Could digital tech cut food waste and tell us more about where our food comes from?

intext-van-foodAlong with the natural ecosystems that underpin it, our food system is a complex web of parts working to grow, manufacture and deliver food all over the world. In a previous blog I looked at the potential of digital technologies to link up these different parts to redirect surplus food and avoid waste. But could they also improve communication throughout the supply chain to prevent waste occurring in the first place?

Just in time supply chains, the reliance of retailers on just a few suppliers and the inability of some producers to pivot from supplying from one sector to another, have challenged our food system in recent months, and have led to the irony of both shortages and waste. However, by measuring and sharing data about products at different stages of the value chain, digital tech offers those running the system ways to predict and respond proactively to imbalances in supply and demand.

Improving visibility through the Internet of Things
There is growing interest in data analytics and the ‘Internet of things’ (IoT) to track food throughout the supply chain and provide information about the characteristics of products (eg allergens or how they are made). Artificial intelligence and predictive analytics, combined with the IoT, could be a promising solution to mismatches in supply and demand, building up visibility of supply chains, through inventory monitoring, and the movement of goods, from producer to plate, as part of a ‘digital twin’.

Distributed ledger technologies, such as blockchain, can be useful as part of this system. Through eliminating the need for paper documentation, they could allow companies to more easily manage their stock and prevent fraud. By enabling early detection and tracking of contaminated foods and better assessment of changes in food supply and demand, these technologies could also reduce the risk of food waste and improve food safety. IBM Food Trust is one programme using blockchain to improve supply chain efficiency and it cites claims that widespread adoption of these technologies could save $120 billion in food waste every year.

Sensors tracking stock levels at the retail stage could be used with sophisticated supply and demand forecasting models to deal with demand variations more effectively. As well as adjusting production and distribution in response to customer and market variability, real-time monitoring of traffic affecting deliveries, looking out for congestion, could also help to avoid costly delays.

Better information leads to better decisions for businesses and consumers
The IoT and data sharing could also let manufacturers and retailers know the state of the produce before it arrives. For example, if a batch of apples is getting past its best, a business can plan for them to be used or priced accordingly to stop them going to waste. This potential for greater visibility along supply chains could also support businesses in exercising due diligence and ensuring they play their part in a more sustainable approach to land use, as we’ve previously recommended.

But it’s not just businesses who could benefit from better information; 84 per cent of consumers are influenced by the origin of their food and the impact of production when making a purchase, and two thirds of shoppers support carbon labelling on products. So, for today’s increasingly aware consumer, the IoT could provide more information about where their food comes from, perhaps even including the production methods and workers’ conditions. Empowering citizens with this kind of information could help us all become more ethical and sustainable shoppers.

There are some issues to resolve
Although these technologies exist, they are not yet widespread and there are still some issues to resolve around their use. For example, there are concerns about the safe management of data. Robust governance systems will be essential to build the confidence of retailers, producers and manufacturers in data sharing, and provide legal clarity over data ownership and the terms of collaboration.

Initiatives such as the University of Lincoln’s ‘Internet of Food Things’ are already thinking about some of these barriers, and investigating the concept of a ‘data trust’ for the food system to give reassurance to supply chain actors as they share information about their products and operations.

But, even if we can establish formal structures to oversee this data sharing, how can smaller supply chain businesses be encouraged to participate? Making these technologies accessible to smaller producers and retailers will be essential to fulfilling their potential. After all, the resilience of any stage in the supply chain will depend on the healthy functioning of all the upstream and downstream stages.

There’s also an issue around complexity. It might be relatively straightforward to track a box of tomatoes from field to supermarket, but what happens if a tomato is part of a sandwich with many other ingredients that have also passed through several different stages? Figuring out a way to retain important information about food safety and the origin of components of these more complex products is a big challenge.

Given that these technologies have been around for a while, and considering some of the barriers to their wider adoption, it needs to be decided whether they really can live up to their promise. But, as the food system regains its balance after the shock of Covid-19, it is worth thinking seriously about it, considering the huge scope they offer to cut down the scourge of food waste and inform us all better about what goes on along supply chains.

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