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Technology

Building smarter food systems using data

By Hannes Van Heerden
General Manager (Innovation & Digital)
Omnia Fertilizer, a division of Omnia Group (Pty) Ltd

Building smarter food 2018

The World Economic Forum (WEF) announced its mission on the future of food security and agriculture in 2007. This mission states that by 2050, a global population of 9.8 billion will demand 70% more food than what is currently consumed.

The WEF mission aims to inspire building inclusive, sustainable, efficient and nutritious food systems through leadership-driven, market-based action and collaboration, informed by insights and innovation.

This narrative aims to inspire building inclusive, sustainable, efficient and nutritious food systems through leadership-driven, market-based action and collaboration, informed by insights and innovation.

It’s been ten years since the WEF mission statement. We have seen positive, inclusive and sustainable changes in our food system since then? Right?

The world’s ability to feed 7.3 billion people today has been largely credited to the first green revolution - a series of rapid technological and agronomic advances which took place after World War II and transformed agriculture, saving over a billion people from starvation and setting the stage for the world’s population to increase from three billion in the late 1960’s to the population numbers today.

Large parts of the world’s food system are still primarily based on principles, methodologies and technology originating from World War II, dating back 50 years.

Worldwide the middle class is growing rapidly. Most of the growth is taking place in developing countries and fuels the demand for fish, poultry, dairy and livestock. There is a greater demand for grains, since consumer diets are moving to cereals and the fact that grains make up a large part of livestock diets.

If industry uses the same technological and agronomic advances designed and matured as part of the first green revolution over the last 70 years to feed 9.8 billion people in 2050, it would require five earth’s resources to support it. The abundant resources that fueled the first green revolution are becoming constrained due to factors such as climate change, resource availability and demand. Current food systems got the world to where it is today, but will not be able to get it to 2050.

Most of the innovation and growth cycles that use principles and technologies established during the first green revolution, are slowing down. This has led to a call for a second green revolution - one that uses the latest technology as a cornerstone for new innovations that will fuel the next wave of growth cycles towards building a new, smarter food system.

It’s important to note that these revolutions affect entire industries, how businesses operate, value chain structures, products and services as well as relationships with clients.

To see the impact the latest modern technology has had on other industries and businesses which have already adopted it, Google the impact of these businesses:

  • Bitcoin or Ripple, some of the world's largest banks with no actual cash, making it easy to quickly transact globally with low transaction fees;
  • Facebook, the world's most popular media owner, creates none of their own content. Users are in touch with their friends and get to experience the world through people and organizations they have a relationship with;
  • Apple Watch, the most popular smart watch that made it easy to collect and share personal medical data daily. The health industry has been trying to get access to this type of data for a long time to build personalised solutions;
  • Uber, the world's largest taxi company who doesn’t own any vehicles. Customers get access to transport without owning a car wherever they are in the world;
  • Amazon and Alibaba, the most valuable retailers without owning any of their own inventory. Customers gets deliveries at their door of pretty much anything with the click of a button;
  • Airbnb, the world's largest accommodation provider without owning any real estate. Everyone with a spare bedroom can now become a B&B and customers get access to accommodation at affordable rates.

Some of these businesses might have negative connotations to them, but the fact that they are extremely popular with their customers has existing industries and businesses taking note and seriously evaluating how they are serving their customers’ needs. The latest technologies enable businesses to better anticipate their clients’ needs and serve them effectively with more advanced products and services. Existing businesses will have to transform from their legacy business models, assets, business processes and services to leverage the new competitive advantages the latest technology offers.

Within agriculture some technological advances showing a lot of potential are sensors (also known as Internet-of-Things or IoT), smart (digitally enabled) equipment and the data that these generate. This data will create the insights to drive innovation across the entire food system.

To use data in this way requires that the current state of data is first understood and acknowledged. It is from this state that transformation will take place to move the world forward.

Data is currently mostly generated through human observations, surveys, conversations and transactions. As industry and business adopt digital technologies, more data will be generated through sensors and smart equipment. The data is mostly stored in paper notebooks, Excel spreadsheets or specific product systems (farm equipment, irrigation and weather systems).

When data is placed at the center and one looks at the flow of the data and how it drives insights, predictions, actions and innovation, the availability of the data seems silo’ed and buried away amongst various people, businesses and systems, making it onerous to access and leverage. The historical way in which technology was used and data created has led to businesses classifying data as part of their intellectual property (IP), which they are not willing to share.

The fact that data is not readily available due to the way it was captured, stored and classified as IP, will become a big stumbling block that industry will have to overcome if data will be used as a key to establish insights and drive innovation towards building a smart food system.

Going forward, industry associations and other types of collaborative forums will have to identify and discuss the changes that the latest technology brings. Data must be at the center of these discussions. Industry participants will have to draft a new set of acceptable principles and norms which will bring fair value to all participating parties.

Omnia Fertilizer has been researching the topic of sensors (IoT), smart (digitally enabled) equipment and the data that these generate for a few years and has drafted the following main principles around data:

  1. The person who creates the data owns it;
  2. Data can be shared with trusted parties based on agreed upon terms of use;
  3. Terms of use must create fair and agreed upon value for all parties involved;
  4. Data sharing mechanisms should enable and validate trust, truth and transparency.

There will be exceptions to the main principles, but the point is to start collaborating to establish acceptable broad principles and norms which will facilitate the sharing of data to enable industry wide insights.

Sensors, smart (digitally enabled) equipment and the data that they generate create a digital twin of the real-life environment, which can be used to create mathematical models to simulate the environment. These models can then create insights and predictions. Digital twins, insights and predictions can also be leveraged by other players in the smart food system to lead to new innovations, value creation, growth and deeper relationships between stakeholders and customers.

One often looks back at big revolutions such as Information Technology (IT), the Internet, Amazon and Uber and wonder why these revolutions were not spotted earlier or their impact predicted. The reason for this is mainly because of changes and pressures in many different areas across the entire industry and the current view of the world through existing corporations, current trusted technologies and value chains.

The availability of modern technology and its impact on the current status quo is often downplayed due to the seemingly low impact of the technology in the first two to four years. People typically underestimate the disruptive impact of these technologies as they mature and their industry-wide business adoption increases over a five year period.

The world is at the beginning of a revolution of the entire food system and agriculture - the second green revolution. The changes, pressures and modern technology already exist. People and businesses are needed to build inclusive, sustainable, efficient and nutritious food systems through leadership-driven, market-based action and collaboration, informed by insights and innovation.

Getting to the 2050 goals is a journey and will take time. There will be disruption in the current food value chain going forward. Since everyone is on this journey, it is important to start aligning industry and business strategies, principles and norms, using it as a base to collaborate and form deeper relationships with the leaders in agricultural technology.

They should add value in the short term and enable businesses to re-imagine and re-align themselves within a changing food value chain. Data should however, be at the center of all initiatives to create insights that drive innovation towards building a smarter food system.