The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic have revealed vulnerabilities in the UK’s food supply systems, including labour challenges and insufficient capacity in domestic food production. And according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation’s Outlook 2020, food markets are set to face many more months of uncertainty related to the pandemic.
What is the food system?
The food system comprises a range of activities above and beyond producing from processing, packaging, retailing to storage. The Centre for Food Policy describes the food system as “the interconnected system of everything and everybody that influences, and is influenced by, the activities involved in bringing food from farm to fork and beyond”.
The long-term food system issues highlighted as a result of the pandemic will have to be addressed by considering how to build resilience to possible future disruptions. Here are how four of these challenges may be faced using smart technologies.
1. Stockpiling and supply chain resilience
At the start of lockdown, consumers began stockpiling certain goods, which exposed the limitations of supply chains in being able to deliver food in times of increased demand. This also had the effect of undermining the purchasing ability of food banks since, in normal circumstances, food surpluses in retail businesses would be redistributed to food banks.
The British Retail Consortium stated that the main difficulty in meeting the rapid increase in retail demand was the logistics of moving food through the supply chain quickly enough, with deliveries to stores increasing by 30%.
These issues highlight the weaknesses in food redistribution and it suggests that changes may be needed to make the supply chain more resilient.
Solutions that have worked in the past - such as diversifying suppliers, increasing inventory, and adding capacity at different locations - may reduce risk. But these tactics are just scratching the surface when it comes to having a supply chain that is truly resilient.
Using IoT sensors and GPS technology across transportation and logistics processes allows businesses to gain real-time visibility into shipments and inventory, helping them to proactively manage changes in supply and demand.
2. Distribution of food supply across the country
Unlike most other goods, food can spoil if not delivered within set timeframes. Challenges in packaging availability, logistics and labelling requirements led to an increase in food loss during the COVID-19 lockdown—where some areas had a surplus and thus food waste, other areas experienced food shortages.
Proper cold chain management reduces the risk of food waste by extending the lifespan of food products by keeping them in the recommended temperature state. Being able to monitor and manage temperature remotely is key to maintaining the correct environment. Smart temperature sensors for warehouses, transit and manufacturing can be attached to any elements in the food supply chain for real-time temperature monitoring and can send alerts to warn if food is spoiling.
3. Food production
According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), the UK agricultural sector employs 64,000 seasonal migrant workers. The loss of access to seasonal migrant workers in the UK due to travel restrictions placed pressure on the fresh produce sector.
So, how can farmers remain productive with less staff? One possible solution is the implementation of smart technology that allows for remote monitoring and management of crops.
4. Food processing
Food processing facilities operating throughout lockdown periods were responsible for a relatively high number of localised outbreaks. One of the possible reasons for this is that the cold environments in many food processing facilities facilitate the spread of the virus. In addition, workers in food processing facilities often work in close proximity.
Mitigating the risk of the virus spreading in the workplace is key to preventing large-scale closures. One of the ways of doing this is to install infrared temperature checking cameras to take the temperatures of staff and send instant alerts if high temperatures (which could be indicative of infection) are detected.
These are just a few of the many ways that smart technologies can enhance and optimise the food supply chain, pandemic or otherwise. The combination of real-time information and historical data collection presents a myriad of opportunities to make food supply chains more streamlined, efficient and resilient in the face of challenges and change.
Matthew Margetts is a Director at Smarter Technologies, which tracks, monitors and recovers assets across the globe in real time, providing asset tracking systems to the open market and fulfilling the world’s most complex asset tracking requirements, and brings experience in media and technology spanning more than 25 years. His background includes working for blue-chip companies such as AppNexus, AOL/ Verizon, and Microsoft in the UK, Far East and Australia.