Blockchain, QR codes and a paperless future for the drinks industry – WSTA Summit analysis

In the next three to six years, moving drinks around the world could become a paperless exercise, as both Brexit and the pandemic have accelerated the shift to digital. This was one of the key messages from the WSTA Industry Summit panel discussion on global trade, yesterday.

However, the panellists also warned that there is a need for tech standardisation across the world. This measure would provide “massive opportunities for trade and keep the UK as a central global wine hub”.

WSTA chief exec Miles Beale chaired the panel, which featured blockchain company Chainvine CEO Oliver Oram, Ignacio Sánchez Recarte – secretary general of trade organisation Comité Européen des Entreprises Vins (CEEV), Hillebrand UK & Ireland MD Russell Davies and Katherine Bedard, senior director, international public policy, at The Wine Institute.

According to Oram, the admin burden to traders from import and export declarations on UK-EU trade is £15bn per year. Using blockchain and QR codes to allow secure access to data allows for a quicker process, said Oram. “If you can access data quicker, you can move goods quicker and the government can get paid quicker,” he added.

At the CEEV, Recarte highlighted the U-Label – a centralised hub for product information, accessed via a QR code. The CEEV describes the initiative as “an online platform to drive transparency and boost product information digitally to better connect with consumers”.

“People are using QR codes to order and pay for things – they are more of a reality now,” Recarte said. “And they want transparency.”  He added that the U-Label can include mandatory information as well as information about sustainability, for example.

The project is currently in pilot phase in the EU and is expected to launch fully on 30 September.

Elsewhere, Bedard pointed to the US fresh produce sector, which has developed a web-based hub that integrates with other systems (including blockchain) around the world to clear fresh produce at ports faster. The server is controlled by the UN and Bedard said the application “could be expanded to wine”.

From a logistics point of view, Hillebrand’s Davies offered insights from the frontline on the move to digital. He believes that paper is “dying”, but it’s not yet dead.

“We’re operating in multiple systems, that’s the reality,” said Davies.

On one hand, he pointed out that during the height of the Covid outbreak, warehouse workers would not touch paperwork from drivers, therefore digital applications became more popular.

However, on the other, an observer of the discussion flagged that Brexit brought with it more red tape and a need for ‘wet’ signatures on paperwork.

The future

When asked why there isn’t wider adoption of these technologies, Oram lamented that there is a lack of education and understanding. However, he also pointed out that Chainvine has been working with the UK government for two and half years to implement new technologies.

“The Treasury is beginning to realise it can get paid quicker,” he added. “Our job is to keep testing and keep proving the point to government.” He said the government knows the future is digital and he believes that next year, blockchain systems will be more widely used and in three years, we’ll be completely paperless.

Hillebrand’s Davies is a little more sceptical. He said: “The applications are there – there’s an understanding and a need. I think it will be five or six years.” He stressed that there is still a need for global, standardised information.

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