Once upon a time, the farm was the entire supply chain. You ate what you could grow or hunt. The chain was simple, but tenuous. Any weather disaster or other chance happening could throw an entire community into dire straits. Now our food production systems are complex and much more reliable. But, they spew massive amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere. What used to be the most popular line of work is now the province of but a few aging farmers. The arrival of AI in agriculture promises to change all that. Transforming the industry with tech tools that simplify the process and attract younger participants, all while better conserving our natural resources and improving the quality of what we eat.
The infrastructure of our food system is the result of millenia of tinkering and optimization. Farmland produces more food than ever before. Manufacturing facilities convert that food into a wider variety of products than we’ve ever had access to. Refrigerated trucks deliver those items to customers speedily and with minimal spoilage. Despite the dystopian reports of our imperiled food system, we can put down the pitchforks and postpone the revolution. The structure to feed a planet of hungry people is already here. We need only apply the transformative tech tools of AI, automation, and algorithms to achieve our goals. Industry 4.0 will impact every level of the global food supply chain. Here’s how...
While the yields of agricultural endeavors will never be an exact science, the advent of precision farming practices seeks to bring more consistency to the industry. The combination of sensors, drones, and computer vision technologies equip farmers with greater insights than ever before to respond to crop disease and pests that have historically reduced crop yields. Advances in robotics further push agriculture up the efficiency curve. Cultivating produce is the most labor intensive element of the food supply chain. Augmenting the labor of farm workers with robots that plant and pick produce increases the speed of harvests while reducing need for human labor. Digitizing the production process also adds transparency and traceability to the supply chain, both highly desirable for consumers increasingly interested in learning about the origins of their meals. Consumers are also demanding more locally sourced ingredients for their meals. Technology also enables this via vertical farming and other urban agriculture options. Urban farmers apply the precision farming technologies from traditional farming and pair with hydroponic growing techniques to grow more produce in less space and with less water than traditional farms. Due to limited space, urban farms cannot yet replace traditional farms, but their proliferation - especially in grocery store partnerships - portend a future in which fresh veggies are grown in close enough proximity of their final destination that they can be consumed within 24 hours of harvesting.
AI Powered Processing
Not all foods are meant for direct consumption. Some undergo varying degrees of processing before reaching our plates. Technology is transforming this leg of the supply chain as well. The inputs are the raw materials from plants and animals that are combined with nutrient fortifications and other ingredients to improve taste or texture. The varied inputs make for an unlimited amount of configurations as we seek new nutrient rich food products. AI is used to work through each of those formulations and help food scientists determine the best mix of ingredients without having to physically make each food concoction. Artificial intelligence has greater speed to work through these combinations and can do so without ceasing, unlike human scientists. Companies failing to incorporate such technology into their R&D operations risk falling far behind their competitors. This application of AI not only speeds the development of new flavors, it can also help food companies develop more nutrient rich products.
Machine learning, Internet of Things, and autonomous vehicle technology power the distribution leg of the supply chain to greater efficiency than ever before. While autonomous trucking technology continues to barrel toward reality, machine learning applications are steadily increasing the speed and efficiency for current truck deliveries. These applications work by learning traffic patterns and driver tendencies to program the perfect route that keeps your avocados fresh and tomatoes ripe. New delivery platforms enable increased food sector competition through the rise of “ghost restaurants”. These establishments only exist as digital storefronts on food delivery apps that broker delivery operations out to freelance gig economy couriers.These ghost restaurants can test completely new restaurant concepts for market fit or serve as a distribution model for excess foods at pre-established restaurants. Both methods offer insights and flexible revenue streams for the traditionally low-margin food services industry. At present, the deliveries are brokered out to freelance workers, but last-mile delivery bots wait in the wings to further upend this industry. Pilot programs have begun on college campuses and with select grocers in test markets across the country. These services send autonomous vehicles loaded with groceries or restaurant delivery orders to customers’ doorsteps, tackling the “last-mile” of delivery, which has been the most complicated and costly element of all supply chains.
Connected Kitchens & Robotic Restaurants
Automation in the new food supply chain does not stop with the vehicles delivering food. The process of preparing and serving meals faces the greatest risk of automation in the food industry. Many of the tasks, like flipping a burger, are monotonous and simple. These are exactly the situations in which robots thrive. Food bots now brew coffee, flip burgers, and prepare a number of other food items previously cooked up by chefs and line cooks.
Advances in IoT platforms allow us to track every morsel of our meals from cultivation to consumption. The bits that don’t quite make it that for need tracking the most. An estimated one third food produced across the globe is wasted. That represents an annual loss of $1.3 trillion. The way we think of food systems must change. The system as it stands is a linear experience. All inputs feed into an end result of putting food on the table for families. The waste products that accumulate at every step of the way are discarded, with little effort to monetize or re-use the wasted resources. The challenges ahead instead call for a shift to a circular system. That transition can be facilitated with machine learning tools that assesses the state of food matter in transit and blockchain technology to track surplus food and redirect it for other uses. Using the previously discarded foods, organizations can contribute more to food donations, livestock feed, or compost to fertilize further food cultivation. While few brands have impact at all levels of the food system supply chain, all brands must operate with the intent of positively contributing to the greater good with circular economy mindset.
I detail these transformations and more in my white paper titled AI, Automation, and Appetites: How Technology Will Feed the Future. The report features survey data from over 300 food industry executives. While nearly two-thirds of study respondents say AI and robotics have transformed the food industry, less than 30% say the technologies are critical to their company’s survival. This cognitive dissonance leaves a gap of opportunity for innovative leaders in the industry. If you are looking for a roadmap about what to do next in food services, the report lays out four recommendations to get started. For success in the future of food, an appetite for adaptability is the key ingredient.