July 8, 2018

Food chain technologies help reduce waste

According to a report from IQ by Intel, food cold chain technologies such as computer vision, artificial intelligence and data analysis are tracking fresh produce from the farm to trucks to stores in an effort to reduce food waste. Companies like Taylor Farms are using these tools to get their products to consumers more efficiently than ever before.

The moment a head of lettuce is harvested or a strawberry is picked in the field, it begins to decay. From there, it’s a race to deliver it fresh to the consumer. This was easier a few generations ago when most people worked in agriculture and lived close to food production. Today, delivery of perishable food relies on what’s known as the food cold chain. This vastly complex distribution of food from farm to fork relies on maximizing the quality and longevity of crops.

Adding artificial intelligence (AI), computer vision and cloud computing to food inspections, trucking and refrigeration is bringing efficiency to food logistics.

“The goal is straightforward and pretty simple,” said Dan Hodgson, a partner with Linn Grove Ventures, a Fargo, North Dakota-based agricultural venture capital group. “The environment around that crop, whether it’s on a truck or a plane, has to be just right all through its journey  —  it’s in the journey where it gets complex.”

Keeping strawberries at the right temperature, humidity and airflow is only one problem. The fruit also needs to be delivered to the right markets in the right amounts on the right days, where it will actually be purchased.

“Managing quality means managing many different people at each stage of distribution and the different speeds it happens at,” Hodgson said. “Sensors and cloud computing are helping to really get handle on it.”

That’s where a smartphone app for food inspectors can help, according to AgShift, an agtech AI firm in Santa Clara, California. The company uses algorithms to assist with food inspection at different stages of distribution.

“Let’s say we’re looking at 20 strawberries,” said Miku Jha, CEO of AgShift. “Two different inspectors might come back with two different results. What the technology does is to help those inspectors make more objective observations.”

Photographing produce and sending the pictures to the cloud for analysis allows AgShift to leverage computer vision and deep learning algorithms to assess the quality of produce each time it’s inspected on its journey.

“Digitization and automation really make an impact on efficiency,” Jha said.

More accurate inspections give sellers better insights into the shelf life and pricing of specific shipments of produce. Knowing the quality of each box of strawberries — and other perishables — serves as a baseline for many kinds of decisions in the food cold chain.

Data is a key driver in improving the food cold chain.

Tech before planting

The food supply chain starts well before seeds are even planted. Produce farmers literally map out every inch of a field with GPS technology, already knowing what factors could affect planned crops.

“We have to predict literally a year in advance what our needs are going to be because we contract for all of our lettuce and broccoli acreage,” said Bruce Taylor, CEO of Taylor Farms in Salinas, California. “If we lose a customer, we’ve got too much lettuce. If we gain customers too fast, we run short. And so it’s a huge planning exercise.”

Taylor said it’s so precise, the operation plants its greatest volume of head lettuce a few months in advance of the biggest salad day of the year in the United States: Mother’s Day.

“It’s important we nail the harvest on that one,” Taylor said.

Taylor Farms is known for being an early adopter of technologies like computer vision, cloud computing and robotics in the field, especially its move toward automated harvesting.

Self-driving food distribution

With the buzz of self-driving vehicles in the news, it’s easy to imagine the cornerstone of food distribution – trucking – would go driverless.

“It would be a wonderful thing,” said Steve Geraci, director of fleet operations at Certified Freight Logistics, a company that provides produce distribution for Costco in Santa Maria on the California central coast.

Not only would it increase efficiency but it also would address labor shortages.

“Recruiting drivers is such a nonstop issue for us because over-the-road trucking is a lifestyle and it’s not for everybody,” he said.

Geraci points to governmental policy decisions that could take years to sort through before food distributors get into driverless truck technology. However, there’s a lot to be said for the advancements in the refrigeration units on Costco’s trailers.

“They have a lot of computing power,” he said. “They’re constantly monitoring the engine, the temperature, moisture and the inflow and outflow of the air circulating in the box.”

The information is transmitted to the cloud where the current status of the unit can be accessed in real time while the truck is on the road.

“It’s something we didn’t have five years ago,” Geraci said.

Refrigerated trucks cut down on food waste in the food cold chain journey. Photo courtesy of UTC.

Food cold chain and solving waste

United Technologies Corp. (UTC) is working on food cold chain technologies aimed at solving the problem of food waste.

“We grow and produce enough food on the planet to feed 10 billion people,” said John Mandyck, chief sustainability officer at UTC and co-author of “Food Foolish: The Hidden Connection Between Food Waste, Hunger and Climate Change.”

“We live on a planet of 7 billion and only about 6 billion are getting enough food so that right there tells us that we have a 40 percent inefficiency in our system, where about 40 percent of our food never makes it from our farm to our fork.”

Perhaps the biggest waste of food happens in the richest countries where farmers sometimes let crops rot because they can’t get a profitable price, supermarkets discard surplus produce, and consumers buy too much food and end up tossing it.

“What we’re doing is helping to connect the dots with people who are focused on this,” said Kevin Fay, executive director of the Global Food Cold Chain Council. “What we found is there are a lot of programs on food waste, but not a lot of are working together.”

Fay believes that solving food waste is a huge deal, one that unlocks solutions to other major global issues.

“Seventy percent of our fresh water supply around the globe is used for agriculture,” Fay said. “If we’re wasting 40 percent of the food we grow that means we’re wasting 30 percent of our fresh water supply.”

New technologies like cloud databases and AI can help cut food waste. Fay points to consumer apps such as YourLocal, which alerts users about supermarkets offering discounted food that could otherwise be discarded.

“By connecting the dots, you’re able to feed more people, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, reduce waste of fresh water and improve the economic lives of society around the world,” Fay said.

— By Jason Lopez, IQ by Intel

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