The Internet of Things (IoT) is a network of physical objects or ‘things’ embedded with electronics, software, sensors, and connectivity to enable the network to achieve greater value and service by exchanging and/or collecting data. Within the food supply chain, the IoT can be used to provide valuable insights, such as into food contamination, infestation levels and hygiene standards helping to improve food safety compliance.
IoT in the food supply chain
Research and Analysis company Quocirca (commissioned by Rentokil Initial) recently carried out 400 interviews with respondents responsible for the management of food safety and hygiene across China, Australia, the UK and US. Although the research showed that 37% of respondents had no or basic level understanding of the Internet of Things, the majority of organisations are in fact already heavily involved in the world of the IoT.
For example, food processors will have systems along their production lines that are monitoring areas such as the temperature of food as it is being processed; looking for contamination in foodstuffs or ensuring that labeling on cans and bottles is aligned – a prime example of IoT in action.
Similarly, logistics companies will have climate controlled vehicles and may be using GPS systems to monitor and track their vehicle fleets. These examples may not be perceived as being part of the IoT – but as they all involve devices with the ability to aggregate or analyse data and communicate it or act upon it, they are all part of this connected network. In this way, it is evident that the IoT is already affecting large-scale changes within the food supply chain.
How IoT is enabling greater transparency and improving food safety
Using a vast network of ‘intelligent’ and connected devices, sensors, software and connectivity, the IoT is already enabling end-to-end transparency of the food distribution chain, allowing business owners to monitor vast amounts of data and identify potential contamination issues before they cause a problem.
For example, drones are already being used to help in the management of crops. This may just be for checking on how the crops look to the visual eye after pest or storm damage, but farmers can also capture data on crop health and growth, and help manage water and energy usage.
They also use software tools to understand soil and air quality. Sensors in the ground can judge when irrigation is required, driving intelligent watering systems that can ensure the right amount of water is provided to each plant, minimising water wastage.
To avoid food contamination, those handling raw foodstuffs can be monitored to help manage compliance with hygiene standards. For example, logging systems can capture different boards and utensils that are being used for serving raw and cooked meats.
Equally, to avoid food spoilage, network-connected temperature and humidity sensors can allow shippers to objectively monitor food containers and trucks and trigger alerts that head off spoilage or replace bad products before they reach the customer.
What is the potential future impact of IoT?
The evolution of new challenges and complexities require innovative solutions enabled by technology to cope with the scale of change and address sustainability long term.
The Internet of Things, big data analytics, machine learning, artificial intelligence and blockchain are all technologies that will fuel the delivery of more efficient and effective processes within the food supply chain.
Whether businesses are looking to stay ahead of the unpredictability of nature, or combating cyclical infestation, the IoT is one of the food industry’s best ways to improve supply chain efficiency, reduce costs and increase business intelligence for a sustainable future of food production.