Who remembers the Romaine lettuce E. coli outbreak towards the end of last year? The event, as innocent as it sounds, threw restaurants, schools, grocery stores, and families into a tailspin. With consumers panicked over leafy green vegetables in general, the economics of food waste quickly came to play. People got sick. Farmers lost money. The price of other lettuce—namely iceberg–skyrocketed. In just one week, two California landfills saw more than 350 tons of romaine lettuce go to waste. And the worst part: it’s a problem that could have been prevented with the right technology. What’s truly shocking is it seems like we are going through something like this every year.
It’s estimated that one food-borne illness outbreak could cost a single restaurant nearly $2 million. That’s a huge number but those aren’t the only costs. In an age when the global population is rising, green house emissions are out of control, sea levels are dipping, and a global food shortage is imminent, a food crisis is the last thing we need. Luckily, there is good news: technology’s impact on the supply chain.
In February, I wrote an article about artificial intelligence driving digital transformation in agriculture. That’s not the only place technology’s impact on the supply chain can have miraculous benefit, however. There are a few exciting technologies that could completely revolutionize the food supply chain. But even more exciting, these technologies could also be used to make supply chains in other industries even safer, as well.
Technology’s Impact on the Supply Chain: Food Supply
Just like we need to deconstruct the concept of the customer experience if we want to do it better, we also need to deconstruct the concept of the food chain. It’s easy to think of the food chain in three parts: grower, transporter, seller. But the truth is there are many more factors that go into a well-run food supply. That’s where technology can help us most.
Similar to the way augmented reality is helping people train smarter and faster in certain industries, digital twinning is helping farmers grow better, as well. For instance, using a digital “twin” of a farmer’s agricultural portfolio, data can help track things like soil quality, harvest rate, waste rate, growth rate, weather patterns, etc. This all helps farmers set more accurate crop yields, which in turn optimizes growth and/or prevents waste.
We should all know by now blockchain has far bigger use cases than bitcoin, and food safety could well be the most important in terms of the survival of the human race. IBM Food Trust and Blockchain, for instance, connects every single member along a food supply chain, allowing them to share the same critical information related to food safety. This in turn helps reduce waste, improve shelf life, increase traceability and keep people safe.
Data and Microbiology
Food-borne illness costs an estimated $75 billion in recalls and destroyed food—not to mention the lives impacted by ingested unsafe food. The food supply chain is one area where we will see AI and microbiology merge to prevent food-borne illness. AI sensors will soon be able to sense contaminants in food, simply from the click of a phone app. This will help us detect food issues before an “outbreak” occurs, ensuring that—as in the romaine lettuce situation—the global leafy green vegetable family is not held responsible for a strain of E. coli found in one type of lettuce at one farm in the United States.
Technology’s Impact on the Supply Chain: Other Industries Can Benefit
Obviously, these technologies are not useful for food alone. Imagine the possibilities.
In the pharmaceutical industry, users can automatically test to ensure that the prescription drugs they are taking are legitimate with the click of a mobile app. Using blockchain, they can track to ensure that the shipment of drugs their prescription came remained secure throughout the supply chain. Using digital twinning, researchers can test how different variations of a drug perform in real time in a given patient’s body, speeding up the time from test to market.
Pharmaceutical companies working to help solve the opioid crisis could also use these technologies to monitor the data for patterns in prescriptions and distributions. Just by analyzing the data we could work to solve a huge epidemic in our country.
In the automotive industry, digital twinning can similarly allow developers to test the performance of new cars—including self-driving cars—without risking the lives of human drivers. Using blockchain, they can ensure the integrity of the parts used in their vehicles, reducing the number of product recalls worldwide and, most importantly, saving lives.
In retail, consumers can test the authenticity of their high-end products with the swipe of a mobile app. Worried parents can use AI sensors to scan for harmful irritants—colors and scents—inside almost any fabric or household cleaning product. And retailers could use blockchain to ensure that their products—if organic—are never mistakenly compromised.
There is so much to be excited about when it comes to technology’s impact on the supply chain. Truly, these are not pie-in-the-sky developments. They are real-world technologies happening right now that promise to help prevent human crises on a global scale, not to mention assisting the average everyday consumer make smarter choices in their shopping and home lives. These are the types of developments that make me proud to be a technologist in 2019. They’re the kinds of advancements I believe digital transformation was created for.
The original version of this article was first published on Forbes.