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    The Blockchain Chickens Bringing the Future to Free-Range

    As food safety concerns attract more affluent Chinese consumers to the farm-to-table movement, the poultry industry is introducing high-tech innovations.

    GUIZHOU, Southwest China — A crisp breeze stirs the air in the town of Sanqiao, two hours of bumpy bus rides from the bustling city of Chongqing. Nestled in the green mountains is a chicken farm on a hillside.

    Close to 6,000 birds wander the grounds of more than 2 hectares. On a hot summer day, most choose to stay cool inside the coop, but as dusk falls, more venture out to find other places to perch.

    One of the farmers is 32-year-old Jiang Song, a Sanqiao native. After working as a factory laborer in the southern province of Guangdong for almost a decade, the father of two was tired of only seeing his family twice a year — the price many people from rural China pay for a higher income away from home. Now, Jiang makes more than he did in the factory by raising “blockchain chickens” that sell for up to 238 yuan ($35) each.

    The farm in Guizhou is one of more than 400 across China that are part of an initiative called GoGo Chicken. Launched in June 2017 by ZhongAn Technology — the tech incubator arm of ZhongAn Online P&C Insurance — the program aims to revolutionize the country’s poultry industry by bringing digital transparency to its farm-to-table claims.

    Critics, however, say blockchain is simply a buzzword that provides a veneer of security when food safety issues should be addressed through stricter regulation.

    Technology Meets Agriculture

    GoGo Chicken marries free-range poultry with high-tech surveillance. Each bird wears an ankle bracelet that counts its steps as it clucks, squabbles, and roams. The same blockchain ledger used in cryptocurrency transactions tracks information such as the chicken’s age, daily step count, and even time of death. Customers who have already pre-purchased a chicken can view all the details on an app.

    While chickens from factory farms are usually slaughtered after 40 days, GoGo Chicken says its birds have quadruple the average lifespan: Each chicken in the program lives up to 166 days, as — the advertising claims — a long life adds flavor.

    Demand comes from middle-class consumers who are happy to pay for quality and peace of mind. “The aim is to solve the lack of trust by allowing consumers to see the source of their food,” says Wang Wei, chief operating officer of Lianmo Technology, a subsidiary of ZhongAn Technology that worked on GoGo Chicken. He expects that the company will have recruited 3,000 farms by 2020.

    ZhongAn Technology is not alone in the field. After the 2013 bird flu outbreak led to losses of up to 40 billion yuan in the poultry industry, the national government ramped up its scrutiny over food safety, spending 600 million yuan on cleaning up the sector.

    Many of China’s tech companies have ventured into the meat and poultry industries, knowing that the potential profits are far from paltry. E-commerce company rolled out a similar project called Running Chicken in 2016, which now also utilizes blockchain, while tech giant NetEase has been raising organic black pigs for more than eight years. Yet China does not have any official nationwide certification for free-range or organic produce, meaning it is up to consumers themselves to verify vendors’ claims.

    International standards vary widely in how they define free-range habitats for chickens, but Jiang’s farm complies with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)’s standards for organic chickens, which require livestock to be fed 100 percent certified organic feed without antibiotics, and be free to roam for at least 120 days.

    Changing Consumption

    Chinese people have been eating animals for thousands of years, but in the past, meat was expensive and often reserved for special occasions.

    Consumption of meat has increased rapidly with rising incomes. According to the USDA, China’s daily meat consumption — including poultry, but excluding seafood — was 62 grams per capita in 1978, the year China started to transition to a market economy. That figure has risen to 250 grams per capita today — well above most nutritionists’ recommendations. Chinese health authorities, for example, suggest a daily intake of 40 to 75 grams to prevent heart disease.

    In 1984, the country’s poultry sector opened to foreign capital, which led to mass industrialization. The yellow broiler chicken was favored for its fast growth and soon became a staple of the fast food industry. But yearly outbreaks of avian flu and media reports on “instant chickens” overfed with antibiotics have left shoppers wary.

    Wealthy residents in China’s coastal cities have the power to bend the hand of suppliers. Yet while shoppers seek transparency, many have turned away from buying chicken at traditional wet markets, especially since many fatal cases of bird flu have been linked to live poultry stalls. Instead, they’re willing to pay more for quality assurances from international supermarkets or local farmers with a good track record.

    Fan Xing, a 35-year-old mother of two, buys her meat from a farmer in central China’s Hunan province whom she found via a social enterprise that connects urban consumers to rural producers. Each farmer in the program supplies free-range meat and organic vegetables to 10 city families. “The food is grown without the use of pesticides and antibiotics so it is more expensive, but that is only fair and expected,” Fan explains.

    However, she adds, the meat provided by the Hunan farmer is often not enough for her family of four, so she sometimes has to supplement their diet with imported meat from supermarkets.

    Environment and Ethics

    Nowadays, China is one of the world’s largest consumers of meat, accounting for 28 percent of global consumption in 2016 according to the OECD. That year saw 54 million tons of pork, 19 million tons of poultry, 7.9 million tons of beef and veal, and 2 million tons of lamb and mutton consumed in China.

    The sheer volume of the nation’s meat consumption alarms many. Environmentalists are worried because more livestock means more greenhouse gas emissions, while animal welfare advocates say factory farming is cruel. A student vegetarian network launched in April last year expanded to more than 100 universities and colleges across the country within eight months.

    Valtero Canepa is at the helm of Slow Food Shanghai, part of a global movement promoting “good, clean, and fair” food that benefits palates, the planet, and food producers. Though he believes people now eat too much meat overall, he sees free-range initiatives as a step in the right direction. “If you want to kill them, at least give them a good life first,” he says.

    The present shifts in China’s poultry industry echo changes in European countries in the 1980s, says Canepa, whose passion for food comes from growing up in Italy during that period.

    However, the growth of free-range and farm-to-table branding in China is driven more by food safety fears than by environmental and ethical concerns.

    Wang Jie, a 38-year-old finance manager, admits that he does not pay much attention to how animals are treated, but he buys free-range chicken because he believes it is safer. “Food that has gone through fewer hands is better,” he says. “The less people meddle with my food before I get it, the fresher it is.”

    Poverty Alleviation

    Though ethical consumerism has not quite caught on in China when it comes to environmental or animal welfare causes, social enterprises that combine commerce with charity are growing slowly.

    Another stated goal of the GoGo Chicken program is to help raise rural incomes. The program has already enlisted farms in Guizhou, Anhui, Shandong, and Henan provinces, and plans to expand further across the mountainous regions of southwestern China.

    For years, the Chinese government has vowed to fight rising income gaps between cities and the countryside, but in places like Guizhou, the hilly terrain has prevented large-scale industrialization, leaving villages reliant on agriculture and money sent home by migrant workers. GoGo Chicken’s methods suit such landscapes, allowing communities once considered “geographically disadvantaged” to generate income while preserving their environment. Government carbon offset programs target the same areas, paying villagers to plant trees.

    The farm that Jiang oversees is located on government land in Daozhen Gelao and Miao Autonomous County, where the project has the support of the county and town authorities.

    Profits will be distributed to every family in Sanqiao based on their household income, though the town has yet to decide on the details. “The purpose is to ensure that everyone in the town benefits from the project,” says Sanqiao Town Head Li Yusong.

    The farm opened in March and plans to raise two batches of 6,000 chickens each year if there is sufficient consumer demand.

    Beyond the Blockchain Hype

    GoGo Chicken advertises itself as a trailblazer that combines technology and agriculture to reduce poverty and promote ethical consumption. But skeptics say such claims are merely marketing gimmicks, and that blockchain is a distraction from regulatory issues.

    Zhou Hongcheng, assistant professor of Chinese culinary culture at Zhejiang Gongshang University, questions the sustainability and longevity of the program. “I don’t think it can bring about great long-term value,” he says.

    Sixth Tone’s visit to a farm in eastern China’s Jiangsu province in late June found some short-lived experiments. In 2017, the farm near the city of Jingjiang joined GoGo Chicken under the auspices of the city’s farming association, but the collaboration ended within a year, which the association attributed to “environmental problems” without elaborating further.

    Zhou also disputes whether blockchain tamper protection can help guarantee food safety in the absence of official standards. “Ultimately, the issue can only be resolved by lawmakers who can implement penalties for those who commit fraud,” Zhou says.

    For town officials, however, such initiatives represent a real opportunity for wealth generation.

    “As more people are able to afford clean food, more will be drawn to our green method of raising chickens,” says Li, the Sanqiao town head. “Moving forward, sustainability and ethical consumption will be a growing trend.”

    Editor: Qian Jinghua.

    (Header image: Chickens at GoGo Chicken farm in Sanqiao Town, Guizhou province, July 2, 2018. Nicole Lim for Sixth Tone)