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Five examples of how IoT is supporting the food supply chain

The world has undergone immense change in the last few years as people, businesses and governments rapidly adapted to the economic and social disruption caused by the Covid pandemic. The pandemic severely affected food production systems and supply chains and changed the buying habits of consumers. There were labour shortages due to the large numbers falling ill and food shortages because of supply, factory production and delivery problems.  

Lockdowns also drove people to try new types of food and develop new habits to cope with food shortages and restrictions on movement. A survey of 23,000 European shoppers in 2020 found that 72% said they would change their eating habits to more healthy food as a result of the pandemic.

Food businesses had to rapidly adapt to the changing consumer habits and demand, including the digitisation of processes and adoption of new technologies to improve food safety, security and sustainability. The pandemic and other crises accelerated what was already a trend to adopt new technologies, but also made it a priority for businesses to ensure they could continue to operate. The pandemic showed that the drive for ever-increasing efficiencies did not prepare companies for the shock and disruption of the pandemic — and in 2022, nor the war in Ukraine. Building resilience into business processes to ensure survival is just as important.

The group of technologies termed Industry 4.0 and the Fourth Industrial Revolution were seen as the next stage of development for businesses and countries worldwide. This involves the adoption of digitisation, automation, big data analytics, robotisation, smart factories and not just the Internet of Things, but also the Internets of people, services and data. Most recently, AI is also seen as having a major role to play in revolutionising industry. 

The key advantage of IoT technologies is that the system uses sensors to automatically monitor things, machines, animals or people to gather large amounts of data that can be analysed by sophisticated software. These allow businesses to control or react to processes or situations more efficiently and accurately than humans can.

But how can IoT and the companion components of Industry 4.0 fit into this new world? Here are five areas where IoT and related technologies can make a difference to the food supply chain.

1. Monitoring crops with sensors and AI

There is a wide range of sensors that are used on farms to gather data that is useful for managing crops automatically or for making better decisions to optimise production. Sensors are placed in the fields at strategic locations to capture environmental data such as soil moisture, temperature, humidity, light intensity and soil pH. Cameras recording visible and non-visible wavelengths can also be placed on structures in the field or on drones and the images used for analysis. 

Data is transmitted using low-power, long-range communications to a central IoT cloud platform. There it is processed using big data analytics, machine learning and AI to identify status, patterns, correlations and anomalies that are important for crop management. These include moisture, nutrition, crop growth, disease, weeds and pests, and help the farmer take more effective and efficient action such as selecting areas to apply fertiliser, irrigation, pesticides and herbicides. As more data is collected, data analytics and AI can identify the most important factors that impact crop yield and help make decisions that improve yield, reduce costs and benefit the environment.

2. Food traceability

Food traceability has become of increasing importance in the last few years because of the growing complexity of food supply chains, food fraud scandals and the disruption to global supply chains caused by the Covid pandemic. Food traceability involves food authenticity, authentication, fraud detection and adulteration. Having effective systems in place will improve food quality and safety, enhance transparency, and reduce food recalls, waste and losses.

There have been tremendous advances in the last few years in the technologies that can be applied to monitoring food along food supply chains. It has progressed from using simple tagging systems, such as barcodes, RFID and NFC tags to log food products at different stages of their journey, to using Industry 4.0 technologies to make far more intelligent systems. These combine AI, IoT, big data, any types of smart sensors, blockchain and other technologies. 

Blockchain allows authentication of the numerous participants and actions involved in a supply chain, encrypting and recording transaction data in chronological order in unalterable records. Even individual food items such as fruit can be given a QR tag and blockchain record and images of the fruit taken at each stage of its journey. Then images can be analysed automatically to check for quality and health of the fruit. Sensors can record environmental data and eventually carry out non-destructive chemical analysis to check for pesticides, toxins or other illegal substances added purposely or accidentally. All this data can be linked to the blockchain ID so that it is readily available and authenticated to everyone who needs it. Of course, this must be incorporated with massive cloud storage capacity and big data analytics to store and process data for potentially millions of items of food.

3. Advanced automation in the warehousing sector

In warehouses, with the help of automation, foodstuffs can be stored in discrete, specific zones to minimise waste through poor handling, pest infestations and environmental factors. Specialised systems such as ultrasonic sensors or robots triggered by IoT sensors could then monitor these zones for any pest control and hygiene issues.

Hyperspectral scanning can continuously check the health of the food items as they pass through the system, by looking at chlorophyll levels, any signs of bruising or rotting and any gases emitted due to early-stage crop damage and ageing. This serves as an early warning system and can ultimately help businesses save money because they would be aware of any issues identified.

4. Tracking contamination in the food processing sector

As well as tracking the health of the foodstuffs themselves, the health and hygiene of employees working on the processing line are a major issue. Temperature monitoring (including wearables) matched with facial recognition and other biometric identification factors could be picked up by IoT devices to detect employee sickness early and limit the spread of viruses and bacteria. This would reduce the cost of sick leave but would raise concerns about data privacy.

In the food processing plant itself, hyperspectral scanning can pick up where bacteria and viruses are already present, automatically triggering the use of ultraviolet lamps and wands to treat any surfaces and to help prevent airborne cross-contamination. The foodstuffs that have been detected as contaminated can then either be treated or removed from the processing line entirely. This will help to reduce the risks and costs of product recalls and save brand reputation.

5. Optimising storage of crops

Sensors can be placed in grain in silos to monitor environmental conditions that affect grain quality, including temperature, moisture levels, humidity and air quality where the grain is stored. These provide real-time data on storage conditions to ensure they stay within the optimum range to prevent mould, bacteria and insect infestations that will damage the grain. IoT systems allow remote monitoring of all the parameters using online systems and to receive automated alerts based on predefined thresholds.

Sensors can also provide data on grain levels in silos, giving real-time data on stock levels for planning storage and distribution more accurately, and detect pests using movement or heat sensors, enabling rapid pest control measures to prevent infestations and loss of grain and maintain quality.

The large amount of data gathered can be analysed to detect patterns and trends for predictive maintenance and optimise storage practices, which will lead to better grain quality, higher efficiencies and cost savings.

Potential for IoT in the food supply chain

IoT has numerous benefits for all stakeholders in food supply chains. There is a vast range of technologies that can be applied to an IoT infrastructure that will revolutionise all stages from farm to consumer. IoT can improve crop production, storage, traceability, inventory management and quality, and reduce waste while ensuring consumer safety and a more sustainable and efficient food supply chain. Businesses can ensure compliance with food safety standards and regulations, and for authorities and consumers, the risk of food fraud and contamination is greatly reduced, maintaining consumer trust and confidence in the food products.

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