From farms to fridges – engineering and the food supply chain

A food harvester moves towards the camera in a field.

Photo by Scott Goodwill on Unsplash

21 September 2018


As we discussed in our recent 'State of engineering' article, engineers are innovating across the pipeline to develop accessible, low-cost, and intuitive technologies that help to realise the goal of global food and water security. For engineers, a large part of achieving this goal involves guaranteeing that the technologies and practices developed are sustainable. If not sustainable, then the developments merely provide a temporary patch for the problem, rather than an actual solution. Thankfully, as QEPrize donor company Hitachi writes, ag-tech solutions that optimise food production, improve food distribution, and reduce food consumption are already being implemented.

Optimising production

For us to catch up to the UN’s projected timeline and meet the 2030 zero-hunger target, one of the more seemingly self-evident things we need to do is produce more food. While progress towards the target has certainly been made, the reason why it isn’t a simple process of ‘making more’ is due to the limited amount of land on which to grow the food and the limited number of farmers available to tend to it. There is competing demand for agricultural land from biofuels and urbanisation, increasing demand for conservation, and mass migration of youth towards cities.

The answer to this ‘simple’ need to produce more food, therefore, lies in sustainable intensification (SI): managing to grow more, with less. The route to SI, in turn, lies in ag-tech. Ag-tech allows for SI by helping farmers to produce greater volumes of food, or more resistant food, with fewer resources – human, land, or otherwise. For example, bioengineering more resistant crops – those able to flourish with less water or minerals – is vital to increase production efficiency.

Not only would these crops require less maintenance, and therefore allow farmers to allocate time elsewhere, but they potentially allow farmers to use previously unfarmable land, significantly increasing the available space. By monitoring the performance of different crop strains in environmentally-stressed areas, researchers can create a 3D field map, observe how each strain grows under various conditions, and then develop the strains that fair best.

The other part of SI lies in replacing (and improving on) labour lost to urban migration. The hands-free hectare project provides an example of this potential future, combining typical farming tools with cameras, lasers, and GPS navigation. Systems like this will allow farmers to monitor and harvest crops without the need for human labour and cut down on food loss.

Improving distribution

After considering the food’s production, the next thing that we can optimise is its distribution. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that about 33% of the world’s food production is wasted or lost: around 1.3 billion tons annually. The cause of this waste varies between both geographical regions and between commodities. In developing countries, for instance, most food loss occurs at the post-harvest and processing levels, often due to inefficient use of supply chain resources, or poor national infrastructure. Conversely, in developed countries, food waste occurs predominantly at the retail and consumer levels.

One way to optimise distribution to reduce wastage is to standardise a more comprehensive tracking process, such as blockchain technology. Around 10 of the world’s biggest companies are developing a blockchain to capture real-time data at each point of the distribution chain. In addition to health and safety benefits, transparency, and cost savings to businesses, security will also be improved by reducing the size of waste produced by overly broad food recalls.

A second, less obvious, way to do this is to apply atypical technologies to the food sector, such as the recent move towards using particle physics algorithms to make purchase decisions. Yes, you read that. Currently, most supermarkets waste thousands of pounds’ worth of food on unsold products which have passed their sell-by-date. In an effort to reduce this waste (and cost), certain supermarkets have decided to start applying technology from the Large Hadron Collider to predict how much of each item shoppers will buy per day, per store. By optimising the stock levels to better reflect purchase habits, we can reduce wastage and better direct food distribution.

Influencing the consumers

The other key component of the food supply chain is the consumer, whose decisions can ultimately loop back and create changes earlier in the chain. Virtually all consumers in developed countries are guilty of over-purchasing. We may fear that we don’t have enough in the fridge, we may not remember what we have in the cupboards, or we may just desperately crave that cake sitting on the shelf and buy it on impulse.

As such, smart technologies that can subtly steer purchase behaviour to be less wasteful and curb impulse purchases will largely reduce overspending, influence retailer purchase patterns, and ultimately either cut down on wastage or help to redirect food to where it is needed earlier in the supply chain. Take smart fridges for example – they can potentially monitor the contents and its expiry dates, inform the owner of what is and isn’t needed, and update a shopping list accordingly.

There is a long way to go before we can meet the 2030 zero-hunger target, but by optimising production and distribution while reducing consumption and waste, we are one step closer to achieving global food security.

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