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We need fresh thinking about the role of digital technologies in our food system

intext-blog-grainsThis post was first published by Business Green

As the recent surge of armchair epidemiologists would suggest, we all know a lot more about viruses than we did last year. But as well as becoming more familiar with the dynamics of a global pandemic, I’d guess that many of us have also improved our understanding of the global food system. And if there’s one thing we’ve all learnt in the past few months, it’s that the system is in need of significant change.

In the UK, supermarket shelves have been stripped bare, foodbanks have faced unprecedented demand and producers are now calling for a ‘land army’ to prevent fields of crops from going to waste. If concerns about the impact of Brexit or climate change on our food supply weren’t incentive enough for a rethink of how we produce, import and consume food, the reality of the situation we have found ourselves in recently almost certainly is.

Greater digitalisation could be one way of improving the sustainability of the system. Through Green Alliance’s Tech Task Force programme, we’ve already investigated the transformative potential of smart green tech in the energy efficiency, transport and construction sectors. Yet, despite the benefits digital tech could offer the agrifood world, many parts of the sector have been slow on the uptake. As we begin the recovery from Covid-19, we should evaluate the potential of emerging technologies to give us a smarter, more interconnected and resilient food system that works with nature, rather than against it.

Food production is breaching planetary boundaries
Food production has a hefty environmental price tag, accounting for 26 per cent of global emissions, 70 per cent of freshwater withdrawals, and using half of habitable land. It has also led to significant declines in biodiversity and soil health. To stay within planetary boundaries and ensure future food security, more sustainable production models will be essential, both at home and across global supply chains.

Digital technologies, and a greater reliance on data analytics and the ‘internet of things’ (IoT), claim to advance conventional farming, facilitating highly optimised, data-driven land management. They promise farmers more efficient and targeted practices, reducing costly inputs, both economically and environmentally, whilst improving productivity. For example, robots Tom, Dick and Harry are learning to monitor and tend to crops autonomously, under AI oversight from Wilma. Whilst Harry helps with the planting, Dick zaps weeds amongst the crops, minimising the use of harmful chemicals. Despite associations with large-scale farming, automated technologies like these could also be used in a targeted way to support smaller operations and organic systems.

Digital applications could also support better use of resources beyond the farm gate. The Made Smarter review, in particular, showed the significant improvements to be made in food and drink manufacturing. They estimate that food manufacturers could save £13.2bn by 2027 thanks to digitally-enabled resource efficiency, while cutting supply chain emissions by nearly a third. Fast forwarding adoption of these solutions would help improve the performance of the UK’s largest manufacturing sector and benefit local economies across the country.

The implications of just-in-time
Several decades of fine tuning have created a highly efficient global supply network that can deliver fresh produce from a field in Peru to a British supermarket in just a few days. But this system is precarious, with many retailers only having a few key suppliers, leaving little to fall back on if there’s a failure of supply.

At the other end of the chain, suppliers who are unable to trade in their usual market can find it challenging to redirect their products elsewhere, even where there is urgent demand. This can lead to huge amounts of food waste. We’ve seen this recently, with reports of dairy farmers having to pour gallons of milk down the drain, as the cafés and schools which they normally supply have been forced to close.

Distributed ledger technology, combined with internet of things, is a potentially exciting technology that could help deal with some of these issues. It can be used to increase efficiency in transactions and improve traceability through supply chains, which is especially important given we import almost half of our food. These digital solutions could enable better data on supply and demand, supporting early detection of supply chain risks as well as helping the UK meet its ambitions to halve food waste by 2030. Online sharing platforms could also offer part of the solution to mismatches in supply and demand, helping to form new channels between producers and retailers to sell and receive surplus goods.

Now’s the time to rethink the system
As the UK economy recovers from coronavirus, we should be examining which technologies have real potential and accelerate their deployment. Of course, not all digital technology on offer will live up to the hype. Promises about the benefits of blockchain, for example, have been made for years, with little to show for it yet. In promoting digital adoption, it is also vital to ensure on-farm technologies are affordable for smaller-scale farms and support upskilling of farm workers, to help maximise the benefits of digitalisation for UK businesses as well as nature.

Promising routes to change on the horizon include the National Food Strategy (NFS), an independent review led by Henry Dimbleby into improving our food system. The final report was due to be released this winter, but this will likely be delayed due to coronavirus. However, Dimbleby has hinted that the NFS will have a greater focus on food security after this crisis, and the initiative has scope to assess what new technologies could offer as part of this.

Our current priority should be ensuring that everyone has access to enough food and supporting those producers whose livelihoods have been threatened by the pandemic. But we shouldn’t miss this chance to think afresh about the role of digital technology in ensuring that we don’t revert back to business as usual, but instead work towards a new model that provides a sustainable, affordable, and reliable supply of healthy food long into the future.

This is the first in a series of blogs in which we will explore how digital technologies could play an important role in reducing the environmental impact of the agrifood sector and how it can be strengthened in the face of future uncertainty. Looking at the whole sector, from field to fridge, we will address concerns around the widespread adoption of these technologies, but also illustrate their potential in achieving significant change.

[Photo from Neil Howard, Flickr]


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