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The Role of Tech in Reducing Waste Across The Agricultural Value Chain

by Sunday Precious

The agricultural value chain is a system involving people who work in various stages of production. It includes everyone involved in getting produce, such as crops or animals, from the farm to the consumer who will be eating them. 

Over the years, the issue of food waste across the value chain has raised concerns. The horticulture sector, in particular, faces technological constraints compared to nonperishable products, resulting in higher transaction costs throughout the value chains.

While millions go hungry, vast amounts of food are lost or wasted across the supply chain. According to FAO (Food and Agriculture organisation), an estimated third of food produced for human consumption globally is wasted, with enormous environmental impacts on already scarce water, energy, and other natural resources.

Given these issues, the role of tech in improving the agricultural value chain cannot be overemphasised. By leveraging technology-driven farm data we can reduce food waste and boost supply chain efficiency. 

The Problem of Food Waste in the Agricultural Value Chain

A heap of food wasted.
Source: Geneva

The issue of food waste in the past has been given little to no attention. However, with the global population projected to reach a peak of 10.9 billion by 2100, there is a need to tighten our belts and efficiently manage resources. 

Food waste leads to reduced economic returns for farmers, and the water, fertilisers, energy and land used in production also go to waste. Such loss and waste drive expansion into fragile ecosystems, accelerate deforestation, and species extinction and contribute to 8-10% of annual greenhouse gas emissions. A recent report from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warns that if greenhouse gas emissions are not significantly reduced and reach ‘net zero’ around or after 2050, the current global warming of 1.09°C could exceed 1.5°C and 2°C. This could greatly affect the already unstable climatic conditions being faced by farmers.

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What Can We Do?

While it is essential to give attention to sustainable ways to increase production to feed our ever-growing population, I believe that more attention should be given to reducing food loss and waste as this would help feed more people using the same area of agricultural land while reducing environmental impacts.

Presently around 37% of food produced in sub-Saharan is wasted due to various factors such as lack of proper storage facilities from farm to fork and the use of traditional methods of preservation like drying to conserve produce making storage heavily reliant on climate conditions. 

Although most producers in the U.S. have access to weather and climate information and to systems that include cold storage, that doesn’t mean there isn’t also a significant amount of food waste. The USDA (U.S. Dept. of Agriculture) estimates food waste is between 30 and 40% of the food supply in the U.S. The USDA says loss happens at every stage of the supply chain, from spoilage during transportation to overordering at the retail level.

Here are some ways tech can be used to reduce Waste and Improve the Agricultural Value Chain.

Ways Technology Can Improve The Agriculture Value Chain

How technology can reduce food waste across the value chain
Source: TechRepublic

To effectively address the issue of food waste, it is essential to improve each stage of the value chain. The value chain consists of three crucial stages: production, supply, and distribution. Improvements in all these stages are crucial for reducing food waste and ensuring a more sustainable and efficient food supply chain.

Tech Solutions for Reducing Food Waste in Production

Two tech solutions that can help reduce waste in production include: 

1. Precision Agriculture

Precision agriculture enables agricultural practices to be rationalised by delivering the right product at the right dose, in the right place, and at the right time. 

One way that producers in the agricultural and food value chains contribute to food waste is by using energy to produce a large quantity of food without appropriate plans for storage, supply, and delivery. Precision farming aims to address this issue by ensuring that food is produced with the right amount of input and the right amount of output.

For instance, devices such as GPS mapping, soil sensors, drones, crop models, and artificial intelligence (AI) can manage crop inputs like fertiliser and water, reducing waste. Similarly, data-driven technologies can help optimise growers’ and producers’ output by providing them with information on the right quantity of products that would satisfy their customers without leading to food waste. 

There is certainly a lot of energy expenditure embedded in the production, transportation, distribution, and storage of food. Technologies can reduce this energy expenditure, leading to more sustainable and efficient systems for the whole supply chain.

2. Improved Storage and Preservation

Food produce in collaboration with tech to improve value chan
Source: Food Tank 

New developments in food preservation and storage techniques are crucial to lowering food waste, extending the shelf life of perishable goods, and maintaining high quality over extended periods. New preservation strategies have been created as a result of technological advancements; these strategies range from creative storage methods to complex packaging solutions. Some examples include: 

  • Intelligent packaging: These solutions refer to the use of materials that can adapt to changes in the food’s condition or the environment. For instance, perishable commodities can have their shelf life greatly increased by packaging that can absorb excess moisture or oxygen. In a similar vein, indications that change colour as a product approaches its expiration date assist customers in making smarter food consumption choices, which lowers food waste. 
  • Technologies for Freezing and Cooling: The freshness of food can be preserved by quick cooling and blast freezing, increasing its shelf life without compromising its quality. Techniques like cryogenic freezing and vacuum cooling are more energy efficient and need less energy than conventional techniques, which makes them beneficial from an economic and environmental standpoint.
  • Ultrasonic and high-pressure processing: Emerging technologies such as ultrasonic processing and high-pressure processing (HPP) provide nonthermal alternatives to traditional food preservation techniques. These methods can kill infections and spoilage organisms while retaining the food’s nutrition, flavour, and texture. Such approaches are especially beneficial for juices, sauces, and other liquid items, as they provide an extended shelf life without the use of preservatives or refrigeration.

TechEnabled Supply Chain Management for Efficiency

Improving the supply chain. A man and woman selling agricultural products
Source: VistaCreate

Supply chain management (SCM) means managing the relationships between businesses that are responsible for efficiently producing and supplying products from the farm to the consumers. This ensures that consumers’ needs for quantity, quality, and price are met reliably. Using technology to manage the supply chain in agriculture has greatly improved efficiency, sustainability, and productivity. Key advancements include:

1. IoT and Data Analytics

IoT devices and advanced analytics enable farmers to track and trace agricultural products, monitor storage conditions, and optimise inventory management. This ensures timely deliveries and enhances traceability throughout the supply chain.

2. Blockchain Technology

Blockchain provides a decentralized and transparent ledger system, improving the traceability and transparency of agricultural products. This ensures food safety and quality while enhancing the sustainability and efficiency of agricultural supply chain operations.

3. Digital Platforms and Online Marketplaces

These platforms create transparency in the supply chain, facilitating direct communication between farmers and consumers. This improves forecasting, reduces waste, and ensures timely delivery of agricultural products.

4. Financial Inclusion

Fintech innovations like alternative credit scoring models and mobile banking enable smallholder farmers to access formal credit, promoting financial inclusion in agriculture.

Tech Advancements Optimising Logistics and Distribution

Improve transportation in the agricultural value chain
Source: Istock

For decades, farmers have relied on traditional methods for managing logistics and distribution, often facing challenges like spoilage, inefficient routes, and limited access to markets. However, the integration of innovative technologies can improve these processes creating a win-win situation for producers, consumers, and the environment.

Here are some tech advancements that are optimising logistics and distribution in agriculture;

1. Smart Transportation Systems

Smart transportation systems integrate advanced technologies and innovative solutions to optimise the movement of farm products to markets and processors. Examples include:

  • Route Optimisation: Advanced software solutions, such as Remix Scheduling is a good example. The software analyze real-time traffic data, weather conditions, and delivery windows to optimise routes, reducing travel time and fuel consumption. This not only improves efficiency but also minimizes environmental impact.
  • Predictive Analytics: Predictive analytics uses historical and real-time data to forecast traffic patterns to prevent congestion and improve traffic flow. This enhances the overall efficiency of logistics operations.

2. Cold Chain Management

Maintaining controlled temperatures throughout the supply chain, from farm to consumer, significantly reduces waste and improves the profitability of selling fresh produce. Investments in cold storage facilities and refrigerated transportation options are crucial for a robust cold chain logistics system.

3. Food Sharing and Donation Apps

Mobile applications have emerged as a crucial tool in tackling food surplus and reducing waste in the digital age. These apps connect consumers, restaurants, supermarkets, and food producers directly. This enables the sharing of surplus food and prevents them from ending up in landfills. Some examples include:

  • Too Good To Go: This app allows users to purchase surplus food from restaurants, bakeries, and grocery stores at a reduced price. Using this app, we can save millions of meals from going to waste across numerous countries.
  • Olio: Olio connects neighbours and local businesses to share surplus food, fostering a sense of community while combating food waste. It has facilitated the sharing of millions of food items among community members.

These mobile applications have made significant strides in reducing food waste at the consumer and retail levels. They offer consumers an opportunity to save money and discover new local eateries and products. Some apps also include features for users to donate food directly to food banks or charities, further extending their impact.

Conclusion

In a world where countless individuals are suffering from starvation, especially children and women experiencing hunger and malnutrition, it is unacceptable to lose and waste food on such a large scale. Reducing food loss and waste could be one of the main strategies for Africa and the world to achieve a sustainable food future. By adopting technologies like precision agriculture, improved preservation and packaging techniques, and smart transportation systems, we can prevent food loss and waste in Africa and globally.

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