How Internet of Things technology can reduce food waste

Written by: Jason Kay | Published:
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Embracing technology as part of the drive to reduce food loss and waste is fundamental in keeping the food system within environmental limits and ensuring the global population can be sustainably fed by 2050, according to a recent study.

The research states that the food system is a major contributor to several environmental impacts, including climate change. These problems span across the entire supply chain, from agriculture all the way through to the home, where food wastage is excessive.

However, without embracing significant technology solutions as part of an overall strategy to mitigate these impacts, the effects could increase by 50-90% as a result of several combined factors, such as increasing population levels.

With more than a third of all produce either lost before sale or disposed of by households, it is vital that we rethink our entire relationship with food and imperative that these changes are driven systematically across the supply chain.

Greater consumer education and a change in expectation are essential, along with an ambition to increase biodiversity, but primarily it will be improved efficiencies within the supply chain that will deliver significant change.

Changing consumer attitudes

In recent decades, consumer expectations have radically changed. The food retail market is dominated by a small number of organisations delivering a consistent and stable customer experience, offering products of ‘acceptable’ size, shape, colour and price irrespective of season or country of origin.

Of course, a sizeable proportion of fresh produce will never meet these unrealistic criteria. By creating a consumer expectation for blemish-free goods at a low cost, food purveyors have built a market that is predicated on waste – over-producing by vast amounts to ensure expectations are met and contracts upheld.

This approach is economically flawed, with subsidised agriculture and increasingly low margins for producers and retailers alike. Clearly, something has gone awry with the global food production model and this must be addressed as, by 2027, the world could be facing a 214 trillion calorie deficit, with the amount of food required to feed our ever-increasing population proving impossible for food producers to meet.

It simply does not make sense that we are wasting more food than ever, yet we are quickly heading towards a world that cannot produce enough food to sustain its population. There are many efforts being made to reduce waste within the food retail industry, whether that is through customer campaigns, redistribution to food banks or the ‘ugly veg’ incentive, all of which are a step in the right direction.

However, it is addressing the waste that is inherently built within the supply chain that is a burning cause for concern and often overlooked during the big food waste debates.

Lack of innovation

Digital transformation may seem a daunting prospect to a low-margin industry built upon machine-rich environments and legacy infrastructure, and an overhaul that requires capital investment across hundreds or even thousands of stores is simply unfeasible.

The sheer cost of managing suppliers to ensure delivery and consistency makes it difficult for retailers to embrace new, innovative suppliers or models, while those with existing contracts cannot afford any risks associated with fulfilment, and therefore build in significant levels of contingency.

The result is not only an increase in waste but also minimal opportunity to invest in innovation, explore opportunities for new, healthier food options or embrace digitisation to enable automation and improve efficiency.

Innovation and change

Digital transformation is key to driving these required systemic changes to mitigate waste at each stage of the supply chain. From production to processing and from the retailer to the consumer’s home, it is vital to optimise temperatures and environments to maintain product integrity.

Effective refrigeration is vital in extending the shelf-life of food, and it is estimated that by increasing the shelf-life of a product by just one day, this could lead to a 5% reduction in avoidable waste. It can also improve the quality and aesthetics of the product by maintaining flavour, colour and texture, leading to an improved customer experience, avoiding products being wasted due to an unpleasant appearance and ultimately being discarded by retailers and customers.

The role of digitisation in minimising food waste also has a crucial role to play throughout the supply chain. Given one in three freight journeys in the UK is food, the use of real-time information to inform routing and distribution planning is key to improving resource utilisation.

In addition, using the data from existing sensors on refrigeration units, heating units and air-conditioning systems to dynamically monitor fluctuations in performance to predict failures can lead to preventative action, rapid re-routing or re-allocation of susceptible items to reduce avoidable wastage.

The introduction of these preventative maintenance strategies allows retailers to reduce the amount of food being discarded due to refrigeration failure. By using IoT technology to automate maintenance processes and workflows, and enable early fault identification, a vast reduction in critical machine failures can be achieved as faults can be established and fixed prior to becoming a catastrophic issue. This ultimately minimises refrigeration asset downtime and therefore reduces the potential loss of food due to asset failure.

Digitisation strategies

Forward-thinking organisations are already using IoT solutions to advance digitisation strategies and drive automation, enabling a reduction in avoidable loss of food and to further achieve huge reductions in reactive maintenance costs, as well as reducing customer complaints.

Comprehensive energy management strategies and initiatives can also be deployed, driven by real-time asset performance data to optimise rather than jeopardise, allowing organisations to meet environmental pledges by radically reducing annual power consumption and participate in energy flex and demand response eventing.

By approaching the food supply chain with this form of digitisation, retailers can work to reduce their food wastage sustainably. This allows retailers to reduce their food waste sustainably.

Specifically, within the cold food supply chain, IoT can be used to gain real-time visibility of the temperature of units across the supply chain, unlocking the ability to monitor and manage temperatures in real time.

Taking advantage of this added visibility, control and automation to manage and maintain the temperature and performance of their refrigeration estate ensures the safety and quality of the food products throughout the process, significantly reducing waste.

This is an innovative and pragmatic method of using technology to drive down wastage, but in order for it to have the desired impact across the entire chain, a collaborative approach to managing temperature-controlled environments is essential.

By adopting effective and efficient cooling strategies throughout the food chain, an organisation cannot only ensure the highest levels of safety and quality of the end product, but as a result can also decrease its waste and energy consumption considerably.

Making such a fundamental change to the food chain is not an overnight process. However, by embracing technology as part of an overall strategy to improve consumer experience and support an essential change in global food production and consumption, huge strides can be made towards addressing the waste endemic.

Jason Kay is chief communications officer at IoT solution provider IMS Evolve

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