The data revolution must accelerate food sustainability

By Karen Reijnen, Director Innovation, Rainforest Alliance

Mobile payment systems, artificial intelligence, blockchain—such digital innovations have exploded in the last few years, and with good reason. Their capacity to harness vast amounts of data means they can improve transparency and decision-making for all kinds of industries—not least of all, for food production.

The current pandemic has exposed how vulnerable global supply chains are to disruption. These technologies not only have the potential to push entire food supply chains—all the way from farmer to consumer—toward greater sustainability, they can also help improve resilience to future shocks. Here’s how:

At the source: data-based farming

If we want to continue feeding the world’s ballooning population and preserve the world for future generations, we must make farming environmentally sound and socially responsible. In short, farming that can be sustained into the future. A key part of that is ensuring that farmers can make enough money to support their families and become more resilient to future shocks. Technology is already helping with that: “Precision farming,” for example, employs sensors, robots, and IoT-powered devices (computing devices that wirelessly connect to a network and transmit data) to take over some day-to-day farming chores, thereby freeing up farmers to focus on long-term planning and profitability.

Unfortunately, most of the world’s 500 million smallholder farmers (who manage 75 percent of Earth’s agricultural lands) don’t have access to those potent technologies. But they too can benefit from innovations, for instance from mobile apps like FarmGrow, which was developed by the Rainforest Alliance with the Grameen Foundation in Indonesia, Ghana, and Côte d’Ivoire for smallholder cocoa farmers.

By creating a seven-year business plan based on individual household data and the agronomic status of each cocoa plot, FarmGrow offers tailormade, ongoing recommendations to increase sustainability and productivity—and therefore, profitability—on existing cocoa land. The app’s remote-sensing and artificial-intelligence features further help farmers to know, for example, where sickly trees may be or where farm borders could be encroaching on forests; they also track production and help farmers make better decisions.


Enhancing the quality of audits
Farms can be audited for a variety of reasons. Technology is improving on-farm audits—the investigations that are conducted periodically to verify if farms are complying with certification requirements. Conventional audits, which rely on manual checks of farms, have no way of determining, for example, where forest previously stood on the outskirts of farms. GPS maps of farm locations, combined with satellite imagery and maps of protected areas, now make it possible to detect deforestation and even pinpoint the areas at the greatest risk for future deforestation. We can see if farms are too close to the border of a national park or if crop planting is getting too close to water bodies. This kind of data allows for more targeted advice and training on the ground, while also making in-person audits more efficient and effective.


Blockchain for trust and transparency
Blockchain is perhaps best known as the technology employed by bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies, but its applications go well beyond online payments. This tamper-proof public ledger, which provides a permanent and unalterable record of transactions, is making its mark on food supply chains, as well. It can, for instance, be used to track where an ingredient was sourced and the amount of carbon it generated before ending up on our plates. With companies increasingly facing pressure by governments, consumers, and NGOs to disclose more information about their supply chains, many are starting to test blockchain for increased transparency and traceability. This could help identify potential risks in supply chains, provide insights into supply-chain efficiencies, and track sustainability progress. IBM Food Trust, a high-profile blockchain-based food traceability program, can trace food back to its source in a few seconds. Agribusiness giants Carrefour and Walmart have signed on to use it and have begun asking suppliers to upload data and insights about the products sold in their stores.


Connecting producers and consumers
Technology is also helping connect consumers to the origins of the products they purchase. Quick Response (QR) barcodes on packaging are increasingly giving consumers a fast way to find out, through their smartphones, the origin of a product’s ingredients or its journey from source to shelf. Another exciting innovation is Accenture’s Circular Supply Chain initiative, which lets consumers send a direct tip to producers who are working sustainably. Or look at the leading Dutch food retailer Albert Heijn, which is using QR codes to provide consumers with a map tracing the journey of orange juice and even including the percentage of juice that comes from certified orange groves.


These and other emerging technologies—such as artificial intelligence, 5G, augmented and virtual reality—are likely to transform supply chains in the years to come. All players in the food supply chain must work together to ensure that these technologies catalyze an era of more responsible farming. We need future farming to be environmentally and socially sound, to drive more value to both producers and consumers, and to help achieve a more resilient future.


First published on Brink News

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