collaborating when group members are across the world might seem a tad daunting. However, the group doesn’t view it that way. Their optimism for the project shines through as much as their passion for the topic, and despite the distance and difference in schedules, the trio seems to understand that a lot can be accomplished when the goal is clear.

“There are definitely hurdles, but if there’s anything the last few years have proved, it’s that you can do anything from anywhere in the world,” Callaghan said. “The power of working remotely is a lot stronger than people think.

“There’s definitely a lot to overcome, but nothing we can’t get through.”

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Blockchain, the Internet of Things and meat: How a summer road trip led to a fellowship

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