Industry Stories

Smart Technology For Sustainable Food Practices

In the food services and logistics industry, it's all about quality, flavor and delivery: customers want their food fast and natural. Advances in technology are altering the farm-to-table journey and the food experience. As Peter Diamandis points out, an average American meal travels 1,500 miles before being consumed. With discerning customers watching their carbon footprint, interest is deepening on where food is grown, how it travels and when it is processed. The way forward is to make sustainability central to food production, adopt automation and robots for cost-efficiency and shift towards smart machinery for efficient farming.

All the goodness of nature

The food industry can be a high risk, low reward business. Unpredictable weather, challenges in food logistics, perishability of food, and transient trends contribute to a perfect storm. Could an innovative enterprise convert these factors of uncertainty into a sustainable food business?

Froozer, a Colorado-based company, is one such example. It offers a range of frozen fruit and vegetable snacks. The company sources freshly harvested fruit and vegetables, then uses technology to freeze, blend, and package the produce. It means consumers get natural, preservative-free frozen foods.

Their approach focuses on sustainable business practices as Froozer sells 'ugly produce', fruits and vegetables that look less than perfect, and mitigates food waste. The brand also supports the 'slow food' movement, which seeks to promote local food production and traditional cuisines which retain natural flavors.

Spot the bad apple

Automation is the buzzword in upstream food packaging and processing. Robots using machine vision, imaging-based automatic inspection and analysis, have dexterity, speed and accuracy for inspecting produce and foods.

Key Technology Inc., a Washington-based company, uses vision guidance technology in its multi-sensor, pixel fusion platform. It identifies irregularities while processing voluminous supply of food products in chutes and belt sorters. Accurate sorting delights food companies that uphold stringent quality standards. Its vision technology also automates palletizing as well as depalletizing in food logistics. It ensures that the appropriate shipping label is placed in the correct orientation.

Robots also collaborate with humans in areas where the strenuous effort is done by machines. Universal Robots, a Danish company, has a robot that fetches food products from a conveyor and deftly places them in a carton for a carton erector and sealer to take over.

As sanitary design is increasingly incorporated in robots, automation will become a force multiplier in the food services and logistics industry.

Here comes the rain again!

Big data, smart machinery, and climate science are set to usher in a high yielding farm without a farmer actually being out in the fields.

Picture a manager navigating a tractor on the farm using a tablet. Sensors in the soil deliver data about moisture while the local weather channel provides updates about humidity and temperature. All of this data comes together to increase the yield of arable land. A smart harvester can be calibrated to harvest crops, monitor crop quantity every hour, and identify the most fertile patch of farmland.

CNH Industrial, a manufacturer of advanced farming machinery, envisages precision farming on a connected farm without a human stepping on the land. Agri-tech is paving the way for farmbots to replace legacy farming machinery for undertaking complex tasks. Drones are being used for crop monitoring in South America and spraying pesticide on crops in Japan.

Indeed, the farm of the future will be digital. The row after row of produce on a farm will represent streams of data that influence the current harvest, which in turn will serve as a catalyst to plan the next harvest.

Smart farming technology like blockchain can support crop insurance. It can prevent fraud and significantly reduce the cost of insurance in agriculture.

Growing consumer trust, nurturing consumer confidence

Consumer trust in the food industry is critical and providing transparency through the supply chain is key. This can be made possible with robust technology like 'trustless trust' or permissioned blockchain networks. Tracing a product right from the farm to the packer who transported it, all the way to the quality certification of the product is now possible. For example, a consumer buying coffee from a specialty retailer scans a QR code through their mobile phone to trace the origins of the coffee bean, even while the coffee is steaming in their cup. We can see this trend towards traceability in other products as well, be it organic meat from China or air fresheners from Korea. Smart contracts in blockchain can trigger alerts to warehouses and trucks on product expiry and initiate an auto recall with all the participants in the supply chain real time.

Voglio la pizza! (I want pizza)

The United States has a big appetite for pizza. Pizza delivery is a US$ 9.7 billion industry with domestic brands establishing global franchisee models. The industry is being disrupted by Zume Pizza, a Californian pizza delivery startup that blends robotic automation with a patented delivery and logistics system.

In Zume's kitchen, a robot applies sauce on flatbread, it then moves on a conveyer for pizza handlers to add cheese and toppings. Another robot picks up the flatbread and places it into an oven. Zume Pizza seeks to take pizza delivery up several notches. Robots load ovens with menu items in patented delivery trucks. Minutes before the truck reaches the customer, the oven is switched on remotely by a command from the headquarters via the cloud.

While the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana guarantees the authentic pizza experience in Italy, across the Atlantic Ocean, robotic efficiency and a ping-fired oven may give an artisanal twist to the humble pizza.

Cream rises to the top

In the 21st century, the food industry has a pressing challenge: the mismatch between the rising global population and food production. As millions of people migrate to cities for employment, urban areas lack the acreage required for commercial farming.

The Floating Farm in Rotterdam, Netherlands is taking a leap of faith. It envisions a dairy farm on a floating structure by a riverbank. The farm raises 60 cows to produce milk, cheese, cream, butter, and yogurt.

This high-tech laboratory-cum-dairy farm is collaborating with Philips for LED lighting to ensure maximum grass for the cows. The permeable 'floor' uses technology to recycle waste. Robots dispose manure to be converted into energy and fertilizer.

Sustainable farming practices backed by technology such as artificial intelligence is the way forward across the food value chain. More so for its ability to offer higher transparency into the production process, lower the carbon footprint and still deliver quality, tasty foods.