Food waste rotting bananas

Retailers could cut food waste, improve animal welfare and boost profits by harnessing the power of big data, according to a new report.

Published by Rabobank this week, the report warned the world needs to adopt a “smarter” food system to feed future populations, with technology and data set to play an increasingly important role in boosting crop yields and livestock productivity.

“We need to improve productivity right across the food system. Whether you are a farmer, a processor or a retailer, everyone needs to focus more on boosting productivity because we simply have to produce more food, with fewer resources.” said lead analyst Justin Sherrard.

According to the report, a smarter food system is one that combines technology, big data and algorithms to add “speed and accuracy” to food production, processing, distribution and retailing.

“The data itself tells us what is happening in lots of detail, algorithms translate that data into decisions, and technology automates the process,” said Sherrard.

These concepts are already being adopted by the farming sector, with precision farming and drone technology giving rise to impressive production gains.

Crop farmers, for example, are using drones to collect data on crop conditions, running algorithms to translate that data into targeted grower actions, and installing technology to automate those actions.

Poultry producers are using sensor technology to monitor bird health, improve air quality and automate feeding for improved animal welfare.

But Sherrard stressed there are applications for smarter technology beyond farming, and the report estimated that productivity gains of 5% above business-as-usual are achievable across a range of subsectors and supply chain stages.

Retailers could use RFID tagging to track the condition of fresh produce in real time and automate price adjustments, the report suggested, or combine customer data and weather information to better predict what stock is needed in stores. “Let’s be clear, some of this is already happening - what we are saying is there is an opportunity to roll it out on a wider scale,” said Sherrard.

He admitted building a smarter food system would require “significant” investment, but said that by embracing big data and technology, the industry would attract investment and interest from “a new generation of people who haven’t thought very seriously about the food and agri sector in the past.”

He stressed that more collaborative supply chains will be “vital” to enable data sharing and spread the cost of investment.

The report also warned that societal concerns over technology and data sharing need to be taken into consideration.