How technology is transforming the food chain

From the blockchain to IoT, Chris Cochran, Executive Director of ReFED, shares the emerging technologies that will transform the food industry.

How technology is transforming the food chain

At the 2018 Future of Food conference, Chris Cochran, Executive Director of ReFED, discusses how emerging technologies like blockchain and IoT are transforming the food industry, with TechRepublic's Dan Patterson. The following is an edited transcript of the interview.

We're experiencing the second green revolution, and it's a digital one, whether you're talking about using technology for agricultural production, or using technology throughout the supply chain, to protect food and distribute it to a marketplace. We are seeing a fundamental shift of food from Food 1.0 to Food 2.0. It's going to fundamentally change, not only the way we purchase food, but the way we consume food.

ReRED comes at this from an economic perspective. And, fundamentally, inefficiency in the food system is about a mismatch in supply and demand. You have unpredictable supply from weather factors, from unpredictable crop varieties, and new innovation that's happening. You also have unpredictable demand. People change their taste preferences. I may decide the day of, or the week of, what I'm trying to eat, based on food that was planned 18 months, or even further back.

The way this will change our lives could be in new marketplaces for food. Matching that access supply, whether it's Imperfect Produce, and that's a great company to look at as an example of this, or Spoiler Alert, which takes excess product from companies like HelloFresh and finds homes for them. We also have Full Harvest in San Francisco, that does the same for farms, into the restaurants and food service industry.

Marketplaces, just like Amazon as ubiquitous marketplace for a lot of consumer goods... you'll increasingly have marketplaces, digital marketplaces for access food. Another example is blockchain.

SEE: IT leader's guide to the blockchain (Tech Pro Research)

If I'm a retailer and purchasing food, I want to know that that product has been protected through the chain. Blockchain is a fantastic technology to help monitor that end-to-end transparency, not only of food safety, but also for things like temperature control. I have confidence based on blockchain technology, that when I purchase a product, it's in the condition I expected it to be in; blockchain would help enable that.

We're seeing large companies use predictive analytics: artificial intelligence and machine learning. They're able to more precisely anticipate and predict demand. If I'm a retailer, and I anticipate selling a more narrow margin of apple that next week, I can actually change my order, get the right number of apples into the store. Machine learning is enabling that ,versus how we used to do it, which is looking back at history, using human judgment, but often making miscalculations.

We're also seeing a revolution in food donations. There's a whole ecosystem of food recovery. In the U.S., it's the Feeding America Network. There's a concept that emerged in the '80s and '90s of food banks and food pantries. That worked really well for shelf-stable products, but in the area of fresh foods, we have to rethink those supply chains. Feeding America's among a number of independent innovators who are thinking about how do we use technologies like ride-sharing platforms to create marketplace, but, then, also create distribution channels and logistics to get food from point A to point B in our food recovery system.

SEE: The Future of Food (ZDNet/TechRepublic special feature)

This is actually a sustainable development goal. Sustainable development goal 12.3 says, we're going to cut food waste in half by 2030.

I like the aspiration of eliminating waste by 2030. One of the most ambitious company commitments I've seen in terms of timeline is IKEA. Just last year, they announced they're going to cut food waste in half by 2020. They're saying how quickly can we make change in our supply chain, in our operations, and, even with the customers we sell food to?

You don't often expect an actor like IKEA, who's known for furniture, to be active in the food space, but then, actually food is a critical component of their business model, and their company culture. Food is often a mid-point, decision point for a consumer in their experience at an IKEA store, and also a way to infuse Swedish culture into their customers, wherever they're at, by taking groceries home. But IKEA also sells kitchen appliances, and they can think about technologies like smart refrigerators and helping consumers manage food in their home, which is where about 40% of food waste happens.

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