Blockchain Chicken Farms: Can High-Tech Empower Poor Farmers?

By Shlomo Maital

  My country Israel has grown wealthy largely through high-tech.  Small correction: SOME people in Israel, about one in twelve, have done well through technology-intensive startups (the high-tech sector is 8% of the labor force pre-pandemic).  So it has bothered me for many years, that the benefits of technology have not been more widely dispersed throughout the economy and population, to enhance general wellbeing.

    In a new book BLOCKCHAIN CHICKEN FARM And Other Stories of Tech in China’s Countryside, by Xiaowei Wang, we learn about how high-tech is being brought to many of China’s remote farms and their poor farmers. 

     You ask, how can blockchain make a Chinese chicken farmer wealthy?  Here’s the answer – from Clive Thompson’s New York Times book review:

    Raising free-range chickens isn’t easy, a Chinese farmer named Jiang tells Xiaowei Wang in a fascinating new book, “Blockchain Chicken Farm.” Why? “Chickens aren’t very smart,” he notes; if you leave lights on, they’ll cluster around “and they overcrowd each other, killing each other. A kind of chicken stampede.”

Each chicken has a QR code on its leg.  Those who buy the chicken can scan it and observe the chicken’s entire lifespan, on a free range, and verify it. 

 Even if you get the chickens safely grown in their sunny, free-range yards, you have a new problem: You have to convince your finicky customers, in far-off cities, that you’re telling the truth about how the chickens were raised.   So Jiang turned to high-tech chicken surveillance. He outfitted his chickens with wearable legbands that record their movements — “a chicken Fitbit of sorts” — and worked with a tech start-up to record the data on a blockchain.

    A blockchain is a type of software, most famously used to create Bitcoin, that can make nearly tamper-proof digital records. When customers buy the chicken, they don’t need to take Jiang’s word that his birds strolled around in the sunshine. They can trust the implacable math. Blockchain in this case is a clever tech solution that also happens to have a bleak libertarian philosophy behind it. As Wang notes, some blockchain coders are fond of citing Thomas Hobbes’s dismal view of human nature: Nobody can trust anyone else.  

     It’s a weird, delightful and unsettling tableau. In “Blockchain Chicken Farm,” Wang introduces us to dozens of such quixotic figures, hopscotching across the country on a mission: to document how technology is transforming the lives of China’s rural poor.

      And yes – there is a Trump lesson here, as Thompson observes:

     It’s good to turn on the klieg lights here. Rural China is a part of the world Americans likely ponder very little, despite being economically entwined with it. To the extent China looms in the American imagination, it’s mostly as an economic adversary, a land that has mercilessly stolen American manufacturing jobs by offering dirt-cheap labor in gleaming factories. (At least, that’s the message the White House has hammered for years now.) \

     It’s certainly true that the country’s manufacturing explosion has helped create a much wealthier China. But it has also produced a rural-urban economic schism that neatly mirrors that of the United States itself. While the cities have gotten rich, the countryside has been left behind, with higher infant mortality, lower life expectancy and markedly lower educational attainment.

So, China is trying to use technology to find remedies for the rural poor?  Is America? Is Israel?

   In an ideal world, technology spreads widely to benefit everyone, including those who are not expert in understanding it. (Xiaowei Wang asked the Chinese farmer, how he enjoyed using blockchain, and the farmer responded, what is blockchain?  You don’t need an M.Sc. to implement technologies invented by geniuses).

   Startup entrepreneurs?  Are you at least aware that some of you are benefitting a fairly small sliver of society — and that what you know nad do can benefit a whole lot of people currently shut out of the modern world?  And do you care?