Can IoT sensors reduce food waste? According to a recent article in Supply Chain Dive, sensor technology can reduce food waste by seven percent. The article references a new study published by the World Economic Forum (WEF) in conjunction with McKinsey and Company.

The Supply Chain Dive article states (and I quote directly from the article):

  • The inefficient supply chain is one of the main reasons for food waste. Almost one-third of global food production ends up wasted, according to WEF.
  • These loses then lead to added procurement and distribution costs, resulting in both business and final consumer spending more on the products, the report said.
  • Food loss can be the result of a number of circumstances, from lack of best practice on the farmer’s part to not enough space on the cold chain, but knowing where exactly the problems arise is not typically known, WEF said.
  • Greater implementation of IoT technologies could be the helping hand the food supply needs — providing a digital trail of the food’s journey.

Traceability and The Transformative Twelve

How can we make the supply chain more efficient?

In 2018, as part of its Innovation with a Purpose: The role of technology innovation in accelerating food systems transformation report, the WEF has identified what they term the “Transformative Twelve,” twelve technologies that they believe can improve food systems. These include IoT and food-sensing technologies. To paraphrase, the WEF states using IoT sensors for real-time supply-chain transparency and traceability, and food-sensing technologies for food safety, quality and traceability along with their underlying digital and analytics systems can deliver full end-to-end technology-enabled traceability.

IoT Sensors Reduce Food Waste

I recently wrote an article for IoT for All that followed a similar line of thought regarding the role of IoT sensors in reducing food waste. I cited a study by the National Resource Defense Council that says we waste 40 percent of our food and that grocery stores waste about 12 percent of fresh fruits and 10 percent of fresh vegetables.

IoT sensors and other post-harvest technologies can make the supply chain more efficient because they help identify, as noted above, “exactly where the problems arise” in the supply chain because the data collected by IoT sensors helps provide those answers and insights.

In the IoT for All article, I wrote:

Most of the factors leading to fresh food waste happen upstream in the supply chain and even within the first 24 hours after harvest. Studies indicate that improper or inadequate temperature management—starting at harvest—is the primary contributor to early spoilage and food waste.

The impact of temperature on produce often cannot be seen until it’s too late. In order to prevent waste, we need granular, pallet-level data—and that means using a data-collection technology that scales. Physically inspecting each pallet is inefficient, impractical, and a big undertaking in an industry where there aren’t enough workers and as the cost of employing people is on the rise. Therefore, automated data collection is necessary in order to gather the insights needed to have an accurate view of the supply chain’s effectiveness.

This is where IoT sensors play a huge role in solving the waste problem. By deploying them on every pallet, beginning at harvest, we can collect the data we need to identify the causes of waste and then find ways to prevent them.

Do IoT Sensors Alone Prevent Waste?

Capturing the data in a cost-effective, autonomous and reliable way is a critical component of getting the complete picture of what’s going on along the supply chain from harvest to processing to distribution to retail. But, as the WEF report points out, equally important is the analysis and application of that IoT sensor data.

Our Zest Fresh solution is a post-harvest technology that uses data from IoT sensors coupled with predictive analytics and real-time alerts to identify and prevent issues that lead to fresh food waste along the supply chain, from harvest to store. By collecting and analyzing the data, we can identify problems every step of the way. For example, did the produce wait in the field for several hours before being cooled? This is important because, as a rule-of-thumb, each hour produce spends in the field costs about one day of shelf-life. So produce waiting several hours in the field or waiting for cooling can lose significant shelf-life leading to premature spoilage and waste.

Pallet-level IoT sensors can identify that pallet X has an issue that needs attention and our cloud-based solution can send a real-time alert to workers notifying them to take action to locate and cool that pallet quickly. As a result, the pallet can be “rescued” and cooled, minimizing the impact on shelf-life and preventing it from spoiling prematurely at the store or with the consumer – leading to waste that goes into landfill.

Utilizing IoT sensors throughout the produce’s journey along the supply chain can continue to identify other issues that lead to food waste.

Our experience has shown that post-harvest technologies such as IoT sensors combined with cloud-based analytics can reduce fresh food waste by 50 percent or more. This is far better than the seven percent cited in the report because this approach identifies where the problems arise, provides an automated mechanism to address them and ultimately ensure that each pallet of produce is delivered with sufficient freshness to prevent waste.