New and Emerging Technologies for the Food Supply Chain

Written by Anthony Wong Weng Fatt, ADPSM

An annual estimated 30% of food is wastage globally, which is about 1.3 billion tonnes costing US$ 100 Billion yearly. With a projected population increase to 9.7 billion in 2050 from the current 7.7 Billion, the world food supply is certainly straining.

Global food borne disease is also estimated to result in 1.2 million deaths yearly with a report in 1996 putting the losses in the US alone ( medical costs and value of lives lost) to range between the US $6.5 billion to $34.9 billion; and in England and Wales, UK £300-700 million annually. All these factors are accelerating the need for a better, more economical and efficient food supply chain.

The Food Supply Chain can be broadly classified into 5 stages as shown:
Broadly classified into 5 stages

The Inadequacies of the Food Chain

The food chain’s inadequacies can be broadly classified into these categories:-

• Predictability – be it weather to consumer preferences, unpredictability causes uncertainty in supply
• Food Loss and Wastage – Uncontrolled losses from farm to consumer
• Manpower – the lack of trained labour from farmhands, to retail cashiers
• Critical information loss thereby limiting the ability to track, trace, solve and prevent food incidents
• Increasing demand by both consumers and authorities for transparency and traceability
• The ability to increase yields without any corresponding increase in resources like land in farms, food produced per kg of raw materials, etc. to meet the growing demand
• Cost pressure – the demand by end-users to lower or maintain cost ranging to raw material to finished goods

Internet of Things (IoT) Technology

The IoT is a system of interrelated computing devices, mechanical and digital machines, objects, animals or people that are provided with unique identifiers (UIDs) and the ability to transfer data over a network without requiring human-to-human or human-to-computer interaction.

It allows the capturing of live data remotely in a secure and trusted format continuously such that processes can be monitored 24/7. Thus, constant comparisons to control parameters can be done and if the deviation is detected, timely intervention can be executed and thereby preventing unnecessarily lost.

The data are also being used for higher function systems so that end-user can make a better-informed decision on the next course of action or planning for the future, thereby increasing efficiency, lowering lost and maximizing the returns of resource invested.

A good example of this is in farms whereby using a combination of Drones, IoT enabled sensors and a software solution. A farmer can then study the soil and weather condition so that he can plan his next crop rotation.

In retail, IoT can also help to capture data of products moving off the shelves so that stores can plan their buys and not overstock, especially in perishables so as to minimize waste and maximize profits. Currently, stores in the US like Walmart and Amazon Go are testing out this solution and results are encouraging.

Cobotics And Other Automation

A cobot can be described as an apparatus and method for direct physical interaction between a person and a general-purpose manipulator controlled by a computer. Automation (and progressively moving towards Cobots) has been able to reduce physical strain and accidental injuries while making human operators available for qualitatively higher tasks. It frees up workers from repetitive and dangerous or unpleasant tasks in harsh environments.

A classic illustration of this in the food processor is showcased in the adoption by Axium Foods in the US. As quoted by the President, Mr. Jerry Stokely, “We have deployed these robots in several unique applications. In each application, the robot is the center of the total work cell performing either task at a higher speed than humans or tasks that, over time, lead to repetitive trauma injuries, such as carpal tunnel syndrome.”

Supply Chain Ads

Georgia Tech Research Institute (GTRI) is currently carrying research on the Intelligent Cutting and Deboning System (ICDS), taps into the senses of sight and touch for processing poultry. Increases in yield for every chicken process can translate to substantial profits since, by GTRI estimates, every 1% loss of breast meat represents about $1.5 million to each of Georgia’s 20 poultry processing plants.

Drones Technology

Drones are increasingly being used in many applications across the Food Supply Chain. Already proven as a successful disruptor in farms where they are used from monitoring crops and herds remotely to helping to take samples of soil to study its condition, it is now being used in other areas such as regulatory inspection of a vast track of agriculture to ensure laws are not broken and last-mile deliveries.

The usefulness of drones as a proven technology disruptor is so successful that now they are being expanded into other areas. For instance, there are trails across US of using a drone, with a combination of RFID tags, for the aerial inventory of large warehouses. Drones are also being piloted in processing plants as an inspection vehicle tough to reach places that are essential to a large scale processing plant.

Blockchain Technology

Blockchain is a distributed ledger technology (DLT) where alterations are not permitted once data is logged, becoming a trusted source of information. It allows proofing product provenance and implementing track-and-trace of products through the supply chain. It enables efficiency, transparency, and accountability among participating actors. Better and more reliable data can help optimize business decisions and reach higher standards for production, efficiency and sustainability. As data is organized and store in real-time, it also cuts time in retrieval of useful data and cost tremendously.

An example of blockchain being used in retail is Walmart in the USA. Collaborating with IBM as a technology solution provider, Walmart is running trails in order to improve the traceability and transparency where it is estimated that traditionally it can take up to 7 days to trace; now it can be done in 2.2 seconds. Walmart’s VP for Food Safety, Mr. Frank Yiannas, during a presentation in 2017 estimated that 1% reduction in Food Incidents in the US can translate to US 700 million savings.

Big Data Analytics

Another major developing technology used in Food Chain is Predictive Analysis, which is a type of Artificial Intelligence system (AI). It is an enormously powerful tool that can foresee problems within the supply chain, and even predict customer behavior.

When used with trusted data sources like those provided by IoT and Blockchain, it is an invaluable tool to help with one of the major issues of wastage in the Food Supply Chain. When a farmer can accurately predict the conditions affecting his farm and plan for contingencies or a store, after collecting data on consumer patterns through their purchases thus predicting the likelihood of sales of any product, the situation of wastage becomes significantly reduced. The predictive nature of this systems also allows, on a macro level, countries to plan how to feed their population as they put in policies and structures so that shortages and wastages and cut to a minimum.

Predictive Analysis and Big Data analysis also play a part in non- traditional application in the food supply chain. For instance, Chicago, USA, is using a combination of Big Data and Predictive Analysis to control the rat population. This in, turn, have significantly reduced food incidents due to a rat infestation.


The Food Supply chain is at a critical crossroad due to increasing demand and thus needs to innovate and seek out new collaboration between players and technological solutions. With the advent of the internet, industrial players are starting to see that by working together and with technology partners, many of the issues facing the tradition Food Supply Chain can be solved.

Blockchain and Food Safety with IBM and Walmart


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About the Author: Anthony Wong Weng Fatt has extensive years of experiences in the sales and operations, and in recent years has been handling procurement projects and managing the supply chain in the food industry. Anthony holds the Diploma in Advanced Manufacturing from Singapore Polytechnic and he is a member of the Singapore Institute of Purchasing and Materials Management (SIPMM). He completed the Advanced Diploma in Procurement and Supply Management (ADPSM) on July 2019 at SIPMM Institute.