In September 2015, leaders from around the world gathered at a historic United Nations summit and adopted the 17 Sustainable Development Goals for 2030 to help the world achieve a “better and more sustainable future” for everyone. Among the goals identified was “Zero Hunger” and continuous access to nutritious food by 2030, particularly for the very poor or the most vulnerable, such as children living in war-torn or developing countries.
This is a tall order, considering that today there are around 800 million people who are undernourished or go hungry — or roughly one in every nine of the world’s population. Of this total, two-thirds live in Asia.
Food waste vs. food loss
Despite these alarming statistics, it is quite ironic that about one-third of food produced for human consumption every year — about 1.3 billion tons — is lost or wasted. This equates to about US$680 billion worth of food in industrialized countries, and about US$310 billion in developing countries. In industrialized countries, particularly in the West, the problem is more often food waste, where 40 percent of loss happens at the retail and consumer levels. In what many have characterized as “throw-away consumer cultures”, perfectly good food that does not meet consumer expectations of appearance and taste is simply thrown away before its expiry date, instead of being re-purposed or redistributed.
In developing countries in Asia, the problem is food loss, whereas much as 40 percent of the loss occurs earlier in the supply chain, typically at the post-harvest and processing levels. These losses often occur as a result of inadequate infrastructures, such as post-harvest storage, processing and transportation facilities resulting in spoilage or damage — making the food unfit for human consumption.
Applying technology to solve the problem
Regardless of the reason, or at what point the loss happens, the problem is huge and requires creative approaches to help solve. By applying innovative and emerging technologies such as the internet of things (IoT), analytics and blockchain — coupled with continued investments in improving processes and infrastructure along the “farm-to-fork” activity chain — perhaps a more sustainable way of producing and consuming food can be found.
One approach involves using IoT, specifically sensors to monitor every point of the supply chain — from harvesting, processing, transportation and storage. By using sensors that can monitor such things as location, temperature, humidity and other environmental conditions, more proactive ways of ensuring the freshness and condition of food can be found. For example, sensors that could be deployed cost-effectively at a package or palette level would track all environmental conditions as food moves across different stages of production to distribution. All this data could be uploaded to the cloud in real-time or in pre-determined time intervals for analysis or to enable real-time alerts. Or, if connectivity is an issue, data could be aggregated, and action could be set at a local level using edge computing devices.
Whether used at the edge or in the cloud, analytics can help find more efficient or optimal ways of improving yield, predicting spoilage times, determining routing to reduce time in transport, or more efficiently matching supply with demand. For example, prescriptive analytics can tell food manufacturers the optimal steps to extend shelf life or show couriers the optimal routes to shorten transportation time.
Unlike systems of the past, modern analytics systems can seamlessly blend external data such as weather, traffic conditions and food-yield statistics with internal data such as machinery availability time and labour schedules. Some Japanese food manufacturers, for example, are using internal and external data plus advanced analytics to meet government targets for curbing food loss by as much as 20 percent by 2030.
Another interesting example of how technology can help combat food loss and waste is by using blockchain technology. Essentially a secure, distributed ledger, blockchain technology allows participants in the supply chain to share and track information at every point. A particularly good use case is enabling traceability and provenance in cases where there is a food recall or health warning, as in the recent case of an African swine fever outbreak affecting pork meat supplies across Asia. If authorities and members of the supply chain had been able to trace the source of the outbreak and determine the affected farms, there would have been less panic, and the wasteful culling of pigs and the unnecessary disposal of food could have been avoided.
Clearly, the problem of food loss and waste is huge, and the goal of eradicating it is a needed step toward the broader goal of ending hunger by 2030. It will take not only traditional approaches to solving the problem but also fresh, innovative approaches. By using new digital technologies such as IoT, analytics and blockchain, perhaps the world can reach this goal.