The COVID-19 crisis has shone a spotlight on the fragility of people’s access to essential goods and services. As nations have instituted lockdowns to fight the virus, supply chains have been struggling to answer the call. Although store shelves have been restocked and this has provided a measure of reassurance to people, a great deal of food has been disposed or wasted and food insecurity has also increased dramatically. The situation has tested the resilience of food systems and has enhanced that digitalization is not only necessary but also a huge opportunity.
Tom De Block, Chairman of the AIOTI Working Group on Distributed Ledger Technologies; Steve F. Tracey, Executive Director of the Center for Supply Chain Research at Penn State University, Nikolaos Isaris, Head of Unit IoT at the European Commission; Jürgen Vangeyte, Scientific Director Agricultural Engineering at ILVO, and Marieke De Ruyter De Wildt, Founder of The New Fork, agree that data availability is a key issue to balance value on the supply chain.
In a new webinar jointly organized by the Industrial Internet Consortium and the IOT Solutions World Congress, the experts analyzed the Impact of COVID-19 on Supply Chains and Food Safety while pinpointing the specific challenges of getting data and sharing this data to improve food systems. “We actually had a very analog response”, acknowledged Marieke De Ruyter De Wildt.
Conducted by Tanya Suarez, Founder of IoT Tribe and Bluespec, the discussion brought up some fundamental issues: there’s no visibility on the way the food system works, it does not allow fair economic returns and livelihoods for all actors, in particular for primary producers, and there’s still a lack of business model. In this scenario, what is the best strategy to go from farm to fork? How to give farmers the data they need? And how to get their consent to share the data they get?
“It all starts with the proper metadata infrastructure”, said Tom De Block. Yet it is not just about waving a magic tech wand. “On the side of adoption there is still a lot to be done. What we miss there is the trust of the farmer. The interesting data is in the business but we have to put the farmer in control”, noted Jürgen Vangeyte. Moreover, “we need regulation and strong clear guidelines on what to do”, added Marieke De Ruyter De Wildt.
However, this is not plain sailing as food supply chains are an overly complex web of interactions and stakeholders. In the early days of the pandemic, it was all extremely problematic, recalled Nikolaos Isaris. “It was not just about mass data and interoperability but about more fundamental questions on how we allow the flow of products and data within the European Union.” The Head of Unit IoT at the European Commission stressed the need to get access to live data to fight the pandemic crisis and insisted that the Farm to Fork strategy published by the EU is trying to solve the data availability issue.
From the US perspective, Steve F. Tracey highlighted that farmer’s access to the marketplace is really hindered and they are not able to catch the margin profit in their products. In this sense, he pointed to Blockchain as a solution to help primary producers.
“if you have transparency, you have value”, added Tom De Block. In the end, “if there’s no innovation capacity, we all have a problem”, stated Marieke De Ruyter De Wildt.
All in all, “the COVID-19 crisis has showed us not only the problems we face but also we’re just at the start of many changes”, concluded Jürgen Vangeyte. The measures taken to curb the crisis should be the starting point for a food system transformation that builds resilience at all levels. It will benefit us all.