How big data and blockchain are solving three key food supply issues

Here are the ways tech is improving food safety, security and provenance across the globe.

Contaminated food sends 600 million people to the hospital each year; over 820 million people go hungry every day; and companies are substituting parmesan cheese with wood shavings. Why can’t we seem to get food right? Making food sources sustainable and ensuring food is prepared safely and responsibly are challenges facing countries around the world. Here are three ways data analytics, tech advancements in food production methods and blockchain are solving three big challenges in food: food safety, food security and food provenance. Food safety Data analytics is helping to keep our food safe. In the US, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has launched a new data dashboard that will track the extent to which food safety measures are implemented in the country. This Food Safety Dashboard will keep an eye out for rogue companies who may be operating outside of approved food-handling guidelines and track how much time companies take to respond in cases where their food has been contaminated. A separate dashboard, the FDA Adverse Event Reporting System (FAERS) Public Dashboard, is making food and drug safety reports publicly available. This could encourage companies to be more accountable and responsible. Both dashboards are powered by Qlik and feature a user-friendly interface. Besides making sure that food production companies comply with food safety regulations, big data can also pinpoint restaurants that need to cook safer. For instance, big data can reveal that an influx of food poisoning patients in a hospital all ate at a certain restaurant in the last two days. Authorities can then reach out to this restaurant to inspect its food sources and preparation methods. On a different level, the city of Chicago is using open data from the local government to identify restaurants which are most likely to be violating health guidelines. Inspectors can then zoom in on these restaurants and address the issues before any food poisoning cases happen. Meanwhile, San Francisco is making its restaurant health scores available on food review platform Yelp, both to increase customers’ trust and to encourage restaurants to prepare food responsibly. IoT is also a big player in keeping food safe. Sensors in food storage facilities can monitor their conditions to ensure that food is kept at the optimal temperature, for instance. They can also alert officials of any pest infestations in real time. Food security The International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), a Philippines-based company that is developing crops more resilient to climate change, has transformed their productivity with Qlik-powered data dashboards. The dashboards have allowed rice farmers to better understand how to increase their yield. By consolidating IRRI’s research on more than 3,500 varieties of rice, farmers can easily examine a certain grain type’s susceptibility to certain diseases and pests, and whether they can survive extreme weather. For IRRI, visualising their data on easy-to-use dashboards helped the team to manage their finances more effectively so money could go into projects that would bring the biggest impact. Singapore produces less than 10 percent of its food locally, but the government wants to raise this number to 30 per cent by 2030, said Environment and Water Resources Minister Masagos Zulkifli earlier this year. This announcement came hand-in-hand with the setting up of a new agency targeted at securing the country’s food supply. The Singapore Food Agency will focus on growing the agri-food sector. Singapore is building an Agri-Food Innovation Park, spanning 18 hectares, for research and development of high-tech farming processes, including indoor plant factories and insect farms. Singapore also plans to expand the agri-food sector with a S$90 million fund for tech startups. Some upcoming projects are indoor vertical farms and deep sea fish farming, according to Minister Zulkifli. Food provenance Food options are increasing, and consumers want to know where their food comes from. Countries are using blockchain to ensure transparency and accountability across the complex supply chain. Traditionally, food supply chains have been shrouded in mystery. Customers, and sometimes even restaurants and supermarkets, are not able to trace where the food before them came from. Blockchain provides a way to systematically and securely record each step of the food’s journey, so customers know if the food they buy live up to the claims on their labels. Several countries have already begun using blockchain to remain accountable for their food supply chain. Australia’s BeefLedger is importing beef to China over blockchain, so customers can access information on how the cows were raised and transported. Vietnam has placed QR codes on pork products, which customers can scan to find out where each pig was reared and how long it has been since it was slaughtered. Food safety, food security and food provenance are three big issues the world needs to overcome. We haven’t been very good at it up till now, but fortunately, new technology can help. Data analytics, advancements in the agri-food sector and blockchain will help to make our food safer, more sustainable and more responsible.