The Washington Post called it one of the most adored and ridiculed food trends in recent memory. Avocado toast, the much beloved – and “Instagrammed” – brunch food of choice of urban millennials around the world. While you have to admire the social media-savvy eateries that have turned the avocado into a generation-defining dish, the real creativity is happening far from the brunch table. For years avocados and other capriciously ripening fruit have presented challenges throughout the supply chain. Now, however, a cascade of technological innovations is poised to cut food waste from farm to fork, saving companies millions of dollars – and with smart supply chain management playing central role.

According to the United Nations, around one-third of all our food worldwide gets lost or wasted. Year-round demand for variety means produce routinely spends up to six weeks in transit, and is discarded at every stage of the journey. In developed countries, only around 70 percent of food actually reaches the table, due to retail regulations and consumer preferences for the perfect look and shape of produce.

The FUSIONS research, a four-year European Commission project, suggests that some 88 million metric tons of food get lost between European fields and plates annually – with some 14 percent of the overall loss worldwide actually occurring in logistics. This chimes with a recent report on food waste by Dutch bank Rabobank that suggests the supply chain needs to innovate, with optimization of every supply chain process required to guarantee success. According to Paul Bosch, an analyst with the bank’s Food & Agri Research team: “Looking at the food chain from farm to fork, most wastage occurs within and between food and agri companies during production, post-harvest handling and storage, processing and distribution.”

Smarter not faster

Andreas Lenz, Executive Managing Director, DHL Food Logistics, believes that the only solution is a coordinated logistics strategy that allows for volume and capacity planning – as well as the optimal transport time frame and most cost-effective mix of transport modes. “If we want to influence this 14 percent waste in the supply chain, we need smarter capacity management,” he says. “Much of this waste is due to unnecessary holdups, such as traffic-related delays, missing information flows, seasonal bottlenecks and bad management of freight capacities.

 While Lenz says that information and communication should play a central role, he asserts there must also be a willingness to treat data on commodity flows “not as a business secret, but in a transparent way to benefit the supply chain.”

Chain reaction

Potentially, the biggest catalyst for this kind of change is blockchain, the virtual public ledger comprising a network of computers that must all approve an exchange before anything can be verified. In terms of a food supply chain this could create an unprecedented level of transparency from “farm to fork,” including data such as temperature, production date and ingredients. Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba has just launched its own blockchain-
encrypted platform to track food delivery, called Food Trust Framework.

But it is not just tracking technologies that will make the difference, there is also “smart” tracking. By the end of 2018, for example, a total of 2,000 smart SBB Cargo freight cars will be traveling on Europe’s railways equipped with Bosch Engineering sensors, software, and services. The cars themselves know when they arrive at their destination and can determine whether or not the cold chain has been maintained.

Fresh off the truck

For the food industry, however, perhaps the most exciting technical breakthroughs are sensors that can monitor freshness. Walmart, the world’s biggest grocer, recently made headlines with its Eden apps that can determine a product’s freshness from farm to shelf. Soon-to-ripen bananas headed for a store 500 kilometers away, say, can be diverted to a closer one, thus eliminating potential waste. Eden will help the company reach its goal of cutting waste worth $2 billion over the next five years.

Silicon Valley startup Zest Labs has just launched a sensor-based logistics system called Zest Fresh. It assigns each pallet of produce an individual code that marks product type and data related to its exposure to the elements, which would impact its life. That information is uploaded to the company’s proprietary cloud where the data can be tracked by anyone in the value chain, from farm to distributor.

Another provider of sensor-based freshness information is Florida-based FreshSurety, which uses inexpensive, disposable sensors to measure and report temperature, moisture and metabolite data for every food type at 10-minute intervals from the time a pallet is assembled in the field to the time it’s broken down at the retailer.

Everybody wins

FreshSurety CEO Tom Schultz calls the company’s capabilities a real game changer. “Up to now you’ve had a $600 billion business losing $200 billion a year in waste, but no one has had any ideas about detecting freshness? By harnessing big data, we have created a turnkey system for every partner in the supply chain to access at any time. Blockchain doesn’t tell you if something is fresh, but we could say instantly if those strawberries, say, will last three days or 12 days at any stage.”

This kind of joined-up thinking is the only way that the global food chain can meet consumer demands while moving toward sustainability, according to Lenz. And the rewards, he stresses, can be enormous.

“Adding just two to three days to food’s shelf life contributes to the reduction of food waste. Producers can then reduce production levels and make better use of their land,” says Lenz. “Overall, not only can they cut food waste and resources, they can reduce environmental damage too.”
Boyd Farrow

Published: September 2018

Images: imagineilona/Adobe Stock