Honey is being adulterated with rice or corn syrups to increase quantities for sale and is being transhipped to hide its country of origin and skirt import regulations. False honey results in an unstable market, lack of trust, and underpayment of beekeepers.
The 2019/20 TFF Challenge Finalist Team BumbleChain uses blockchain and RFID technology to create a global system for transparent and traceable honey. The founder Kelcie and her business partner and brother, Kyle share more about their project and how honey fraud affects our food system. The below answers were given by Kelcie unless stated otherwise.
What is BumbleChain about?
BumbleChain is about conserving and uplifting global bee populations which directly contributes to feeding a hungry planet. It’s not only about the honey. We want to help beekeepers do bee conservation globally and create an opportunity for any beekeepers around the world to sell a quality product and earn a fair return for their work.
We are also creating “Florescence”, which is a space where conscious consumers can connect with beekeepers from around the world and purchase ethically and sustainably produced honey. It will really be a free place for beekeeping brands and honey that we’ve vetted and we expose them to a global community of conscious consumers. All of the honey featured on Florescence will be verified by the BumbleChain technology.
What kind of data can consumers access?
Consumers will be able to see details about the beekeeper, the history of that farm, the colony and types of bees, the types of flowers that were pollinated, the region, and the climate that was occurring. Beekeepers could even share more information about the individuals involved in the production—hopefully, the options will be infinite.
Why is honey fraud such a big problem?
Some middlemen in China have started adulterating the honey product by cutting that honey with non-honey syrup, like rice, beet or high fructose corn syrup to sell more and make more profit. The honey is being sold to the global market.
The problem is that a lot of what we thought was honey isn’t actually honey. Some countries, including the US, started imposing really harsh regulations, and tariffs to stop the import of Chinese honey. China then started to transship their honey and are now sending large quantities of fake honey to other countries in Southeast Asia, such as Cambodia where they relabel it as being produced in Cambodia and then selling it to the global market. But obviously, it’s still fake honey.
A lot of these Southeast Asian countries are now producing way larger volumes of honey than they could ever possibly produce with the land size and number of colonies they have.
Which effects does that have on the global honey market?
The fraud has destabilized the global honey market because nobody knows where the honey is coming from.
We never really thought it was a problem in countries like Canada. We have high food quality standards and produce excellent honey here but most of what we produce is exported to the US. Canadian beekeepers earn at least $1 less per kilogram than American beekeepers for the same or higher quality honey. We are missing a global tracking mechanism—beekeepers can’t really earn any fair return for their work.
How does that relate to our food systems?
Bees do a lot more than just provide honey. Three-quarters of global crops that produce seeds or fruit depend on pollinators like bees, this includes fruits, nuts, seeds, and vegetables. Pollination is worth up to $577 bn annually in global agriculture. Lower bee populations actually are tied to malnutrition and an increase in non-communicable disease that comes from the availability of nutritious foods.
We are now seeing that no new beekeepers want to enter the trade and as the workforce ages, there is nobody to replace them. We’re losing our world’s beekeepers who are integral to bee conservation.
Can you share a bit more about your team?
My background is in environmental science and social entrepreneurship. I founded my first company when I was 21 based on research and technology I had started developing for remediation of oil contamination when I was 15. I always thought I would be a scientist but then I realized that technologies don’t really commercialize themselves. Unless you’re willing to become an entrepreneur and champion your solution, it’s not going to solve the problems you decided to solve.
During the summer of 2017, I was diagnosed with a metabolic disorder called mitochondrial disease which prevents my body from producing energy properly within myself. I have decided to stop working in the lab for my first startup and instead dedicate my time to create BumbleChain, which I can do from home.
Kyle: I do have a background in producing software applications. I work in production for video games. I would be managing the programmer that we want to hire to create the app and make sure that everything ends up working the way we envision it. Kelcie lives and breathes her work. Although she is my younger sister, working with her, she is definitely the boss.
How can TFF support you on your journey?
I’m really keen on these programs and I enjoy building a global network of young people who really care about solving global problems. There are a lot of opportunities for us to work together and create a larger impact.
Not having peers around you who are passionate about the same topics, can be quite lonely sometimes. Networks like TFF really show that you’re not alone. There are other people going through the same entrepreneurial ups and downs and having a community of peers to lean on is really important.
What’s next for BumbleChain?
Our short-term goals are to do the field trials in Alberta and then also launch our Florescence website to start connecting beekeepers and consumers. My moonshot goal would be that we have transparent traceable honey in all parts of the world. For me, that goes beyond bottles of honey to even include products like granola bars that contain honey as a food additive.
I would also really love to give back to conservation and scientific research. We want to make a global pool of data accessible to benefit conservation and research in the long run.
We will continue sharing about BumbleChain’s journey here—make sure to check our blog regularly.
BumbleChain and the other Finalist and Boost Teams are currently taking part in the virtual TFF Academy 2020, which is an open-sourced acceleration program anyone can join. Just sign up to the Digital Labs and make sure to request to join the TFF Community Facebook group here where we will keep an active feed for peer-to-peer discussions and relevant conversations!