Reinventing food supply chains for a growing world

Supporting start-ups can accelerate innovation and bring solutions to market faster, before our planet reaches its best before date.

Food retailers are now tracking their inventory using RFID technology. Image: Avery Dennison 

After two decades of impressive economic growth, Asia has changed beyond all recognition. As lives have improved, the prevalence of hunger and poor nutrition has fallen consistently.

These welcome trends, however, have been brought to a jarring halt by the pandemic outbreak. Rising food prices caused by pandemic supply chain disruption have been exacerbated by the war in Ukraine. Those facing hunger in Asia reached an estimated 425 million people in 2021, 25 percent more than in 2019.

Climate change, worryingly, presents a more persistent and growing threat to food security in the region. This year has witnessed record breaking droughts in China, devastating and tragic floods in Bangladesh and Pakistan, and one of the deadliest tropical cyclones in the Philippines. All can be attributed at least in part to global warming.

The urgency around repairing the global food supply chains is growing. Having largely been ignored at previous COP summits, this year’s COP27, which took place in Egypt, had four pavilions dedicated to food systems solutions.

Innovating to build a more resilient global food system

Fundamental changes to global behaviour stemming from both the public and private sectors are needed to boost transparency and shore up the resilience of the global food system. Sustainably transforming agricultural practices and reducing food waste across the value chain, while encouraging more regenerative business models, are key to this. As critical enablers of sustainable development, technology and innovation will undoubtedly play a decisive role in shaping future food supply chains - from farm-to-fork.

Already, investment in farm tech venture capital, which covers a broad spectrum of solutions using artificial intelligence (AI), robotics and global positioning system (GPS) technology is growing rapidly. Such investments grew to a record US$1.3 billion in 2021, up 61 per cent compared to 2020. Innovative start-ups such as Qzense Labs are aiming to minimise and eliminate post-harvest food loss using Internet of Things (IoT) technology that quickly and accurately grades the freshness of food.  

Agritech start-ups are also starting to disrupt traditional farming practices. The agriculture industry has been a laggard compared to other industries in terms of digital adoption – boosting efficiency, growing yields and promoting more environmentally considered practices. Some of the world’s largest multinationals are taking note of developments on the agritech front. Consumer goods companies such as Nestle, Walmart and General Mills now encourage farmers in their supply chain to undertake more climate-resilient regenerative farming practices. Some companies are factoring regenerative farming targets into their ambitious sustainability goals – many are collaborating with innovative, climate-smart agritech start-ups.

Reducing food waste across the entire food supply chain is paramount

Increasing efficiency and promoting sustainable practices at the farm level can only be effective if gross levels of loss and wastage across the supply chain are addressed in tandem. From harvest, storage and transportation to distribution and sales – all levels of the food value chain are plagued with staggering levels of wastage. At a global level, over 30 per cent of the world’s food production is never eaten and over 17 per cent is wasted at the retail and consumption levels, according to the United Nations. This loss and waste accounts for an immense 10 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions. Here again, technology can play an important role.

Innovations such as Varcode’s food temperature monitoring system allow cold chain monitoring from pallet to the individual product level, reducing levels of spoilage of food in transit and ensuring the safety and quality of the food system. In addition, advancements in packaging solutions, such as those offered by FL Technologies, a Chinese sustainability start-up, can prolong the fresh-keeping time of fruits, vegetables and other foods using nanotechnology, helping to reduce food waste while in transit and beyond.

Ensuring edible food waste is recycled, rather than sent to landfill, and creating new value from inedible food by-products such as turning grape residue, barley waste or citrus fruit waste into paper, presents opportunities to fully close the loop on food waste.

Consumers are demanding more transparency to make better informed, sustainable food choices

While the world still throws away far too much edible produce, consumer behaviours are changing. The pandemic has not only raised awareness of food security, it has also elevated consumer concerns over environmental issues. Now, more than ever, consumers want to know where their food comes from and be assured that it is safe, fresh, and reliably and responsibly sourced.

Technologies such as Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) and smart-labelling innovations, offered through solutions such as Avery Dennison’s Smartrac and proprietary software, are helping food retailers to accurately track products from source to final destination. They can also provide real-time carbon footprint analysis throughout a product’s journey. This is dramatically improving the efficiency, traceability, and sustainability of supply chains. Enabling businesses to align inventory with variable demand across different regions can reduce waste by up to 20 per cent. It also answers calls from consumers who wish to garner an accurate history of a product from source to shelf, enabling them to make more informed and more sustainable choices.

Compostable packaging solutions will also reduce the environmental impact of our existing food supply chains. These lower the pressure on landfill, reducing our use of tough-to-recycle single use plastics and promote more regenerative life-cycles models.

Supply chains in today’s increasingly complex world have many layers, each requiring bespoke solutions for the future. Solving these challenges requires vision and collective action – securing partnerships beyond one’s own industry is imperative. Most importantly, supporting start-ups can accelerate innovation and bring solutions to market faster, before our planet reaches its best before date.

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