Tools of the trade

Technology key to addressing the food industry’s challenges

New technologies are being used not just to improve operational efficiency but also to ensure consistent quality and food safety—the foundation of trust in the food and beverage sector.

For example, sensors can monitor the refrigeration of products during shipping or storage, sending out alerts or prompting automatic adjustments. Emerging technologies like blockchain are being used to track products across the supply chain, from farm to fork, to ensure adherence to standards and pinpoint problems. Increasingly, data is being shared among parties in the supply chain. This data also allows companies to be transparent with customers, further strengthening the building blocks of trust.

Companies are also using innovations in technology, data analytics and artificial intelligence to increase resiliency in the face of climate change.

Digital transformation in Canada’s food and beverage industry

The evolution of indoor food technology

Village Farms is constantly integrating new technologies into its greenhouses to reduce energy use and costs, whether through internal shading techniques, fragmented glass for better light diffusion or other innovations.

Despite some progress in this area, there’s still a long way to go. When it comes to growing produce indoors in urban centres, DeGiglio notes that while a lot of sophisticated technology is being developed, it’s still very expensive. He predicts the emergence of a hybrid solution, where large greenhouses are built just outside major cities. “This would mitigate the carbon footprint of shipping but allow for a more scalable business,” he says.

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Tech-enabled farms

At La Coop fédérée, producers are using smartphones, drones and artificial intelligence to deal with the effects of climate change, says Desroches. For example, farmers can fly a drone over a field and take thousands of pictures to identify Colorado potato beetles, which can harm potatoes, tomatoes and eggplants. Algorithms can detect where the infection is most critical, sending an alert to spray only the affected areas.

Farmers are also harnessing the power of data. “We have 10,000 producers connected to a platform called AgConnexion, which compiles all the data they accumulate on their farms and lets them share it,” says Desroches. The data belongs to the producers, who are free to participate or not. “We want to use this data in a fully transparent manner, in line with our values of fairness.”

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Real-time data

Provision Coalition is also helping companies tap the power of data. Opportunities include live data streaming directly from a company’s operations to its key performance indicator dashboard. “Right now, most [small- and medium-size businesses] wait for their bill at the end of the month to see how much energy they’ve used,” says Mereweather. “With real-time streaming, they can spot a water or energy spike and address the issue right away. Live streaming allows for real-time decision-making around the things that are going to matter.”

The organization is also working with stakeholders on the communication and sharing of data within the supply chain. Challenges include finding a common language, overcoming a lack of trust and dealing with controls on data sharing. “There also has to be shared value, that is, value for all parties involved,” says Mereweather.

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Embracing smart labels

In Canada, some organizations are working to expand the use of smart labels, which use radio-frequency identification (RFID) technology to store detailed information about individual products. Customers can then look up this information as needed with their smartphone or a computer.

Save-On-Foods is exploring technology solutions like this. The goal is to come up with a universal system “that will better tell the story to all customers,” says Jones. They are also developing new technology infrastructure to give customers access to information about the products it sells and and the ingredients in them.

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A case in point: Using blockchain to share data across the supply chain

Efforts are underway to address those issues. For example, PwC Canada’s counterparts in Australia, China and New Zealand recently worked with the China-based Alibaba Group on a model for sharing information across the supply chain, using blockchain to track and trace food products and protect data from corruption.

Alibaba was looking to address the needs of China’s rapidly growing and sophisticated consumer base. Amid rising fears of counterfeit goods around the world, especially in the food and beverage sector, customers are willing to pay more for a trusted product. This prompted Alibaba to assess technology options for offering greater assurance of product authenticity and integrity.

The project involved two producers and two logistics companies, plus government liaisons in China, Australia and New Zealand. The proposed solution consisted of a framework to increase food trust and a technological approach to support it.

In conducting its research, PwC consultants found that the various entities and suppliers already had a lot of data, but that it wasn’t moving between participants in the supply chain. The proposed solution involved sharing the information through a graph database. This is a flexible and scalable technology that allows different types of data to interrelate. Most suppliers already have their own ways of tracking and identifying products, so instead of asking them to fit into someone else’s data model, this solution can incorporate theirs. The system can also incorporate anti-counterfeit or tracking technologies that may emerge in the future.

Blockchain is an integral part of delivering food trust and supply chain integrity. It provides an immutable record that can be decentralized across market players to store data related to the movement of products. Because the framework contains various levels of certification for blockchain participants that indicates the degree to which entities have been audited for regulatory compliance, the system offers multiple layers of trust. There are several other technological layers, including security, analytics, infrastructure and user experience, that need to work together to create a useful solution.

Consortium players have adopted the proposed framework to varying degrees. Developing this framework has served as a catalyst for other food companies to explore and implement digitized supply chain models and solutions and has laid the foundation for other projects in related industries and in the primary and secondary food sectors.

A technology road map for Canada’s food industry

Myles Gooding, National Retail & Consumer Leader, PwC Canada

Technology is an important tool for facilitating trust and communication.

The biggest challenge is how to communicate the information across the supply chain, from the farmer, fisher or rancher all the way to the consumer. Stakeholders are still working on defining common data elements that all parties can use and understand.

Players have many efficiencies to gain. For example, greater insight into when produce is picked, product volumes, items in transit or fluctuations in demand would help grocers manage supply and demand in a much more agile way. And while smaller companies once feared they might fall behind, cloud-computing platforms are reducing the barriers to entry.

Moving forward will likely require the involvement of a not-for-profit body, like GS1; proactive government policies; and the participation of multiple stakeholders, including suppliers, retailers and others.

Consumer behaviour is creating major pressure to change. If companies are to attract today’s consumers and gain their trust, they must change their approach.

The bottom line:

Technology is a way to give consumers the transparency they’re looking for.

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