A strong theme emerged from the Future Food Tech Summit in London last week, that the world is in desperate need of innovative and sustainable solutions to increase agricultural output, while reducing inputs, in order to meet the needs of a growing population. At the forefront of these discussions was the consensus that the global food ecosystem is becoming very complex. As it undergoes a rapid transformation towards higher-value products, there was a call to more efficient processes and higher degree of vertical integration that optimises supply chains. Although not yet well understood, the implications for the whole industry structure, its competitiveness and consumer markets would be far-reaching. Developing countries in particular face resource and structural constraints, potentially impeding a successful participation in emerging value chains. Transforming the ecosystem would have vital implications for poverty and food security.
A food supply chain refers to the processes that describe how food from a farm ends up on our tables. The processes include production, processing, storage, distribution, consumption and disposal. Despite a drive by various stakeholders to “buy local,” the food chain has become progressively more globalised due to increased, and yet unfulfilled demand for most countries around the world. This globalisation has created a range of opportunities and risks for sellers and consumers alike. Over the last few years, there has been an increasingly wasteful and inefficient system, failing to properly track the origin, safety and quality of food products. As an example, providing assurance to the authenticity of ‘organic’ food, and the detection of fraud has become a challenge. A far reaching and more complex supply chain is prone to risks brought about by regulatory barriers, disruptions due to economic instability, variations in consumer demand, and its effect on food productions and sustainable development.
To achieve sustainability means radical changes are required in global food supply chains. As an example, Fera has developed a ‘smart surveillance’ system to monitor a healthy food environment using software that fights food crime by tracking raw material and commodity issues to protect consumers from such risks. HorizonScan, their food safety and integrity tracking system enables food manufacturers, distributors, retailers and related industries to closely track and monitor a comprehensive range of contaminant and authenticity supplier issues from around the world. It gathers detailed information of food commodities to produce daily reports that contain over 63,000 incidents archived over the last 15 years, and presents users detail at a granular level when researching risks from particular food types, countries and individual suppliers.
Other companies have adopted Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) technology to enable consumers input and scan the tracing code printed on product packaging, effectively managing the challenge of food stock. Expiration tracking, stock rotation, inventory takes and food waste are all a drain on resources and profitability. RFID delivers a complete supply chain visibility of stock, increasing operational speed and accuracy, plus a simplified stock rotation. A reduction of food waste through improved visibility of expiration dates will lead to better food supply chain management, cost reductions and sustainability. A global leader in RFID-enabled technologies with more than 800 patents and applications, and state-of-the-art manufacturing capabilities located around the world, has focused on strengthening its collaborative partnerships, resulting in greater efficiency, reliability and accuracy to their clients’ supply chains. They have transformed productivity in the FMCG space by streamlining operations, improving inventory management and facilitating distribution.
They are exciting developments. And, yet critics have rightly noted that the developing world’s perspective of what constitutes sustainable farming, may be quite different from RFID tags. For example, smallholders in Sub Saharan Africa with seemingly similar challenges on food security as those in some developed countries, may consider an intelligent use of certain GMO crops or alternative investment in organics, as arguably a better strategy for improving nutrition levels for poor people. To achieve sustainability in these regions means optimising agronomic skills, business training, properly deployed investment and well-run local organisations to provide long term mentoring. These are some of the critical success factors in the ongoing efforts to improve global food security, and ought to be applied appropriately.
Transforming agribusiness may not be possible without significantly increasing the amount of capital investment and access-to-finance for SMEs. Success will also require better collaboration and knowledge transfer between actors across the entire value chain. Evidence suggests that such action would revolutionise agriculture in low income communities, and help to meet the challenges of food security, build resilience to climate change and mitigate risk to limited natural resources.