How planning, data, and ‘digital string’ can combat the global food waste crisis

This is a guest blogpost by Colin Elkins, global industry director, process manufacturing, IFS.

Global food waste, or food loss as it is classified by growers and manufacturers, is around 1.3 billion tons per year, which is one third of all food produced and twice the weight of the world’s current population!

In developing countries, waste is due to inadequate or inappropriate agriculture and storage, whereas in the developed countries it is caused by consumption. In the US consumption accounts for a staggering 40% of all US food wasted, whereas in sub-Saharan Africa only five percent of food is wasted by the consumer.

Our agricultural and production systems today are a wonder to behold, computer-based crop and animal management, GPS based harvesting and field fertilisation techniques, robotic graders and sorters, vison recognition and rejection systems are all part of the journey from our fields to our factories. The utilisation of these and other technologies has made the manufacturing element of the supply chain the lowest waster of food in developed countries. There is however one exception, fresh produce – fruit and vegetables are amongst the highest contributors to waste. This is not due to poor technology or practice, but due to the perceived demands of retailers and consumers.

Retailers desire to make their products look attractive to the consumer has driven up the waste levels for growers and producers. Size, shape, colour and consistency all form part of the ‘retailer specification’ outside of which the produce is simply discarded and returned to the soil. Yields of less than 50% are not uncommon for minor deviations from specification.

Retailers are often seen as the main villain in terms of creating this ‘artificial’ waste, but are they simply pandering to consumer needs? Consumer demands for perfect produce are also a key culprit.

Technology will not solve the food waste problem completely, as a cultural change is required on the part of the consumer, however it can go part of the way. Growers and producers already innovate by developing smarter farms, factories and processes to reduce waste, using the latest technologies like AI, and The Internet of Things (IoT) in conjunction with their ERP Software.

Where the food manufacturers can play a part in waste reduction is in the planning phase. What many consumers don’t realise is the level of planning that goes into the production and packaging, to be able to supply the correct amount for consumer needs. The combination of high demand from retailer and consumers means that if supply does indeed outstrip demand, then both the fresh produce and its packaging are often discarded.

Predictions and planning are an area that technology has already redefined in recent years, and the manufacturing industry is no different. Until fairly recently, food manufacturers were dealing purely with a gut feeling, sporadic weather reports, and disparate systems in order to plan for yield and supply.

In the same way that predicting the weather is now far more data-driven than ever before, the same is true for predicting demand and matching supply for fresh food products. IoT and its network of physical devices, vehicles, sensors, appliances and other items embedded with electronics, are producing vast volumes of potentially critical and valuable data for the food manufacturing industry, and the ability for these devices connect and exchange data with the planning function is key. The future of the industry is not simply in each smart device, but in the connectivity between them, something I refer to as ‘digital string’.

The strings of data must converge to a central, visible and accessible point within the manufacturing organisation, so the planning decision makers have this critical data delivered to them, all in one dashboard. Utilising data from internal sources like sales, promotions and forecasts is normal today, but with the use of Artificial Intelligence it will be possible to integrate that data with external sources like weather patterns, public events and holidays and then analyse and learn from the results to then optimize the plan and reduce waste. The data is out there, ripe for the picking, and if food manufacturers can harvest it and bring it within the factory to inform planning processes, the industry can do much more to reduce waste, whilst making significant savings.

From an ideological perspective, a fundamental change is required on the part of the consumer to reduce packaging consumption and accept a wider spectrum of perceived fresh food ‘quality’ when it comes to fresh produce. Reducing food waste is everyone’s responsibility, and like many other sustainability efforts, technology is available to manufacturers and producers to help them do their bit, whilst driving efficiencies and cost savings within their business. It’s a win, win.

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