Levelling up our food supply chain

Edward Porter
19 September, 22

We’ve heard a lot about levelling up over the past few years, with the government and businesses alike recognising the need to upgrade infrastructure post-pandemic in order to adapt to a new, digital world. Whilst the political term has been coined to refer to improving infrastructure in areas outside of the capital, there is a similar need for levelling-up within the food supply chain.

Different parts of the cold chain are currently at different stages of their digitalisation journey. While supermarkets have long been seen as champions of data and technology, many agricultural organisations are still in an early phase of their digital journey. So, what is needed for a full digitalisation of the food supply chain and what benefits could a modern, data-enabled cold chain bring to consumers and business?

The need to feed

The food retail supply chain is full of potential challenges, but these are not just business challenges. Any disruptions across the chain – such as those we saw at early points during the pandemic – can often result in empty supermarket shelves. The cold chain isn’t just a business supply chain, it’s a crucial part of society.

Given the importance of the supply chain and the tight profit margins these businesses are often operating on, it is imperative retailers, farmers and all supply chain organisations alike can establish and implement cost-effective solutions to drive efficiencies, improve productivity and increase flexibility. This all sounds good, but how can it be done in practice?

Digitalisation and raw data can be used to improve the oversight of goods in the supply chain in real-time. Internet of Things (IoT) solutions can track the movement of produce in a similar way to how Deliveroo shows us where our order is. These solutions are also able to monitor and manage metadata, such as refrigeration temperatures, cooking temperatures and machine performance data, by connecting existing equipment across the entire supply chain. This enables product changes to be validated to not only protect the supply of food, but to also ensure food safety, mitigate waste, and enable enhanced traceability.

Access to this newly collected real-time data would also enable producers and retailers to plan ahead with greater accuracy. If real-time consumer demand could be known and leveraged across the chain, planning production and the movement of food could be aligned to this knowledge. This has the potential to enable more efficient distribution and, more importantly, it could drastically reduce the overproduction of food, cutting the 200,000 tonnes of food wasted each year in the UK by supermarkets.

IoT platforms are already embedded in parts of our global cold chain, but in order to release maximum value, this technology needs to permeate every part of the supply chain.

Sharing the technology

Food retailers have been adopting technology and digitalising processes for many years now, including to help them adapt to the pandemic. However, retailers are just one end of the food supply chain. Around 90% of the actors within the cold chain are still low-tech outfits which means crucial insights are not being monitored and farm-to-fork traceability isn’t possible.

To integrate the whole supply chain, all participants from farm to supermarket must build a solid data foundation in order to release the benefits discussed above, within which all members can participate and leverage.

The challenge is that many organisations in the chain, independent farms or logistics companies for example, simply can’t afford the costs traditionally associated with such projects. Or can they?

Viable for All

Many IoT solutions on the market even today require the hardware that is to be integrated to the solution be manufactured by the same vendor. In simple terms, different hardware providers make it impossible for machines to communicate with the solutions of other vendors, meaning organisations looking to adopt IoT solutions would need to invest in costly infrastructure replacements before IoT implementation was possible. However, thanks to the advent of controls agnostic IoT solutions, this is a requirement – and a barrier to adoption – of the past for organisations of all sizes.

Controls agnostic solutions are vendor agnostic, meaning they can read and interpret multiple data languages and translate them into one unifying system. Functioning a bit like Google Translate, they can collect and understand data from any machine, from any vendor, regardless of age. This not only lowers the barrier to adoption for organisations due to hugely decreased upfront costs, but it also prevents trade and production disruption from hardware replacement. Essentially, integration is low impact, fast and the benefits are unlocked rapidly.

By removing the biggest hurdle for organisations by digitising existing assets and breaking down the siloed nature of the supply chain with minimal investment, we can successfully level up not just the larger organisations within the cold chain, but ultimately our entire food supply chain. Driving end-to-end traceability and ensuring product safety is paramount in instilling consumer trust in practices, but by reducing waste, enabling efficient planning, and increasing productivity, the supply chain will be better protected and more sustainable for the future.

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