From the time food leaves the farm until it reaches the plate, it passes through many stages in the supply chain. On the farm, it is handled by packers. Once it leaves the farm, its journey to the warehouse may take several days, and it may experience several changes before it arrives at its final destination – i.e., the supermarket and eventually your plate. Through this journey, complex interactions between different stakeholders take place, and various activities that make the supply chain effective are involved. The chart below depicts the journey of an apple in the food chain from the farm to the consumer.
The supply of food may also involve aspects such as processing, specialised storage for preservation and transport, specialised packaging and handling – all with the goal of providing adequate, safe, and nutritious food. However, ensuring access to good quality, nutritious, and affordable food from reliable supply chains is still one of the major challenges the world faces today. A central aspect of this challenge is a general lack of responsible production and consumption, which is made evident by food loss and waste incurred along the food chain.
Facts about food loss
Statistics suggest that lost and wasted food would reduce food insecurity by 90% if it could be effectively used for consumption.
Here are some facts about food loss and waste (FLW):
This picture of FLW shows the complexity of the problems in food supply chains. Providing a sustainable and efficient solution should, therefore, involve multiple aspects of the food system.
The status quo
Food conservation by refrigeration, logistics operations management, and routing optimisation in food transportation are well-developed elements of effective food supply chains. Nevertheless, these aspects are adopted and implemented differently from one supply chain to another. This is no surprise, since cost to infrastructure and qualified labour is involved. Large business supply chains are typically the best positioned to benefit from these elements of effective food supply, while small and medium enterprises struggle to invest in the acquisition and maintenance of such requirements.
I believe that collaboration and cooperation between various stakeholders can be a game changer; not only would it enhance the use of shared infrastructure and services such as ports and customs, but it would also provide a platform for sharing information that is pertinent to day-to-day operations and useful for forecasting. Organisations that facilitate the food’s journey from production, through distribution, to the consumer need to collaborate through sharing information. Aspects of food traceability, nutritional information, and transparency of operations can be enabled in an affordable and accessible manner.
FLW reduction initiatives
Techniques for reducing food losses have long been indirect by-products of efforts to keep fresh produce acceptable for the market. However, FLW reduction has become a significant focus point for food systems sustainability and a stepping stone in achieving some of the UN sustainable development goals (SDGs) such as SDG 12 (Sustainable Production and Consumption ) and SDG 2 (Zero Hunger). Current interventions for reducing FLW include policies to encourage food redistribution by retail businesses. Instead of keeping food items on the shelf until they are expired or rotten if not bought in time, food nearing expiration can be donated to the least provisioned while it is still safe to consume. Interventions that use modern technology, including sensors and data and forecasting computer algorithms have shown that retail businesses can maximise profit while reducing food losses by using data-driven models that provide insights to inform the adjusting of prices in relation to the food expiration time. Such interventions could be further improved by implementing a strategy for redistributing food nearing expiration.
Our perspective: The holistic approach
Our FSNet-Africa research project deals with the monitoring of supply chains to link the food’s journey to the supply outcome (ideally this would result in better quality and safer food and better accessibility, all supported by a lossless process) and advocates for the enablement of information management and accessibility that can be the driver of stakeholders collaboration in food supply chains.
Systems thinking is an approach to dealing with complex problems whereby the problem solver considers factors beyond causes and effects. A systems approach is a useful tool to unravel relationships and feedback effects, and in dynamically complex systems, it can potentially help prevent or manage unintended consequences. In the complex scenario of the food chain, where different stakeholders with different roles, interests, and influence are involved in achieving sustainability, systems thinking is an uncontested choice for a holistic view.
Our intended approach uses modern technology – specifically the internet of things (networking sensors) and Big Data analytics – to monitor the journey of fresh produce from the farm to the retailer. Through sensing actual values and generating warnings when offsets are detected, our research can help identify where produce is likely exposed to unfavourable conditions (storage, transport, handling, etc.) and model the potential effects on food quality, safety, and shelf-life. With a willingness to collaborate on the part of industry partners, this approach can help drive informed decisions and preventative actions to improve cold chain operations.
The potential reach of this research effort is cross-national, while it is aimed at including small-scale and local supply chains. This could be especially beneficial for African food systems, where small-scale food chains are predominant. There is a great need for technology integration, and modernisation of food chains is a fast-growing sector. By adding a holistic layer of real-time monitoring and information access, our research could reduce problematic operations such as delays of shipping containers, which happens quite often in African ports and results in loss of produce. Concurrently, it would enable effective scrutiny on food quality and safety, reducing the amount of low-quality or unsafe fresh produce at the receiving end of export channels across Africa.